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In the beginning there was the Web, a thicket of virtual pages connected by hyperlinks that enabled blogging to flourish and companies like Google to make piles of money by directing people where advertisers wanted them to go. Today mobile apps increasingly rule our free time and require us to dive into separate, walled-off digital containers that don’t link up.

That’s now changing as ad technology startups, together with established companies such as Google and Facebook, seek to reinvent the hyperlink. They’re rolling out technology that makes it easy to put links into a mobile app, Web page, or e-mail that with a single tap take a person to a specific section of another app installed on the device.

“This should be a fundamental building block of how all mobile apps work, just like URLs are fundamental to how the Web works,” says Sriram Krishnan, a product manager at Facebook. The new kind of hyperlink could make apps seem less walled off from one another. Deep linking, as the technology is called, is also seen as a way to open up new forms of advertising that will provide revenue to make mobile advertising more closely match its online counterpart (see “Why No One Likes Mobile Ads”).

Support for deep linking has been built into Apple and Google’s mobile operating systems for some time. It allows app developers to give URL-like identifiers such as “iOSApp://location/123456” to specific sections within an app. However, uptake by mobile app developers was initially slow due to differences in how the feature worked on different operating systems and a lack of broad support for their usage.

Technology companies large and small are now driving wider adoption of deep linking by offering technology that makes it easy to deploy, manage, and use deep links. Twitter and Facebook are perhaps the most influential companies pushing for deep links to be used more widely. Last April, Twitter added support for deep links in the “cards” that companies can use to display rich media alongside Twitter messages sent from their website or app. The support was also added to “promoted,” or paid for, tweets.

Facebook had already, in 2012, allowed deep links to appear in posts to its News Feed, but last October the company began selling a new kind of mobile ad based on deep linking. They allow companies to show people ads based on their Facebook likes that take them directly to a specific place inside a mobile app.

For example, a tickets app could show fans of the band U2 Facebook ads for an upcoming live show that link to the ticket purchase page for that event. “This is giving you a reason to go back to an app that you have already installed and do something with it,” says Krishnan. He reports strong interest in such ads from companies large and small because of the importance mobile apps now have to their bottom lines. Companies once focused on prodding people into installing an app but now place more emphasis on finding ways to ensure those users generate regular income, says Krishnan.

Although people have downloaded apps by the billion since smartphones and tablets came to market, they are far from loyal to them. One industry study estimated that about two thirds of people who download an app will have stopped using it by three months later.

“The economics of the market has changed in a way that means people have to look for ways to increase the value of the users they have,” says John Milinovich, CEO and co-founder of URX, one of several well-funded startups building deep-linking-based ad technology. Milinovich’s company offers free software to help app developers add deep links to their apps. It makes money by selling companies targeted ads that appear in other apps and deep link back to their own app.

URX has developed technology that indexes all the deep-linkable locations in a particular app and can select which is the best to offer up in an ad to a particular person. The ads can be very finely targeted because mobile devices allow both apps and ads to associate a person’s actions with a device’s unique ID. “This approach leads to higher return on ads and better revenue per user,” says Milinovich. Last month, Yahoo acquired competing deep-linking ad startup Sparq for an undisclosed sum and is expected to start selling deep-link-powered mobile ads of its own.

Liron Shapira, CTO of app search company Quixey, believes that deep links will have a much broader impact than just boosting ads, by bringing some of the openness of the Web to the world of apps. “We have a bigger vision of how the Web is evolving and extending into all these different devices,” he says.

Quixey has developed a software protocol called AppURL that merges Web links and mobile deep links into one. If a friend emails you an AppURL link to a recipe on the site Yummly, for example, it can open either in a browser on a desktop computer or in the mobile app on a smartphone, providing the Yummly app is installed.

“This reverses a bad design decision that forces apps to be separate from the same product online,” says Shapira. Some 31 major apps are currently supported by AppURL and a handful of companies actively back the technology.

Another potential benefit of the technology is that it opens the way for people to search the content and functions of mobile apps the way they do the Web, because a search engine could use AppURL links to index the guts of mobile apps much the way search engines can index websites. That’s something Google is also exploring, and the search and ads giant already encourages companies to tag specific pages of their websites with deep links to equivalent parts of their mobile apps.

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Tagged: Computing, Communications, Web, smartphone apps, mobile apps, walled garden

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