The Failed Promise of Deep Links
Scott Rosenberg

Hi Scott,

I have to say this was a beautifully written piece on the industry with an especially interesting deep dive into web 1.0 history.

Before I even start, I want to give full disclosure that I work for Branch Metrics, a mobile contextual linking platform. Given our aligned interests and the fire in our belly that comes from thinking about linking as you do in this article, I felt compelled to write a response.

While you address a fair number of concerns in the mobile deep linking space, I think your research only scratched the surface of where the industry is headed. From your writing it would appear that there is no one in mobile is trying to tackle the problem of context and that there are no defacto linking platforms that exist for this intention. It’s as if solutions like Button, Branch, TapStream, AppLinks, URX don’t exist, aren’t doing anything right, or that we are blissfully unaware.

More importantly, for a piece so focused on context as an essential facet of linking enablement, nowhere is there discussion on the pure technology that various deep linking companies provide, AND whether or not they actually deliver context through linking. If the implicit assumption is that everyone in the space is missing the point, then I misread. But if that’s the case, then I believe a deeper research of the tech should have been conducted.

By evaluating the industry from such a high level, but failing to dive into current linking solutions, you leave open a gaping question: how close do companies actually come to delivering on the actual failed promises of mobile linking?

Failed Promises in Five Bullets

Let’s take a step back and evaluate the core of the failed promises you discuss:

  1. Deep linking today is largely just a buzzword.
  2. Links leave out context — especially deep links between apps.
  3. People have forgotten the true intention of deep links.
  4. Nobody on the web is using mobile deep links as building blocks to “make conceptual leaps, connect disparate thoughts, or build cathedrals out of context.”
  5. Lots of people gather data in their links, but it’s almost never free or put to use for the little guys.

I think we can both agree that deep linking will remain a buzzword for some time, no matter what company cracks the tech. So let’s throw this out the door. Then the question becomes, who is delivering genuine solutions to these problems that matter (failed promises 2 through 5), and how are they doing it?

At this point, I think it’s necessary to take my own medicine, step back, and examine the entire mobile deep linking ecosystem.

Linking Ecosystem: Perception vs. Reality

In mobile deep linking there is a huge difference between the ecosystem perception, and the ecosystem reality. URX does a good job of creating the industry perception with their “Deepscape” series, albeit with a possibly lethal dose of bias.

Deepscape is one of URX’s evaluations of the industry landscape. Notice the strategic self-injection into every meaningful vertical…

Despite its faults, this perception of mobile deep linking does serve one incredibly important function — to identify the stakes and the variety of technologies that exist, all hoping to achieve some form of linking in a brave new mobile world.

I cannot comment in an unbiased way as to whether or not each of these player’s unique vision for the future hits on the failed promises you identify. But it’s very important to recognize, acknowledge, and underscore that they all exist.

I can, however, paint a picture of the reality of mobile deep linking:

Realscape — the reality of the mobile deeplinking landscape — is a swirling mass with many unknowns.

Mobile deep linking truly is as much of a swirling mass (Re: Benedict Evans) as is the whole mobile ecosystem.

It’s unclear what linking should look like when the industry is still evolving so rapidly. Keep in mind, the linking references you point to in your historical research are quite old. This is a vastly different scale in comparison to the 5 years that app linking has really come center stage.

Context in Focus

Now that we know who’s hands are in the honey pot for mobile deep linking, I think it’s then correct to turn our attention to the failed promises you bring to light. Which companies in the space are solving or on the path to solving contextual linking?

Well, as just one example of many, I’ll let you explore these free, open-source, universal, context-sensitive, deferred links that, as one CEO puts it, “…serve as lego building blocks for developers to build amazing features and link their content to the world.” Put another way, these developer tools empower apps to build “cathedrals out of context.”

And just so I’m free of sin, here, I am by no means simply plugging for one technology over another. The ecosystem is filled with other notable players. The main takeaway in my mind is that the failed promises you addressed are not so much failed as unconnected.

Web 1.0 history demonstrated how a defacto linking standard brought together context and ideas — and that’s what’s going on in mobile. We are moving towards a standard, or perhaps a collection of standards. But in a world infinitely more competitive and complex it’s only natural that the process doesn’t happen overnight. After all, web deep linking also didn’t happen over night.

A Tip of the Hat & Final Question

To your point, the failed promise of deep links is much broader than a market share grab. Your research brings into focus the landscape pain points that are so much more meaningful than who’s app is linking to whoever else’s app. It extends beyond the ephemeral and speaks holistically to the intent of linking as a notion in and of itself. And it certainly is more nuanced than the view that I provide.

At the end of the day, you elucidate some important questions:

  • What about passing context through a link?
  • What about delivering semantic information when somebody clicks?
  • What about free, open source tools to connect context from one place to another?
  • What about making data available to the little guys?

These are some of the questions that keep today’s mobile deep linkers up at night. (So thank you for boldly calling them out!)

However, without acknowledging the people invested in linking, the underlying technologies that exist, and the progress being made towards meaningful solutions, then it’s hard to create a narrative as rich and powerful as the links we argue for. How can we connect ideas and empower people with context, if we’re not even providing the full story?

Thank you again for providing an incredible read, and I hope I’ve provided some additional context around the promise of failed links.

Austin Hay

Growth at Branch Metrics

Hopeful Mobile Linker