Computing

A Search Engine for the Era of Apps

A new kind of search engine will make it possible to search inside the apps on your phone.

Being able to access features inside mobile apps through a search box could significantly change how people use their devices.

Once upon a time there was the Web, a vast universe of information and services that were tangled together by hyperlinks but easy to explore using search engines. Then smartphones came along. Now people are spending less and less time on the Web and more in mobile apps, convenient but isolated packages not open to links or visible to any search engine.

A company called Quixey is now dedicating its 150 employees and $74 million of investment funding to changing that. In an old appliance store across town from Google’s sprawling headquarters in Mountain View, California, Quixey is building a search engine that can peer inside apps to find what you need.

Quixey’s goal is to add a search box to your phone that can take in queries such as “Best Thai restaurants in San Francisco” or “taxi home” and produce a list of results that take you, with a single tap, to the relevant screen or function inside an app.

A prototype seen by MIT Technology Review and slated for release later this year focuses on searching for places to eat and drink. When asked to find a particular kind of cuisine, it serves up the highest-rated places nearby from review apps such as Yelp and Urbanspoon. It can also show links to the OpenTable app to make reservations and check availability. Quixey can also offer results from apps not installed on a device. Tapping on one installs it and then opens it to the relevant place.

“The way people interact with the third-party apps installed on their phones is broken,” says Liron Shapira, a cofounder and CTO of the company. It doesn’t make sense for people to hunt through a clutter of icons to find the app they need and to have to memorize how to navigate inside each one, he says. “A search bar is the better way to use third party apps—and the Quixey vision is to put that search bar on every device.” That approach should be able to offer broader functionality than voice operated assistants such as Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana, he claims.

Mobile helper: Quixey’s search technology can look inside the apps on a device to make it easier to get things done on a phone or tablet.

Quixey, founded in 2009, previously worked on search technology that could only find apps in much the same way as app stores do and licensed it to wireless carriers and others. The company will now focus primarily on using its more advanced search technology to establish itself as a brand-name search provider.

Web search engines work by using software to visit Web pages and build an index of the information they have and the links between them. Quixey’s index is built differently. It combines information about apps gathered from app stores and review sites with data from a feature known as deep links, which many developers have recently begun adding to their apps. Deep links are a kind of hyperlink that points to a specific place or function inside a mobile app. A deep link on a mobile Web page or in an e-mail, for example, might take you to a specific product in a shopping app or song in a music app.

Much of the interest in deep links is motivated by the fact that they can make ads on mobile devices more effective (see “The Ad Industry Reinvents the Hyperlink for the Mobile Era”). Facebook, Google, and Twitter all encourage or in some cases require app developers using their advertising services to outfit their apps with deep links.

But Quixey’s effort is an example of how deep links should have more significant effects beyond advertising, says Taylor Davidson, director of kbs+ Ventures, the investment arm of the ad agency of the same name. “The initial use case may be advertising but the longer-term impact and functionality gains are much more important,” he says.

However, deep links are far from ubiquitous today, meaning that Quixey can’t currently provide a link to every app and function a person might hope to find through search. “We’re confident that’s going to change because we’re not the only ones calling for this,” says Shapira. His company has released tools to help developers add deep links to their apps.

Quixey’s leaders acknowledge that they are trying to move into the core territory of a better known search company on the other side of the 101 freeway that runs through Silicon Valley. Competing with Google on search is something few startups or large companies have managed to pull off.

But Shapira argues that Google’s approach to mobile search is leaving his company an opportunity, because Google often directs people to its own services, such as business reviews on Google Maps or a YouTube video. That has helped Quixey attract the attention of app developers and to open talks with wireless carriers about installing the company’s technology on their handsets, says Shapira.

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