A world where you can search through and move between apps as easily as with the web? Google’s new app streaming service may usher this in.


Google App Streaming became a reality today, and with it, a new era of Google pushing to create a “web of apps,” the ability to easily find and browse content within apps as easily as people use the web today.

Below, I’ll explain how the new service that’s in testing works and how it might change things. To start, I’d like to revisit the web itself.
How The Web Could Have Been Lost

Imagine if, in order to use the web, you had to download an app for each website you wanted to visit. To find news from the New York Times, you had to install an app that let you access the site through your web browser. To purchase from Amazon, you first needed to install an Amazon app for your browser. To share on Facebook, installation of the Facebook app for your browser would be required.

That would be a nightmare. It would get even worse when you consider how this would impact search. Every day, millions of people are searching for answers to new things they’ve never realized they needed before. Each person could easily potentially encounter 10, 20 or more sites they’re directed to from search, that promise those answers. But if installing an app for each of those sites were required, the effortless way we currently enjoy web search would be a cumbersome mess.

This situation could have been the web today. For a short time before the web, it even seemed this was how online services would go. You had your AOL, your CompuServe, your Prodigy, your MSN — all online services that were disconnected from each other, some with unique content that could only be accessed if you installed (and subscribed to) that particular online service.

The web put an end to this. More specifically, the web browser did. The web browser became a universal app that let anyone open anything on the web. No need to download software for an online service. No need to download an app for a specific web site. Simply launch the web browser of your choice, and you could get to anything. Moreover, search engines like Google could point you anywhere, knowing you wouldn’t need to install any special apps.
The Disconnected World Of Apps

The growth of mobile and its app-centric world has been the opposite of the web. Until fairly recently, there’s been no seamless moving between apps. If you wanted New York Times news within an app environment, you had to download that app. If you wanted to interact with Facebook easily on mobile, you needed the Facebook app. If you wanted to purchase from Amazon, another app was required (and even then, with iOS, you couldn’t buy because Amazon doesn’t want to pay the “Apple Tax” cut that Apple wants from any iOS app that sells things).

The situation is worse when it comes to search. Again, until somewhat recently, if you searched for content using Google, its mobile search results would tend to push you to mobile web pages. Often, that’s a perfectly fine experience. But sometimes, it might be nicer to go into an app. Worse, there’s a small but growing number of app-only publishers and services. They have no web sites and thus nothing for Google or other search engines to point you at from mobile search results.
The Web Of Apps Begins

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could move between apps just as you do with the web? Major companies like Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft certainly believe so. That’s why over the past two years or so, they’ve all been pushing things like Google App Indexing, Apple Deep Linking & Universal Links, Facebook App Links and Bing App Linking.

For a general overview on these efforts, see our Marketing Land guide to app indexing and deep links. But the takeaway is that all these companies want to make it easier to go from any link — from a web page or within an app — and into another app, when appropriate.

There’s still lots of work to be done, as well as fragmentation remaining. Each company has its own system, though some of those systems can leverage or work with others, as with Google’s support of Apple Universal Links, if developers do a little extra work.
The App Installation Barrier

All this interlinking isn’t enough, however, while the app installation barrier remains. It’s a terrible user experience to jump someone into an app that they don’t have. That’s why Google hasn’t done this off its search results. But even pushing that people should install apps, as Google has done within search, isn’t a great experience. Does someone really want to install an NBC News app, for example, just to read a one-time story, as shown below:


That’s far from ideal. Indeed, if people were required to install apps for all the sites they regularly visit through web searches, it arguably could cripple some phones with low storage. More important, it would transform that effortless activity that we all depend on into a time-consuming morass littering our phones with apps we no longer need.
App Streaming: Solving The Barrier

This is where Google’s big news today comes in. With app streaming, Google will effectively broadcast what you’re looking for within an app, without requiring you to download it at all. There’s no need to worry about whether you want to invest the time and bandwidth downloading some app for a one-time use. If it works as promised, you’ll be able to browse within apps with the same type of experience that you browse web pages.

Here’s an example from Google of how that looks when coming from search results:



In the example above, someone does a search to find a hotel in Chicago on Google. A link to Hotel Tonight is among the results. Clicking on that link — which has the word “stream” next to it — causes Google to display the app for the user, even though the user doesn’t actually have the app installed. Web page or app, it makes no difference — for the user, it’s just like using the regular web.
Google’s App Streaming Experiment

What’s shown above isn’t launching for all apps today. Instead, it’s a pilot test that Google’s doing with nine publishers in the US, which are:

Hotel Tonight
Weather Channel
My Horoscope
Visual Anatomy Free
Useful Knots
Daily Horoscope
New York Subway

It’s also something that will only happen for those using the Google App, on Android 5 and Android 6 devices — and only if you’re searching with US English as your setting. Moreover, you need to be on a good WiFi connection for the streaming to happen. No WiFi, no streaming. And no app installed, then no app-only links.

