app-stream-w-dots Google

Today, if I want to book a hotel from my phone, I’d likely search the Play Store for a travel app, skim the reviews, download one that looks reputable, then punch in my information. Google has a plan to eliminate all but that very last step.

Google search’s latest trick is to surface content that had previously only been found hiding within apps. If that sounds familiar, it should; Google has been indexing app information for about two years, and recently began using those results to bolster Google Now, its Android personal assistant.

Sneaking a (developer-approved) peek inside apps is nothing new for Google. Previously, though, it had an obstructed view; Google could only index content that also existed on the Web. Now (again, with developer opt-in) it can also log whatever’s hiding inside app-only nooks and crannies, and return it in a search result. Going one step further, developers can also let Google “stream” their apps from within a search, meaning you can interact with it as you would a native app, without installing a thing.

In practice, it means that if I don’t have a travel app already on my phone, I won’t need to download one to book my hotel. I can look and book all from within a single search. Or even if I do have a travel app, I might be presented with a better or more relevant one to my specific or situational needs.

“What’s the right app at the right time? That might be different for me than it is for you, or depending on where I am in the world,” says Michael Facemire, mobile analyst at Forrester Research. “They can have a pretty good idea who I am, where I’m at. Am I sitting in a Starbucks, or am I at work? That might change the app I get.”

In the ideal case, it’s a win across the board. For users, it essentially saves the annoyance of having to download an app to complete a single task. For developers, especially those without a large existing install base, it’s a way to introduce your product to people who otherwise would be unlikely to discover it in the vast swamps of the Play Store. For Google, the more time people spend on the Web, the better.

“It’s outstanding, for Google, to get more data about us as individual users on these devices and what we’re doing, because they then sell that to advertisers,” says Facemire. The more time we spend in apps, the less data there is for Google to collect and monetize.

That’s the ideal case. It may be a little while before we get there.

A Few Good Apps

A system that promotes the right app at the right time only really works when there are many apps to choose from. Currently, there are nine: HotelTonight, Weather, Chimani, Gormey, My Horoscope, Visual Anatomy Free, Useful Knots, Daily Horoscope, and New York Subway.

That means that today, a Google search won’t necessarily let me stream the best hotel app, or the one tailored to my specific preferences and needs; it will stream the hotel app that signed on to be a launch partner.

“If you can be one of the first to market … all of a sudden you start to establish mind share. People start to see you as the solution to getting a recipe, finding a movie you want to watch, whatever it is” says Facemire. “That could be disruptive in the industry.”

That’s no knock on HotelTonight, or any of the other “app-first” indexing pioneers. In fact, being in the first wave has a huge upside. Being a part of the program will help the search ranking of all of these apps, giving them increased exposure and, in the case of HotelTonight, bookings. The only thing it might not help with is actual downloads, but who knows? If a user streams My Horoscope or Weather enough times and enjoys the forecasts, they might eventually commit to an install.

“We think this is a great way for us to attract first time users and give them a chance to test drive HT as opposed to not being exposed to us at all,” says HotelTonight VP of Product Amanda Richardson. “I’m convinced people will love it, and that they’ll install the app afterwards for future bookings.”

Besides which, these results will still be mixed in with several other types, including good old fashioned webpages. All of which in turn will continue to be buried by ads; when I search for “Istanbul hotel,” the first three results I see were paid for—including a prompt to download an app from

Growing Pains and Gains

Google still considers app streaming an experiment, with its share of user experience quirks to sort out before. The system will improve as Google brings more partners into the fold, and more app options can compete for true relevance.

It’s too early to tell how many developers will sign on. While there’s obvious appeal for player with less name recognition, like HotelTonight, an app that’s already on millions of devices might balk at basically helping to obviate its own existence. Still, momentum is on Google’s side; the company says that 40 percent of Android searches already surface app content, and that number’s only going to grow. Being an app on someone’s phone doesn’t matter much if that someone no longer needs to use apps.

A larger stable of deeply indexed apps creates problems of its own, though. “There’s an entire industry built up around search engine optimization for the Web, and that’s simply going to be continued on mobile,” says Facemire, who sees SEO gaming as a potential impediment to genuinely useful search. Will you see the best app, or the one that learned how to game the system?

There’s also the issue of usability. Google “streams” apps by running them on virtual machines on Google’s cloud platform. While the experience has been refined to the point of near-instantaneous reactions, there’s always going to be at least some latency. It’s an intensive enough process that Google requires a Wi-Fi connection for search-based app streaming. “It’s never going to be as good as if you had the app loaded natively,” explains Facemire. “The closer you can get to the hardware that’s running my app, the better it’s going to be.”

There’s good news on both fronts. Google has been addressing the SEO issue in various forms for the last 15 years; even if some apps might get an artificial boost, it’s reasonable to expect that any serious outliers will get corrected in time. As for potential latency problems, there’s a reason Google still considers streaming experimental. Remember, the Web is critical to Google’s success; it seems unlikely to roll something out broadly that adds friction to your time there, rather than removes it.

And for the U.S. audience, much of this may be largely moot; the majority of apps here simply streamline what was already available on the Web. The indexing has already been done. Google expects the larger impact to be in developing markets, where more companies are mobile-first, with a Web presence that’s either secondary or nonexistent.

There are other questions that developers, particularly incumbents, will have to grapple with. There are only so many weather forecasts; how will Google prioritize redundant information? What’s lost or gained by turning your app into just another search result instead of a specific destination? What happens if and when app streaming becomes an ad buy option?

It’ll be some time before there are any ready answers. In theory, though, it signals an important evolution not just of search, but of the entire mobile experience. It raises the very real possibility that apps are just a bridge, and shows what might wait on the other side.

“It’s these types of subtle changes in user experience that really advances the state of the art of mobile,” says Facemire, “and starts to deliver on its promise, which is that a mobile device will make our lives better, instead of just passing the time better.”

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Google’s Going to Make Downloading Apps an Afterthought