WTF are Universal Links and Why Should You Care?

02/16/17

Recently a slew of prospective customers have asked us questions about Apple’s Universal Links. While they have been around for a while, many companies aren’t yet using them on their own apps. And it’s clear from all the questions we’re getting that while many marketers have a general sense of what they are, many are foggy on the details.

A big part of what we try to do on this Apsalar blog is to focus on the strategic aspects of technology and write for a marketing generalist rather than a developer. As we reviewed online content about Universal Links on a variety of web sites, we saw a big opportunity to demystify this topic and do our best to explain it in plain English.

This little tutorial will explain how iOS Universal Links work, why marketers should care, and how Apsalar clients can now use the Apsalar platform to leverage Universal Links to improve user experience and increase purchase conversion rates.

First, What Are Deep Links?

Deep links are a way to connect a user to a specific and precise location in your app. For example, suppose you run a department store that sells Louboutin shoes. If you knew someone wanted to buy a pair of Louboutins, you’d want to speed them to the Louboutin page in your app, rather than dropping them on your front page and expecting them to find their own way through trial and error.

On a web site, whether you use Safari or another browser like Chrome, most of the links you click are deep links. For example, a link to a hot news story on CNN takes you directly to a page with the story, not to the home page of CNN.

In mobile, deep linking has historically been more difficult. One reason was because apps don’t use a standardized link format like HTTP or HTTPS. Apps need a uniform resource identifier (URI) to enable deep linking. With the web, there is one standard format for links, whereas with mobile the format varies by operating system (e.g., Android, iOS, Windows, etc.)
But deep links are now easy to execute in mobile, either by yourself, via the Apsalar platform. or – sigh — through another measurement company.

OK, Now What are DEFERRED Deep Links?

Standard app deep links work if the user already has an app installed on their mobile device. If every person in your target audience had your app, such links would be sufficient to get every user to the content that most interests them.

But many of the people in your target audience don’t have your app installed. If you want to take them to content in your app, you must first get them to download and launch the app. And somehow, the app must “remember” to take the user to Louboutin page when the app finally gets launched.

Standard mobile deep links can fail if the user does not have the app installed. What USED TO HAPPEN, before Universal Links, was that an error message was triggered on your mobile device, telling the user that the destination was unavailable. It looked something like this:

Later the Safari error message changed to something a little less jarring, but it still interrupted the flow of users to your content. When people don’t have the mobile app installed, marketers and users benefit when there is a system in place to tell the browser what to do if the app in not already installed.

What Are Universal Links?

Universal Links are, at their core, deep links for iOS, but with a way to tell the web browser what to do if the app is not installed. With Universal Links, a single link in an ad (or hyperlink) redirects people to either content on a website or in an app, depending on whether the app is installed. The link itself points the web browser to a link map/URL scheme/app link scheme on a secure website that defines where users are redirected based on their install state. See image below:

What Are Those Little Tabs At The Top of Universal Links For?

When a Universal Link redirects your mobile device web browser to open the app, you will see tiny text and arrows at the top of the screen. These give you the option of easily returning to the location of the link you clicked (the Return Link), or closing the app and viewing the content on the mobile web (the Override Link). See this example from Amazon’s app.

These are designed to provide value to the user – to give them the freedom to override Universal Links. If the user taps the Overrride Link, then in future this specific Universal Link will redirect the user to the mobile web, not the app. Other Universal Links will continue to redirect to their specific apps.

Which Versions Of iOS Are Affected By Universal Links?

Universal Links work with iOS version 9 and above. For versions below 9, the links simply redirect all users to the mobile web.

Why Did Apple Introduce Universal Links?

Deep linking – or the ability to seamlessly redirect users to specific content in an app – is becoming very widely accepted in the app marketing space. With deep links, instead of directing someone to the home page of your site, you can instead redirect them to relevant content deep within your mobile app. When a user has installed your app, they have made the choice of preferring to consumer brand content in the app form rather than the web page form.

When Apple launched Universal Links, they cited five key advantages versus deep-linking schemas:

  1. Private: This is a biggie. In the past, a deep-link to an app either worked or it didn’t, based on whether an app was present on the device. Before Universal Links, some bad actors were querying devices for the presence of apps, and then selling that data. And/or using it for nefarious purposes. Read more about these practices here. Apple viewed this as a privacy risk for users. Universal Links do not allow this querying.
  2. Uniqueness/Fewer Errors: Because Universal Links “live” on a whitelisted domain, they are always unique. In the past, two companies that used the same naming conventions could create the same link while intending different destinations. This caused errors.
  3. Security: Because your Universal Links “map” lives on your website, it is safer than approaches where schemas live in other locations.
  4. Flexibility: Universal Links create a great user experience whether or not an app is installed on an iOS device. If there is no app present, the user is simply redirected to mobile web content.
    Simplicity: One link governs all redirection, to multiple locations.

Why Should Universal Links Matter to Marketers?

For mobile app marketers, Universal Links can get people to in-app content more quickly and easily. For people who have already installed apps, they mitigate the need to visit mobile web content, or to go through multiple steps to see specific content in apps.

Any solution that gets users closer to the content they want, more quickly, is bound to have positive impacts on app revenue. Eliminating even one step from an app user buyer flow often has strong impact on app sales.

According to a variety of media reports (1, 2, 3), Amazon gained significant competitive advantage when they started supporting Universal Links right after Apple announced them. Amazon was certainly not the only company to climb aboard the Universal Links train quickly. But many retailers tend to move slowly when adopting new mobile technologies and methodologies out of fear that they will somehow disturb their existing conversion funnels. If you are a mobile-minded retailer, 2017 is the time to implement, particularly before the holiday season.

Universal Links can also be used to drive more app installs – quickly and efficiently. By routing shoppers without the app to the app store instead of to the mobile web, they can drive significant numbers of installs and STILL redirect the user appropriate content when they open the app.

Does Apple Offer Implementation Instructions for Universal Links?

Yes, you can find detailed, step-by-step instructions on how to set up Universal Links here.

Are There Advantages To Implementing Universal Links Through Apsalar Versus By Yourself?

So glad you asked! ? Why yes there are!

When you use Apsalar, marketers also have the option of setting the link so that those who don’t have the app are redirected to download it at the App Store. Once they download the app, they will be redirected to the appropriate content when they launch the app. Like a deferred deep-link. See image below.

When a campaign’s [primary or secondary] objective is user acquisition, this can be every useful, indeed!

Using Apsalar also ensures that you have complete mobile app tracking and data available for analysis and optimization.

Most marketers will want to leverage their developers or IT teams to implement. The steps are straightforward, but some tech knowledge can be useful. Refer to this page for more information and step-by-step instructions.

Thanks for Reading

If you are an Apsalar Attribution/Cloud client looking for help with Universal Links, contact your account manager. And if you are interested in learning more about Apsalar products and services, contact us at info@apsalar.com .

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