Suppose the only way to get to this article—yes, the one you’re reading—was to first visit readwrite.com and then trust that you could locate it using the site’s navigation tools. Odds are good that you’d be somewhere else right now.
Instead, you probably followed a link shared on Twitter, passed along in email or even displayed here on ReadWrite. That “deep link” made it possible for you to zip right to this page, the same way you can visit just about anywhere on the Web with a single click. Deep links make the Web what it is; they’re so deeply ingrained in our online understanding that we take them for granted.
At least on the desktop, that is. Mobile is a different story. Most mobile apps live in their own silos, and offer no way to directly access photos, stories, messages and other information to which they control access. Instead of letting you tap through to a relevant page, mobile links generally direct you to the app’s own home page—leaving you to search around the app, often in vain, for whatever you’re really looking for.
It’s a problem that leads to increased user effort and frustration, and mobile app developers consider solving it a high priority. Suddenly, deep links in mobile are a hot topic.
Button Me Up
Right now, Button SDK is the development world’s most prominent open source solution to the mobile deep linking problem.
Out of hundreds of thousands of iOS repositories on code storage community GitHub, Button has trended in the top five most popular for weeks. That means a huge number of users are watching it, downloading it, and using it to integrate deep linking into their mobile apps. Recently, Button added ridesharing service Uber as one of those companies.
Chris Maddern, cofounder at Button, said the company built the SDK as a tool for its own app integration needs, but made it open source when they realized so many other developers were experiencing the same problem.
“From app to app, it’s all about taking a user’s intent and most closely matching it to the user’s action,” he said. “If I’m looking at an item and want to buy it in an app, why would you throw me on the home screen? I want to land on the item page so I can buy it.”
Why We Need Deep Links On Mobile
It’s hard to see the impact that deep linking has on our Internet browsing behaviors until it’s no longer there. Users expect to be able to tap from link to link between apps as easily as they do in their browsers. Deep linking is the one technology that lets them.
URX is another company that helps marketers implement deep linking. Mike Fyall, the company’s head of marketing, told me that until Android and iOS enable HTTP links on their end, mobile apps will need to use deep links to mimic Web browsing.
“Mobile web browsers support HTTP links just fine—it’s apps that are the problem,” he said. “They aren’t built to respond to HTTP links in the same way, so deep links are used to create similar functionality.”
URX takes the technology a step further with a type of deep linking it calls URX Links, previously known as omnilinks. Even deep links have their limits, and URX Links prevent a user’s app ownership from curbing his or her browsing experience.
“If a user clicks on a deep link but doesn’t have the app installed, they will get an error message,” said Fyall. “URX Links route users to the right place whether or not the user has the app installed. If the user has the app installed, the deep link is used and the user is taken inside the app. If the user doesn’t have the app installed, they are taken to the mobile website.”
The Future Of Mobile Deep Linking
Deep linking is becoming a big asset for marketers who want to drive mobile traffic seamlessly from mobile browsers to mobile apps. The next step for URX, Button, and other companies in the deep linking space is to foster deep linking between different apps. For example, if a user makes a table reservation on partner Rezy, Button wants there to be a link within the Rezy app to order an Uber car to the restaurant.
“We want to build a more connected app ecosystem,” said Maddern. “To create the fluid world of users moving around on the Web, and a standardized way of moving users between apps.”
Right now, the process of deep linking is wildly different between Apple and Google. URX supports both Android and iOS with separate SDKs, and Button supports just iOS for now, (but is working on Android support). Both companies agree that the possibilities for deep linking could change dramatically depending on what Apple and Google do next.
“For the best user experience possible, we will always need to be able to link directly to a specific place in an app,” said Fyall. “Deep links will be the answer for the foreseeable future. However, if the industry agreed on a deep linking standard that worked across platforms and operating systems, they would be easier to implement and use.”
Photo by Yandle