What is app deep linking?

App deep linking is a technology for directing users to a specific location or piece of content within an app. Without deep linking, product and marketing teams can only direct visitors to the app itself, making it difficult to share what’s inside. Deep linking allows teams to effectively open their apps to allow content sharing and improve engagement.

Why is app deep linking so important?

Consumers have plenty of alternatives on mobile. One of the best things companies can do to earn their their loyalty is reduce their effort. Brands use deep links to make things easier.

With deep linking technology, product teams and marketers can use an external link to direct users to a specific item or piece of content within a mobile app. Without deep linking, the regular link would only send users to the app itself. If a user clicked on an ad for a pair of jeans and was sent to the retailer’s homepage, they’d have to search for the jeans themselves. When users are forced to take extra steps to get to purchase, they’re more likely to get frustrated or distracted, and therefore are less likely to convert.

Apps need deep links because they don’t function like web properties. All websites have one standard for resource navigation –  HTTP and URL – and any site can direct users to any other site. Mobile apps lack this standard. Each has its own unique structure and they can’t cross-communicate with other apps. Deep links fill this void and make the content within apps more accessible.

Common uses for deep links:

  • An e-commerce site links an ad to a specific product in the app
  • A social media app directs users to a specific user profile
  • A finance app links users directly to a particular report
  • A news app links users to a breaking story

As an added benefit, deep linking can provide product teams and marketers with contextual information about who shared which link, allowing them to collect that data and use it to personalize experiences. More on that later.

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How does app deep linking work?

Older app deep linking methods

Unless product teams use a deep linking service like product analytics, app deep linking can be quite complex. There’s no widely accepted standard and each operating system does things differently. The closest thing to a standardized technology for deep linking that works across several operating systems is called uniform resource tracking (URI).

URI is a schema for deep linking that mimics URLs. It connects a URL to a defined action within an app to allow apps to link to websites, websites to link to apps, and apps to link to each other. It is supported by Android, but iOS discontinued support for it in 2015 with the release of iOS 9.

An example of a URL and the associated URI:

  • http://megacommerce.com/product/123
  • megacommerce://product/123

An example of how URI works:

An e-commerce shopper in an app uses the share feature to send a pair of pants to a friend. If the friend clicks the link, it opens a URL in the browser which checks the friend’s phone for the app. If the friend has it, the link directs the friend to the pair of pants within the app. If it doesn’t, it directs the friend to the app store to download the app.

There are two important features of this process:

  • Deferred linking: URI directs the friend to download the app if they don’t already have it. Previous iterations of this technology would simply serve an error message.
  • Contextualization: The URI can capture data on who sent which link to whom, which is important for product design and marketing.

URI is still slow compared to newer, better deep linking options.

Newer app deep linking methods

When Apple discontinued support for URI on iOS in 2015, it replaced it with a similar technology called Universal Links. Android never ceased support of URI but followed shortly with a similar feature called App Links. Both simplify deep linking within apps.

Rather than opening a browser, deep links by Universal Links or App Links first check the user’s device for the app. If the user has the correct app, the link directs them to the linked location. If they do not have the app, it directs them to download it. It’s slightly faster and both operating systems provide tools to simplify implementation and use on the back end.

How to use app deep linking

To use app deep linking, product teams must either use product analytics or build deep linking functionality into their apps with SDKs.

Constructing a reliable deep link architecture is no small feat. Every operating system treats deep links slightly differently and a team may have to create a different set of URI links for each. For iOS and Android, teams can save time by using their proprietary deep linking technologies Universal Links and App Links.

For product teams that do choose URI, they must carefully choose unique schema names. Unlike the web which has the governing body ICANN to ensure that there are no duplicate URLs, URI has no restrictions and no ability to resolve the issue of two apps with the same schema.

Common elements that can be used in a URI schema:

  • Schema name
  • Routing parameters
  • Third party metadata

If the mobile app has a corresponding website, product teams should make sure the routing parameter syntax for the mobile app matches the URL structure on the website. Teams using product analytics can configure this for themselves within the system.

Want simple app deep linking?

Try Mixpanel.