indexing apps // 13 Mar 2014

Interesting Wall Street Journal piece: Google Searches for Role in App Age. Key graf:

Google in the fall launched an initiative to better see—and direct—what smartphone and tablet users do on their devices. The effort seeks to mimic what Google built on the Web, with an index of the content inside mobile apps and links pointing to that content featured in Google’s search results on smartphones.

This is smart and useful of course, because there very well may be content / functionality that’s locked up inside an app on your phone that would be the perfect result for your search query. But the comparison to what Google built on the web is missing the point: the wondrous thing about the GoogleBot was that it didn’t index what was on your desktop PC, it indexed what was out there on the web and brought it directly to you.

Imagine the equivalent for apps: queries (intent-based or context-based) that return results full of rich content and services from apps, even if they aren’t installed on your phone. To do this, Google / Apple would at least need...

  1. A mechanism for developers to expose those types of app experiences. Think widgets; they’d be the investment equivalent of SEO on the web.
  2. The equivalent of the GoogleBot and PageRank for apps. The index space is finite and known (Google and Apple own the app stores, remember); but they would probably need to be running those apps (interesting virtualization problem at scale) to know what results would be most appropriate to deliver.
  3. Knowledge of the searching user to personalize results. The best result for a query about the SF Giants may be different for me (more serious baseball fan) than someone in the UK; thus, deliver the MLB app snippet over the ESPN app snippet. There’s plenty of context about the user available from the phone…
  4. A UX framework for delivering these to users at the right time (i.e. intent- or context-based queries). Google Now or Siri, anyone?

As Benedict Evans pointed out last year, The Google Play and iOS App Stores are today’s equivalent of the Yahoo directory circa 1997. We’re blessed with 21st century device capabilities (audio, video, sound, location, motion, identity, etc.), but stuck with 20th century application distribution. In other words, how long until Google Now and Siri get opened up to every developer in the app stores?