Google can now "stream" the contents of certain apps to its mobile web users even if those users haven't downloaded the apps.
In the search world, where the goal is to shrink the distance between consumers and their desires, that's big news for marketers. It's also, not coincidentally, another way for Google to answer consumers' turn toward apps and away from the open web that it dominates.
"Marketers have spent a lot of time and money in an effort to shorten the customer journey," said Scott Shamberg, president of Performics U.S. "Streaming apps removes any friction or additional steps for the consumer. This eliminates multiple steps to get the consumer from research to conversion."
"There has been a lot of discussion with search and deep links, but the idea of shopping and dabbling in an app before downloading has the potential to be a game changer," Mr. Shamberg added. "And frankly, Google hasn't had one of those in a while."
There are a few caveats. Streaming apps is currently available to Android users only. It requires a strong WiFi connection. And Google is testing it with just a handful of apps, including HotelTonight, Chimani, Daily Horoscope and New York MTA Subway Map, Google said.
Google can't just stream any app it wants: The app's publisher has to agree and work with Google to make it happen.
And advertising is not yet directly in play. "App streaming basically gives users an identical experience to having the app installed, but none of the nine partners we're starting to test this technology with currently show ads," a Google spokeswoman told Ad Age.
Fighting to keep its grip
Several years ago, search was something people mainly performed on their desktop. That has changed.
When it comes to time spent on a device, mobile dominates desktop at a ratio of nearly 60/40, according to ComScore. Additionally, users spend 88% of their time in mobile apps as opposed to the smartphone browser.
It can be particularly damaging to Google when consumers start researching products within the Amazon app instead of Chrome on their mobile devices, for example. Google has made several moves to fend off additional churn.
"While this comes off as innovation and as an offensive strategy, this is really a defensive one," Mr. Shamberg said.
About two years ago Google began indexing apps. Right now, the company has 100 billion deep links in its index, including some from Facebook, Instagram, Airbnb and Pinterest.
Earlier this year it acquired Agawi, a startup that streams mobile apps to the web.
And on Thursday, the company introduced a number of design changes to Google Shopping that are meant to cater to a mobile-first audience, including an app-like layout, faster browsing and information such as inventory levels for specific items at nearby retailers.
"This is a smart move for Google because, at this point, more search queries are actually coming from mobile than desktop," said Steve Sachs, CEO of OneSpot. "But looking at the bigger picture, search is clearly set for big change for the next several years. Google's latest move is a bit more about Google keeping up with changing consumer behavior. What content marketers need to get a better grip on has more to do with understanding how that consumer behavior is continuing to change -- and how they can make their brands and content ready, discoverable and adaptable wherever we all end up in this somewhat unpredictable cross-channel explosion."