What is deep linking?

The simplest explanation of deep links and what makes a good deep link.

deep linking

Deep linking and mobile apps

The problem

Web links don’t work with native mobile apps.

If you use your mobile device to open a link to a pair of shoes on Jet.com, you are taken to the destination in your web browser even if you have the Jet app installed. This is a problem because the Jet app is a better user experience than the mobile version of Jet.com.

The deep link solution

Mobile app deep links (also known simply as “deep links”) point to content inside an app. If you want to share a pair of shoes from the Jet with a friend, you can send a deep link that brings your friend directly to those shoes in the app. Without a deep link, your friend would have to find the Jet app on the App Store or Play Store, open the app to the homepage, locate the Search function, and then try to find the same pair of shoes you did.

URI Schemes

Custom URI schemes were the original form of deep linking for mobile apps. They are like creating a “private internet” for your app, with links that look like myapp://path/to/content. The advantage of custom URI schemes is they are easy to set up and most apps already have one. The disadvantage is a user’s device only knows about this “private internet” if the corresponding app is already installed, and there is no graceful fallback option by default.

The workaround approach to deep linking with URI schemes involves using a traditional http:// link to launch a web browser. This link contains a JavaScript redirect to a custom URI scheme, which is executed by the web browser to launch the app. If the redirect attempt fails because the app is not installed, the JavaScript then takes the user to the App Store or Play Store.

This is still the primary approach to deep linking on Android, but Apple began blocking this approach on iOS in 2015 with the release of Universal Links.

Apple iOS Universal Links

Apple introduced Universal Links in iOS 9 as a solution to the lack of graceful fallback functionality in custom URI scheme deep links. Universal Links are standard web links (http://mydomain.com) that point to both a web page and a piece of content inside an app. When a Universal Link is opened, iOS checks to see if any installed device is registered for that domain. If so, the app is launched immediately without ever loading the web page. If not, the web URL (which can be a simple redirect to the App Store) is loaded in Safari.

A study of the thousands of apps on the Branch platform found that Universal Links increased conversion to open by 40%.

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