Why in-app search indexing boosts user retention

Written by: on November 5, 2018

While mobile web and app store search are key acquisition channels, it’s critical to retain users by optimizing your in-app search tools.

The average smartphone user is said to have around 80 apps on a single device. Depending on users’ preferences, it could take them several swipes and taps to find things they access frequently. The arduous process wastes precious seconds in a world of instant gratification. Thankfully, Google and Apple have provided some relief for billions of weary thumbs with recent innovations in-app search indexing. Both Google’s “In-Apps” search and Apple’s Spotlight provides developers with various methods to get their users to their preferred app in a relevant location with just a few thumb strokes. Apps that leverage in-app search — otherwise known as universal search — create more continuity between the app and a device by better matching a user’s specific intent with appropriate content and features.

The idea of devoting hours of development time into what may ultimately shave a few milliseconds off a user journey may sound ridiculous. While it’s hard to imagine user expectations have yet risen to that point, the need to optimize an app experience to this degree is less about expectations as it is about competition. Imagine a sports fan who has five sports apps but ultimately wants to find the fastest route to “NBA scores,” or the frequent traveler who needs a quick list of area hotels. All things being equal, users want to get what they need instantaneously with the least amount of thought. Mobile apps are now competing for time and headspace. After all, shouldn’t our devices do most of the thinking for us?

Search to discover and retain

Much like web SEO, optimizing for in-app discovery is all about indexing and algorithms. Google’s App Indexing allows apps to surface their content within search results throughout the Android ecosystem. Users tapping URLs with an associated app installed will be deep linked directly to the content within the native application. With Android P, apps can create Actions or Slices to be displayed in the Launcher and in Search results at just the right time. From there, users can either complete their desired action or tap on the result to deep link into the app.

Apple’s search provides two primary APIs that help app developers maximize discovery. NSUserActivity is an API that essentially stores and indexes important actions users take in an app. These stored activities can later act as placeholders for when the user returns to the app or they “hand off” the activity to another linked Apple device. The API will also surface commonly accessed content and features through a Spotlight device search and Siri. Similarly, think of Apple’s Core Spotlight Search framework as an index for all the important content or features in an app regardless of user activity. This will ultimately deep link users to various app locations based on the expected user intent. By properly indexing an app using these features, app content will be discoverable in Spotlight, Siri and standard Safari searches.

Apple's Spotlight Search and Expedia.

In-app and universal search are not only for mobile apps; TvOS, Roku, and FireTV all provide content owners with methods that allow users to find their favorite show or event without ever opening a mobile app. TvOS and FireTV let apps provide information for recommendations and “up next” episodes, so users can see where they left off or what they should watch next. Roku and FireTV will allow apps to provide metadata about their content to the native search integration so users are presented with the best-personalized results available.

In recent years, it’s become increasingly apparent that great apps don’t achieve success without great marketing. Brands would be wise to pay close attention to discoverability and re-engagement — with the expectation that new innovations in voice assistants and machine learning will continue to unlock new opportunities — or risk getting buried along the journey.

This article was originally published on Mobile Marketer.


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Brad Gagne

Brad Gagne

Brad Gagne has been a leader in the POSSIBLE analytics group for over 10 years. Most recently, he was Group Director of Marketing Sciences for the Seattle office, and recently shifted roles to focus on growing analytics for mobile and connected devices at POSSIBLE Mobile. His current and past clients include Turner Broadcasting, Microsoft, TDAmeritrade, IHG, Hyundai and several others.  
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