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Broken Linking on Mobile – a Bug or a Feature

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A recent New York Times article discusses the sorry state of linking in mobile apps. Unlike on the web, content inside apps lives in a silo.

The basic problem is that you cannot easily link to the content inside your favorite app unless the app specifically allows for it.

For example, for a long time Instagram photos did not exist outside the Instagram app. Only well after they had millions of users did Instagram build a place for photos to exist on their website as well.

The article describes how this plays out for those hoping to find deals on hotel rooms:

Say you want a hotel for a weekend stay. You could Google for deals or go to a travel site. But wherever you go on the web, you will not find the rooms on HotelTonight, an app that offers steep discounts for last-minute bookings. The only way to get those listings is to use the app.

This certainly sounds like a missed opportunity for Hotel Tonight.

The second dimension of the same problem is that if there’s no universal linking method for mobile apps, there’s no way for Google to “sniff” out what content lives in mobile apps. All this potentially interesting and useful content is hidden from view.

And as the mobile app ecosystem grows bigger every year, the open Internet is turning into thousands of small closed-garden fiefdoms, with information staying stuck inside.

There is an army of engineers working on fixing this problem, to allow anyone to search and find content in any app. If they solve it, you would be able to go to a travel search site, and do a single search to find the best deals on hotel rooms, which would include deals found in Hotel Tonight app, for example.

The theory is that this is good for everyone: we, the app users, will be able to find the content we want regardless of where it is. Apps like Hotel Tonight will benefit by getting found by many more people and subsequently drive more downloads.

But pause for a second and consider this from the app maker’s perspective. As an aside, I don’t speak for Hotel Tonight, they were a handy example provided by The New York Times.

If you’re in a business of selling hotel rooms, today there are very few ways you can do that without getting taken out by one of the goliaths (Expedia, Priceline or Google).

Expedia can use their brand (actually many brands, including Hotels.com, Trivago, Venere and Hotwire) to ensure the hotels provide the same deal to them so they’re never undercut. Google can use their gate-keeper status to ensure that Hotel Tonight’s room listings appear well below the fold, below the sponsored blocks, paid usually by one of the big guys (Expedia and Priceline).

So if you’re a small or growing app-based business, would you really welcome the friendly linkable Internet into your app?

Today, there are very few ways left for a smaller business to build their audience. You could build a great site that focuses on selling Auto Insurance for example, only to find out Google is no longer happy sending you business and will instead start competing with you.

You may think that by having your customer’s emails, you’re building a business safe from outside interference but email providers are starting to make that difficult too. The biggest one is Google, who last year started sending promotional email to a special mailbox not frequently visited. The new Gmail app Inbox, heralding the future of email for casual Gmail users, goes even further by stripping out what’s deemed to be promotional email. If your favourite boutique hotel – the one that you can’t wait to get back to – sends you a great offer, you may never know about it.

Launching an app may be one of the few ways left for entrepreneurs to build a defensible business and create a safe place to build an audience, and more importantly own that audience.