The Impact of Apps on Search

May 07, 2012

May 2012 Issue

Article ImageThe explosion of nondesktop access points to information and the proliferation of apps has had-and is likely to continue to have-a significant impact on the way that users seek and access information. Historically, search engines have driven access to content with organizations such as Google leading the pack. The Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project's "Search Engine Use 2012" report shows Google with a commanding lead-it's used by 83% of those searching online, compared with the next highest, Yahoo!, at just 6%.

While search engines remain popular, users are becoming increasingly concerned about how their personal information is being collected and used by the search engines and other websites. "As users use more and more apps, they begin to create a rich digital persona," says Steve Webb, an internet marketing consultant at Web Gnomes, LLC in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. "They reveal their interests on Twitter; they reveal their friends on Facebook; they reveal their activities on Foursquare-and the list goes on and on. All of this information can be used to create very personalized search results for each individual."

From a site or app owner's perspective, search is a means of understanding what and how users navigate the internet, and now mobile, terrain. From a user's perspective, search is a utility, says Robi Ganguly, co-founder and CEO of Apptentive, Inc., a firm based in Seattle. In understanding how apps are impacting search, he says, the greatest focus is on how apps are accomplishing goals that have historically been best served by searches.

"Apps definitely are impacting searching and will continue to do so," agrees Allison Gerlach, manager of PR and social media for inSegment, Inc., based in Newton, Mass. "People are turning to apps for specific searches and this cuts down on the amount of overall search market share retained by large search engines."

The search engines aren't just sitting back and watching these shifts occur, notes David Amerland, who has been involved with SEO since 1995 and is the author of SEO Help: 20 Steps to Get Your Website to Google's #1 Page, second edition (New Line Publishing, 2011, U.K.). Apps fall into two broad categories, says Amerland-those that provide gamification and those that provide content.

"In the first category are apps such as the one issued by VISA which allows the user to find ATM machines nearby or the one issued by Stanley which turns a phone into a spirit level. Whether practical (like VISA's) or more of a game, like Stanley's, the objective is the same-to build up brand awareness and an audience, which can then be used to market to something else," says Amerland. The impact of the first type of apps on search is minimal, he says.

Apps in the second category, those that are designed to provide content, will drive mobile users to a brand's website or a brand's offline presence. "They reduce some search queries by providing a quick fix," says Amerland. "As such they present a potential threat to search engines by, theoretically, doing away with at least some of their services." If you want to read some news, you load the app of your favorite newspaper; if you want to do some shopping, you load the app of your favorite retailers, etc.

This is a rather simplistic way of considering mobile search, he adds. Google, in particular, he says, "has been extremely good at understanding the importance search plays in the mobile world and has built a mobile search index which is separate from its universal search index."

Mobile search is the intersection between our online and offline worlds, says Amerland, adding, "There are thousands of apps which are created to take advantage of Google's search API and many of these are actually increasing search traffic in very specific ways."

The increase in mobile search opens up opportunities for search engines, says Amerland, who notes that the bottom line is that "although apps appear to create verticals which would reduce reliance on search engines, they actually lead to a mobile computing culture which is relying on search engines just like on the web."

What is driving search via mobile versus search via traditional search engines, says Gerlach, is utility: "Need to find a good restaurant? Oh, I use Yelp's app for that. Need it for delivery? I use GrubHub's app for that."

Because the use of apps is fragmented, with different people using different apps to perform the same types of functions, search engines are losing market share to these fragmented specialty competitors, says Gerlach. But, she notes, "[T]hey're still doing fine overall and, for more complex [searches], they're still the leaders."

Ultimately, says Gerlach, "Good SEO is still good SEO; make your site easy to find, be involved in local searches and try to be found where your customers are looking."

Glenn Smith, president of MIS (Micro Integration Services), which specializes in creating apps for business, agrees. "The impact of the proliferation of apps will only increase the importance of SEO/search," says Smith. "One of the best ways to promote your app is to have a landing page that describes your app with links to the iTunes app store, Google Marketplace or Amazon app store," he says. "These landing pages should have the tags and meta data placed in them so they can achieve as high a ranking as possible from Google, Yahoo, Bing, etc." Cross-marketing should also be put into place; this can be done through a dedicated page on Facebook or information and discussions on Twitter. "By taking these steps a developer can ensure the best possible results for potential customers finding their app," says Smith.

"Companies are looking at a multi-layered approach that incorporates SEO, PPC, social media, social media ads, apps, and app ads to ensure their audience is reached where they are most likely to be," says Lisa Raehsler, an SEM strategy consultant with Big Click Co., in the Minneapolis area. "Any companies employing this direction will have no problems being nimble as technologies and audiences change."

That, of course, is the key point. Technology will continue to change, bringing audiences along as those changes represent new opportunities and increased value. For content providers that means new opportunities as well as challenges in keeping, if not ahead of, at least near the curve. 

("Hand picks app" image courtesy of