Search is broken. That’s because just when we figured out how to crawl and organize the infinite pages of the World Wide Web, we switched to a new way of accessing the Internet: apps. Now, nearly 2 billion smartphones later, humanity has one experience searching the desktop web and quite another when it come to finding things on the devices we carry with us everywhere.
The result? A fractured mess.
Quixey, a deep mobile search company, is trying to patch things up by changing the way search works on mobile devices. It’s a tall order but they’re making progress: The company recently struck a deal with Alibaba to be the Chinese giant’s primary provider of deep mobile search. Now they’ve got their sights set on the phone in your pocket.
“We think Google is all the world’s information, but it isn’t,” says Quixey cofounder and CEO Tomer Kagan. He rattles off a list of popular apps whose content is not indexed by traditional search engines: Uber, Foursquare, Kayak, even games. What if you want to play $3 a game of Texas Hold ‘Em right this very instant?
“You can’t really get that out of Google, because you can’t crawl it effectively,” he says.
Quixey’s solution is to chip away at the walled gardens in which today’s apps live and make the contents and functionality of each one easy to crawl, index, and search. Right now, Quixey exists primarily as an Android app that is one part semantic app store search (“Is there an app that can help me find a parking spot?”) and one part universal search for your phone. A search for a person’s name or another keyword will dig through not just your notes, calendar, and email, but any number of other third-party apps.
Say, for instance, that you search for your favorite Katy Perry song. Quixey will return actionable results from across apps, regardless of whether or not they’re installed on your device. If you’re a Spotify subscriber, it will give you the option to stream the song right now. But it will also show you a link to the video on YouTube, the lyrics on Genius, and any other relevant information.
Quixey is attempting to solve two problems at once: First, that the content and data on our phones remains locked in these walled-off silos called apps, which makes running a device-wide search far less effective than it could be.
Secondly, there’s app discovery. Finding new apps has long been cumbersome process, despite the incremental polish that Apple and Google have added to the experience.
“Do you put aside 15 minutes of your day and say “Hey, I want to go download some apps”?” asks Kagan. “That’s not our behavior. Our behavior is contextual.”
The company’s vision is to let users run natural language searches for whatever they want to know, do, see, or hear and get a contextual list of relevant information and actions available across apps. Notably, the results Quixey is aiming to deliver are more than just static bits of information. On our smartphones, we are much more accustomed to taking actions–call an Uber, play that song, text somebody–than simply retrieving information. In this way, we use our mobile devices in a markedly different way than we use the desktop web. Accordingly, Kagan and his team envision research results with one-tap action buttons alongside snippets of information. No more blue links.
“I’ve gotta tell you, technically speaking, this is insane,” says Kagan. “Five years ago, we did not anticipate the complexity of the technology required to reinvent the app ecosystem in the way we’re doing.”
Specifically, the Quixey team has had to get creative about how to access and index information contained inside mobile apps. When Larry Page and Sergey Brin built the original Google search bot, they designed it to take advantage the open, linked architecture of the web: A massive network of text-based pages all coded in the same language and linked together with a single type of hyperlink.
Mobile is completely different. Not only are the “pages,” many of which aren’t pages at all, all structured differently, but the passageways between each one–the would-be “links”–are almost nonexistent. Trying to crawl such a network of data is unforgivingly complex.
To overcome this complexity, Quixey is doing three things. First, it’s relying extensively on deep links; That is, the mobile app equivalent of URLs used to mark specific locations within an app. In fact, Quixey came up with the popular AppURL deep linking standard used by many developers to map parts of an app to equivalent pages on the actual web. By adding deep links, developers essentially give mobile apps the crawlability of the web.
Quixey works with developers to ensure their deep links are set up in as search-friendly of a way as possible, but this method will always have its limitations: Not all apps are going to be thoroughly deep linked and of those that are, not every web URL will be 100% up to date with its mobile counterpart.
To compensate, Quixey also teams up with mobile analytics companies to get sort of a gateway into the apps themselves. In China, Quixey is teamed up with analytics firm Uming, which exposes their crawler to about 65% of all mobile apps in the country. In the U.S., Quixey would need to partner with companies like Flurry and Mixpanel to achieve similar results.
Finally, Quixey provides tools for developers that let them optimize their apps and the deep links within to be as searchable as can be. Why would developers bother? For the same reason website owners SEO the hell out of their title tags and crave inbound links: Kagan says mobile devs are dying for a way to make their apps as discoverable as web pages are on the desktop.
“When we first started this, we wondered “How will we convince developers?” Some will say yes, some will say no,” says Kagan. “We haven’t had any pushback. Developers have been eager to find a replacement.”
In fact, Kagan says the demand among developers to work with Quixey is much higher than they can currently accommodate, a fact he attributes to the sorry state of mobile app discovery, which essentially renders traditional SEO useless.
But millions of developers will have to wait. While Quixey is going all out in China with its Alibaba partnership, for now its only general purpose, consumer-facing presence is its Android app. As any seasoned iOS developer knows, Apple’s mobile operating system isn’t going to be all that welcoming to a service that attempts to tear down the walls between apps and tinker with the way the device works at the OS-level.
Kagan is eager to work with Apple, but for now he isn’t stressing about it. If his hunch proves correct–and the product evolves as effectively as planned–this type of relevant, robust, and action-based mobile search could become another taunt leveled across the Android-iOS partisan divide. And if it works as advertised, it’s the kind of functionality that could set a new standard in how we interact with our phones and force Apple to play along.
We’ll see. For now, Quixey has its work cut out for it. Even though it has been hammering away at tough technical problems for five years, Kagan still describes the company’s efforts as being in their “early stages.” The Alibaba partnership will no doubt trigger a growth spurt.
“Search isn’t just looking for information,” says Kagan. “When you think of the power of software, search is accessing the remote control to the world around us. I think people just forget that sometimes.”