Google’s push to organize the world’s information has recently been focused on figuring out the best way to index mobile apps. Today, the company started indexing Android apps that don’t have matching web content, and even began experimenting with letting users stream apps that they don’t have installed.
Google has been testing various levels of app indexing for years, with features showing up as early as December 2013. The company typically begins with Android, and then considers expanding functionality to iOS. This time is no different: Both of these new features are only available on Google’s mobile operating system.
Until now, Google has only indexed apps that have matching web content, meaning you could always find a corresponding website with the same information. Now, the company is going after content that lives primarily in apps (it doesn’t exist online or it provides a poor user experience). Today’s debut begins with just nine apps: Hotel Tonight, Weather, Chimani, Gormey, My Horoscope, Visual Anatomy Free, Useful Knots, Daily Horoscope, and New York Subway.
“We want to make sure users are engaging with this app-only content” and that “the streaming experience works well,” Rajan Patel, Google’s director of mobile search, told VentureBeat. “If users enjoy it, and we see they’re using it, we will expand the scope.”
Additionally, if you don’t have a given app installed, Google will now let you stream content — as long as you’re on a reliable Wi-Fi connection. That means you don’t have to install the app to get the information you’re looking for.
In fact, you can even accomplish tasks like booking a hotel room without installing the app. When these apps show up in search results, they are accompanied with a Stream button. Tapping it takes you into a streamed version that you can interact with as if you had the app on your phone. Android Lollipop is required, tablets are not yet supported, and the search has to be conducted through Google (streaming won’t work through Google’s mobile site).
But how does the feature work? Well, the streaming technology is built “at least in part” into the Google app. But Google also can’t just stream any app.
“These apps are running on virtual machines on Google Cloud Platform, using the same technology as the Google Cloud Test Lab,” a Google spokesperson told VentureBeat. “It’s similar to a streamed video, but interactive, with swipe, tap, etc. signals being sent to the streamed app in essentially real time. We are experimenting with a few apps initially to get the user experience right, but we are looking to scale to more apps soon.”
This is a big play from Google, as it could fundamentally change how searching for in-app content works on mobile devices. Right now, Google serves up the app if you have it installed, possibly even the specific section with what you’re looking for. If you don’t have the app installed, Google gives you the corresponding mobile webpage. Going forward, Google will give you the app whether you have it installed (it just launches) or not (it just streams).
In its announcement today, Google also shared it now has over 100 billion deep links into apps in its search index. These include popular apps like Facebook, Instagram, Airbnb, and Pinterest. In fact, over 40 percent of Google searches on Android now surface app content.
Google is well aware that search has evolved from simply entering queries into a desktop browser. “We’re not thinking about desktop at all right now, in terms of experience,” Patel explained. This is all about mobile.
“Today, you’re more likely to be searching on your mobile device, and the best answers may be buried in an app … perhaps one that you don’t even have installed yet,” the company acknowledged.
And that’s exactly why Google is investing in indexing apps: The company wants all the world’s information, wherever it resides.