You won’t get streaming if you’re using the Google App for iOS. Nor will you get it if you’re using Chrome on Android. Google says all this could change in the future, but right now, it’s still all experimental.

And no, in case you’re wondering, Google is not inserting its own ads into the stream. Google told Marketing Land that the apps are rendered exactly as if you were using an actual downloaded version, no alterations.
Finding App-Only Content

Aside from app streaming, but closely related, is that Google App Indexing is now finding truly app-only content. Previously, Google’s efforts only dealt with content that was also on the web. If there was a web page that could also be loaded in an app, Google’s system made use of behind-the-scenes links to launch the app to that same content. But if there was content that only existed within an app, Google couldn’t see that at all.

Let’s compare Facebook and Hotel Tonight to understand this. Yesterday, news emerged that Facebook was using Google App Indexing. All this meant was that if someone had the Facebook app installed, clicking from Google’s search results to certain types of content within Facebook would launch the Facebook app and load that content. But the content also has a corresponding web page. It’s a page-to-app connection.

Hotel Tonight has no website and has no web pages for Google to index. But it does have content that might be useful to Google searchers. Google App Indexing means that Google is now fed information from Hotel Tonight about what’s inside the app, all of its “app pages,” so to speak. Links to those app pages are then surfaced within Google search, whereas before they were invisible.

That’s where app streaming is important. It’s a bad experience to show links to an app that no one can view unless they install an app. But by combining app streaming with Google’s improved app indexing that can find app-only content, Google is providing a full solution to its search results. It’s able to find more content and ensure that anyone can view that content.

That’s the key difference between Google App Indexing and Apple’s Universal Links now. Apple Universal Links can also render app-only content. But those links depend on someone having actually installed an app. With Google’s system, there’s no app installation required.
The Growing Global Need

Right now, Google says there’s not a lot of app-only content within the US. It’s more common outside.

“In the US, we’ve evolved from a desktop culture where everything was on the web,” said Rajan Patel, Google’s director of mobile search. “In other places, like China and India, there’s lots of app-only content.”

Continuing, he explained:

“Google needs to be able to provide an answer there, even if [app-only content] is a small fraction of our traffic,” Patel said. “I don’t know if it’ll be big or small impact, but it’s an area we need to cover because some developers have great apps that millions of users use but which have content that’s only in the apps.”

Potentially, the new system could even cause some apps that might seem to lack linkable content, such as games, to consider app-only links.

For example, I’m a big Clash Of Clans player. The popular game at first really seems like it has no content worth indexing by Google. How do you index millions of ongoing games? But potentially, the developer could use app links to show leaderboards or as a way for players to stream replays — and with streaming, for anyone to watch.
What You Need To Get App-Only Links & Streaming

Below is a recap of what you need to be using in order to get app-only links and streaming versus web-to-app links that have been the norm until now.

In all situations, you won’t see any type of app links if developers themselves haven’t implemented the right code. Also, other than with the new app streaming test, you won’t see app links unless Google knows that you have an app installed.

With Android, Google can tell that when you’re signed in from your Google Play app install history, the company says. If you’re signed out, Google said it can still connect the user to their installed app history through a cookie.

With iOS, it wasn’t explained how Google knows if someone has an iOS app installed. Presumably, there’s a way that Google can tap into iOS to understand this. I’ll update when I get clarification on that.

App-Only Links & Streaming:
Google App For Android 5 & 6

If you’re using the Google app on Android 5 or 6, Google’s search results will contain both web-to-app and app-only links. App-only links will load the app, if you have it installed. If you don’t, the app will be streamed if you’re on WiFi with a strong connection. If not, then no app-only links will be shown.

Web-To-App Links:
Google Chrome For Android
Apple Safari For iOS

If you’re using Google’s Chrome browser in Android, Google’s search results may contain web-to-app links, which are only displayed if Google knows you have an app installed. No app-only links or app streaming is supported.

You’ll also find the same is true when getting Google search results through Safari on iOS. The results may have web-to-app links displayed, if Google knows you have an app installed. Because this support is less than a month old, however, many developers may not have implemented it.

Limited Web-To-App Links:
Google App For iOS
Google Chrome For iOS

For a very small set of apps, Google’s search results within the Google App for iOS or Chrome for iOS may contain web-to-app links, if you’re signed in to Google and if Google knows you have an app installed. Even with the few supported apps, such as Eat24, YouTube or Pinterest, you might find this doesn’t always work. That was my experience in testing the situation for this article. I couldn’t get it to work with several supposedly supported apps in the Google App. I had more luck with Chrome.
More For Publishers & Marketers

Want to know more about how Google App Indexing and App Streaming works? See also our related story at Search Engine Land, Google Expands App Indexing To Find & Stream App-Only Content.