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Intelligent Machines

Google Makes Its Search Engine a Remote Control for Some Mobile Apps

Google wants you to talk to its search box instead of spending time hunting through the jumble of apps on your smartphone.

Giving search engines more power to control smartphones and tablets could change the way people use those devices.

Getting stuff done using a smartphone often involves swiping through a jumble of icons looking for just the right app, then navigating within it to find what you want. Google aims to change that by creating search results that take you somewhere specific within an app or trigger a function like playing music by a specific artist.

If successful, the move could change the way people interact with smartphones and tablets. So far aimed only at devices running Google’s mobile operating system, Android, the new system also expands the company’s vision for mobile voice-operated functionality that competes with Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana. It could help extend Google’s lucrative search ads business in an increasingly mobile, app-defined world.

Google began experimenting with search results that point inside apps late last year, together with a few partner companies such as Pinterest, Tumblr, and IMBD. On Thursday, at the Google I/O conference for software developers in San Francisco, the company announced that its search engine will now index any and all apps that allow it to do so.

Lawrence Chang, a product manager at Google, said the change would make mobile devices easier to use and likened it to the arrival of Google search on the Web. “It makes a seamless experience,” he said. “For the first time, we’re treating apps you’ve installed on your device on the same level as websites.”

Chang showed how Google’s mobile search app can list results from the Web and from inside apps running on the same device. Searching for a phrase related to a recent news story returned a direct link to an article inside the Huffington Post app.

As of last Friday, the technology also provides a way for apps to be operated using either typed or spoken commands. Now if you search for the name of a musical artist, Google’s search app responds by offering icons for the music apps installed on a device, and a single tap will start playing that artist. Supported apps include Spotify, YouTube, and TuneIn.

“I have instant access to my music apps whenever I search for music artists on Google,” said Jason Douglas, a product manager for Google search. He said the same approach will be extended to other types of app, and that it was powered by Google’s database of facts and relationships known as Knowledge Graph (see “How a Database of the World’s Knowledge Shapes Google’s Future”). “We will be expanding over time,” he said.

Chang said the company was interested in eventually rolling out the new features to devices based on Apple’s iOS operating system but didn’t give details of how that would work. “We’re focused naturally right now on Android,” he said, “but Google users are on all different platforms, and that’s really important to us.”

The key to searching inside apps is a modified version of the Googlebot software that constantly trawls the Web. This version uses a new variety of URL known as “deep links,” which point to places inside mobile apps and have so far been used mostly for mobile advertising (see “The Ad Industry Reinvents the Hyperlink for the Mobile Era”).

Chang encouraged developers to add deep links to their apps and open them up to the Googlebot, suggesting that it would help keep people coming back when they might otherwise get lost in vast collections of apps. “It’s getting harder for your applications,” he said. “People are installing apps once and then forgetting about them and not using them.”

Google is not the only company encouraging use of deep links. Facebook, for example, has launched a program called App Links, designed to help spread the practice on both Android and iOS devices, and a well-funded startup recently announced its own plans for a search engine focused on searching inside apps (see “A Search Engine for the App Era”).

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