Smartphone usage of apps continues to soar. Recent data from comScore show that 44 percent of all digital media time is spent using smartphone apps. That makes the world of apps a critical one for marketers to understand and embrace.
At the most recent SMX Advanced, both Tam Phan, Organic Growth Specialist on the App Store Analytics team at TUNE, and David Iwanow, the former SEO Product Manager at Marktplaats (ebay classifieds group) and current operator of Travel Network, spoke about app indexing. (As Iwanow noted, what was once called Google App Indexing is now called Firebase App Indexing. The purpose in renaming it was to let it become more of an industry standard.)
During the session, Tam Phan started with a basic overview of deep linking in apps and also shared some data based on the experiences of mobile marketing platform provider Tune. David Iwanow followed with a detailed look at how to implement app indexing, providing a case study of his own.
In today’s post, I’m going to review what they had to say, as they had a great deal of insightful case study data and information on how to properly implement app indexing.
The first question to answer is, “What are the benefits of app indexing?“
Per Iwanow, according to Google, the average app user has just 36 apps installed on their phone, and only 26 percent of those apps are used daily. When you combine this with the fact that one in four smartphone apps installed are never used at all, it’s not a stretch to assume that user exposure to your app is probably fairly limited.
App indexing offers two major benefits in helping your app become more successful. The first of these is that if a user has your app installed, Google can surface “pages” from your app in search results. When the user clicks on these listings, the app is launched and the corresponding content is loaded. This is powerful because it gets users back into your app.
The second major benefit is that, in certain selected scenarios, app indexing can lead to Google surfacing an install button in the search results. This happens when users enter what Google calls “app seeking queries.” You can see an example of that here:
David Iwanow also makes a strong point about the user experience. Users don’t always know the capabilities of the apps they already have installed. This can lead to their visiting the Google Play store, where they often have trouble discerning which app will address their need. App indexing can cut several steps out of this process, particularly if the user already has an appropriate app installed on his or her phone, as that app will get surfaced in the search results.
The majority of apps don’t implement deep linking. In addition, per data shared by Tam Phan, it appears that deep linking is more prevalent on Android apps:
Summary of pluses and minuses from Tune’s customer base
Here is a summary of the negative feedback:
- Still too early to see any benefits.
- Hard to understand how universal links and app indexing work together.
- Saw lots of errors when the API launched.
- Google Search Console reported data isn’t accurate (tried to replicate ranking data, but couldn’t).
- Can’t capture meaningful analytics, and proper attribution to app indexing not possible.
Here is a summary of the positive feedback:
- Saw an increase in daily app traffic of 7.3 percent.
- Increased rankings in search (This observation was confirmed by David Iwanow as well).
- Universal links provide a great experience.
Tam Phan also shared data showing the relative levels at which different verticals implement deep links:
The categories that implement deep links the most are food and drink, lifestyle, shopping, then travel and music. This may be because these categories get such a high volume of searches, leading to a more clearly perceived benefit.
Implementing deep links
According to Iwanow, the process for users is quite simple. Once they download an app, it will take about 48 hours for them to see the deep links show up for that app.
One of the key benefits for brands is that app indexing can help capture branded search traffic; showing your app in the results in response to branded queries will push down affiliates and aggregators, so you’ll lose less of that traffic to those types of sites. It also provides a great branding benefit visually in the SERPs (search engine results pages).
Here’s a summary of the benefits for app creators, according to Iwanow:
- Branding (as just outlined above).
- Personalization (due to the showing of app deep links in the SERPs).
- Ranking improvement.
Implementing app indexing
One path to implement app indexing is to use meta tags. Your tag might look like this:
There are two advantages to this: You can implement them without requiring app updates, and it makes it easy to check pages you’re trying to index. On the downside, there is a two-week delay related to crawling and having them show up in the SERPs. In addition, competitors can see what pages you’re trying to index.
The second method you can use is the App Indexing API. This has several benefits, as follows:
- It’s linked to user actions within your app.
- Unlike the meta tags, competitors can’t easily see all the pages you’re trying to index.
- Your app can show up in Google autosuggest.
- Your app can be included in Now on Tap.
The major downside is that this requires your app developers to get involved to implement or modify it.
The third available method is to add deep links into your XML Sitemap. This puts all your URLs in one place for Google to crawl, but it also exposes all the URLs to your competitors. In addition, you may have to rebuild your sitemaps, and it does make your sitemap file that much bigger.
Google recommends that you implement at least two out of the three methods to get the best impact. Iwanow’s personal preference is to use meta tags and the App Indexing API together.
One of the issues with app indexing overall is that it will likely lead to 404 errors in your app, as you probably don’t have pages in your app for every single page on your desktop site.
Once you have an implementation complete, make sure to use the “Fetch as Google” functionality in Search Console to test your implementation. You can do this in one of two ways: either using the Google Play APK or uploading it.
You’ll be able to drill into each URL to see the details of what happened. Just be aware that pop-ups create crawling issues for Google, so you’ll want to avoid those.
In addition, you may want to have some pages in your app for which you don’t permit indexation. You can list those in a noindex.xml file and refer to that file in your app’s AndroidManifest.xml file.
You can also use crawl status reports to see how your implementation has fared, as they will show the number of pages found with errors. Tracking and addressing these failures is important for two reasons:
- The number of app indexed pages impacts overall app indexing performance.
- The number of pages with errors has a negative impact on performance.
One more case study
According to Iwanow, good app indexing results can lead to a lift of 1.01 to 1.52 positions in the search results, but great app indexing results can range from a jump of 2.51 to 3.88 positions. That’s a serious ranking gain that’s worthy of notice.
He also states that there is a myth out there that iOS users never click on deep links in the SERPs, but this isn’t true. The click-through rate is indeed a bit lower, but the average position where the results appear to be shown is lower as well.
As mentioned above, while there are some app install buttons that show in the SERPs on “app-seeking queries,” the install buttons show up most often for brand-related terms. Iwanow also provided us with a snapshot of how this impacted overall CTR (click-through rate) (data pulled from Search Console) for two brands:
The y-axis scale wasn’t on the original chart, but according to Iwanow, it runs from around 20 percent to 90 percent for the Brand CTR.
With the continuing growth of apps, and the high value of getting users into your app once it’s installed, Firebase App Indexing is important to your overall app’s success. As shown in the case study data outlined in this post, implementing this brings numerous benefits.
In addition, you’ll want to do a great job of helping users discover your app in the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store.
See David Iwanow and Tam Phan’s full SMX Advanced presentations below: