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Startup takes on the future of mobile: Deep linking

Linking is an important aspect of the Internet. It not only enables a user to move seamlessly from one page to another, but from one specific page of a website to another specific page of a website. This is largely absent from mobile applications, meaning users have to close the app they're in then open the next one they want and so on and so forth. But URX, a San Francisco startup with 27 employees, is working to change that with mobile app deep linking.

Deep linking would allow a user to move seamlessly from one app to another, similar to how links work on the Internet. However, instead of URLs, mobile applications have URIs (uniform resource identifiers) -- the addresses for apps on a mobile device. One hurdle is that mobile devices come with different operating systems (iOS, Android). URX is working to make it possible to link to any application regardless of the user's operating system. The only requirement is that users must have the applications they wish to link to already downloaded on their mobile devices.

Deep linking will not only improve the mobile experience for users, it also presents an opportunity for companies to up their marketing game and improve their mobile strategy, according to URX. But in order for companies to successfully take advantage of and leverage this emerging technology, experts said CIOs and CMOs will need to work together.

In this edition of Startup Spotlight, I flew across the country to visit a San Francisco startup that is working to make what experts call "a growing phenomenon" a full blown reality. Located south of Market Street in a small neighborhood called South Park, where Twitter also used to have one of its offices, is URX. The small company of 27 employees is working to make mobile app deep linking a reality. Here's John Milinovich, co-founder and CEO, followed by Andrew Look, co-founder and CTO, on the origins of URX and an explanation of deep linking for mobile apps.

Deep linking is really about bringing a lot of the advantages of the Web to the mobile app world.
Andrew LookCTO, URX

John Milinovich: At the most fundamental level, URX links apps together. … We were founded now just over two years ago. The big kind of "aha" moment we had was actually when Andrew [Look], our CTO, was traveling through Europe, I believe, going from, like, Geneva to Paris, and he had to go through about five or six different travel apps to find the flight he was going to book and had to go through another five apps to book a hotel in the city he was going to arrive in. Now, [to] somebody with his background, it was so obvious for him: 'Why can't I just go to one app to find that flight that I want, but then also be linked directly to the place where I can then find the right hotel?' … So, I think when we thought about the opportunity of what is now called deep linking, we saw this as the analogy that would actually then bring the mobile app ecosystem up to parity with the Web in terms of how apps are able to work together. So, that was kind of our charter and what we decided to then go forth and figure out.

Andrew Look: Deep linking is really about bringing a lot of the advantages of the Web to the mobile app world. Like when people started developing mobile apps, you know, the idea was just to enter the mobile app through the home screen, but then quickly as e-commerce apps rolled out they realized, 'Hey, why not let people link to product pages just like you would on the Web?' You know, the thing is they lack a lot of the infrastructure that you have on the Web, you know, in terms of, 'Maybe you need a different link for iOS and Android,' so companies have gradually been figuring it out in terms of how to integrate it into their apps.

Though there are links on the Internet that easily take you from one page to another, this ability is missing from mobile apps, which means users have to open an app, then close it, then open a different app. There is no way to move from one app to another seamlessly.

Milinovich: If you think about even how links work on the Web: If you go to Google and you search 'red shoes,' and you see the result from Amazon and you click on it, it takes you to the Amazon red shoes page, not just back to, like, Amazon.com right? Because if it did that, it would lose so much intent out of the user and, ultimately, then make you have a lower conversion rate and worse experience.

This is what URX is working to achieve in the mobile app space. Milinovich said that, for example, many users have about 45 apps on their phone already but only regularly use about 10. Deep linking would help companies drive users back into their apps. It would also mean that users would have to download the various apps they want to seamlessly move between.

Milinovich: Everybody already knows that if a user has your app installed, they're going to be worth more money than someone who accesses your information through a mobile website. Partly because, again, it means that they have brand loyalty; it means that they have a logged-in user state, because they probably already have credit card information saved with you if they're an e-commerce company, which means you have this Uber- or Amazon-like one-click purchase experience that just makes it much easier to make a purchase because there's a lower barrier to entry. So, I think that anyone who cares about trying to make more money on mobile should be thinking about deep linking.

And Mike McGuire, research vice president for marketing leaders at Gartner, told me that if companies want to take advantage of this emerging technology and the opportunities and advantages it offers to the business then the CIO and CMO need to work together.

Mike McGuire: They do need to collaborate so that the CIOs can help the marketing teams achieve the results they need to achieve. ... Now, what we see is the CIO's job is very heavily involved in that vendor selection, in, kind of, the vendor selection and then integrating and using and managing those technologies, so we think that the key thing is -- especially for digital marketers and the CIO -- is to start reaching out to one another. This isn't about turf, right? This isn't about protecting turf. This is about how you create a more effective organization. And another element of that that we would argue is that the CIO … is instrumental in helping achieve is pulling together the different data sets that make this about customers and prospects that live in different parts of the organization, right? That's one of the big challenges for digital marketers.

Look: I think we're going to see it catch up to where the Web is pretty quickly. … I think on mobile, everyone knows how the Internet played out, so the fact that there's been the absence of a linking infrastructure on mobile, everyone knows what they want it to look like, and companies like URX and the other people in the deep linking space are basically trying to really rapidly put in that infrastructure to enable that. I think the interesting part that's going to be different is you know apps that are more about actions … things like Uber you wouldn't really put into a search result: 'Take an Uber to this destination' or 'edit this Instagram picture.' Those are things that are sort of contingent based on data that's on your phone or data about your location. So, I think we're going to see some infrastructure around connecting those experiences for users.

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I'm wondering how (or if) "Deep Linking" will affect items which are part of an OS itself, such as "Photos", "Mail", or "Contacts"... For example, will a user be able to seamlessly switch from an App to their Browser, without having to close the App they're using, vs. using "Deep Linking" to switch between regular Apps, as discussed above...
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