How Google is going all in on app search

Stephen Kenwright, director of search at Branded3, rounds up the big developments in SEO, PPC and display to help you plan your search strategy.

At last week’s I/O conference Google made some huge statements about mobile apps. Firstly – and most obviously – there are the Firebase announcements, where Google basically rebranded everything to do with app indexing and app store optimisation – and then gave marketers some official tools to do the job for the first time.

That makes a big difference to how marketers do the job now, but Google did hint at much bigger things to come with Android Instant Apps.

Why Instant Apps?

One of the challenges the search engine faces is how to tempt an ever-increasing audience out of their apps and back into the browser.

Though browser-based search continues to grow, search engines are now looking elsewhere to acquire market share. In the last year Bing has doubled its market share, largely due to partnering with disruptive businesses with apps – such as Uber – or with devices – such as Apple and Amazon. At the same time Google faces antitrust charges for aggressively leveraging its Android operating system to push its own products.

Increasingly the lines between apps and web are becoming blurred; the announcement of Android Instant Apps is a huge leap ahead in this respect.

Last week’s I/O announcements probably signalled the first public performance of the Agawi team, after Google quietly acquired the app-streaming start up in 2014.

Mountain View has an odd relationship with the press where the company shouts from the rooftops about products that don’t quite work yet and refuses to give anything away when it comes to its search products. When Google confirmed the Agawi deal almost/probably/maybe just over a year later, the announcement definitely fell under the latter, reading “the Agawi team has joined Google. We aren’t sharing other details.”

Those details finally emerged at Google I/O, albeit only seven minutes from the end of a two-hour keynote.

Android Instant Apps allows users to download only the parts of a mobile application corresponding to a URL, so a user is able to see a map or place an order without downloading the whole application.

This means that users can share content contained within apps more easily – a functionality that will definitely be of interest to publishers.

Solstice Mobile published a couple of interesting applications for Instant Apps in a round-up of the conference:

“The most compelling use-case they showed for this functionality is an app that allows you to pay for a parking meter. Now, a parking meter app isn’t the type of app that people tend to keep on their phone, so Instant App is really useful here because it allows users to have that mobile experience without having to commit to downloading a whole app. Expanding on this idea, we can imagine this type of service being really useful for something like a convention app that a user would heavily use for a weekend and never use again. Users tend to shy away from the commitment of downloading an app they know they won’t need in a couple of days.”

This signals a huge shift in the app ecosystem.

Up to now one of the biggest challenges facing app publishers has been the expense and relative difficulty in getting users to download mobile applications. Now it will be much easier for users to try-before-you-buy (again we’re looking at the likes of Uber) but it could be much harder to convince a user to download the app for permanent use.

It’s obvious that Google is serious about Instant Apps because, as Solstice’s Robbie Plankethorn puts it, “one of the best parts of this service [is that] it’s backward compatible all the way to JellyBean!”

Most Android phones aren’t compatible all the way back to JellyBean (although some Android owners are probably still waiting for JellyBean to arrive).

When part of an app is shared using Instant Apps the recipient will be prompted to download the application the content is from, but unless they are aware of other content within the app there are no guarantees that will happen.

The current idea that the mobile web is needed for reach with apps used to improve retention is changing.

Downloading apps may soon become a thing of the past.

Stephen Kenwright is director of search at Branded3. You can follow him on Twitter at @stekenwright.

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