App Developers: What You Need To Know About Apple iOS App Search & Universal Links #SMX

emily grossman Ian Sefferman Barry Schwartz
From left: Emily Grossman Ian Sefferman Barry Schwartz

In SEO we focus a lot on Google, but app developers have a special need to get their app content to show up in Apple Search as well as Google.

Take a crash course on Apple Search and Universal Links, the latter of which are used to get your iOS and Android apps to show up in Google search.


Emily Grossman (@goutaste), Mobile Marketing Specialist, MobileMoxie
Ian Sefferman (@iseff), CEO, MobileDevHQ

Emily Grossman: How to Optimize Apps for Apple iOS Search and iOS 9 Universal Links

Google pays Apple $1B to be the default search engine on Safari. Google makes a lot of money off iOS devices and searchers. They’re probably making a huge return on this investment. iOS users are not likely to change their default search engine.

But before the user hits enter in the search bar of a Safari browser, Apple gets to show them their own suggestions, like apps in the App Store. Apple is cutting in front of Google. Think about this: Apple’s App Store commission is now at a run-rate of $9B, more than its total revenue in the year the iPod launched.

In recent years, with the launch of iOS 9, Apple introduced Universal Links and Apple Search. These two help drive people back into apps.

Universal Links: take a traditional web URL and make it so the single URL opens up content in a website or in an app if the user has the app installed. It’s like “One Link to Rule Them All” and it’s the ideal for Apple.

Apple Search: Apple’s search engine provides results when searchers use Spotlight, Siri and Safari.

Spotlight, Siri and Safari #SMX

Apple has an index and will show your app content in the three areas above. Apple is expanding their index and predictive search engine.

Next, how these two things work technically.

Universal Links 101

Universal Links are not 100% universal yet; they only work in the Apple ecosystem. And there are some other problems, but the upshot is that you can get your app to show up in Google app indexing.

Anatomy of a Universal Link:

Anatomy of a Universal Link


  • A registered domain
  • SSL access to your domain (the most common barrier to entry)
  • Ability to upload a JSON file to your domain

Major steps:

  1. Prepare your app. Modify your application delegate. Adopt an entitlement in Xcode that lists each domain associated with your app.
  2. Prepare your website by associating your app with the website. Create an apple-app-site-association file for each associated domain with the content your app supports and host it at the root level.
  3. Use control paths to control indexing with Google. Modify the apple-app-site-association file to specify only the content that is parallel between the app and the website.

Universal Links services: 1-click and you’re done., Yozio,, HOKO — this may be an option if you don’t want to go through the manual process yourself.

Apple Search App Indexing

Next, we’ll talk about getting your deep link app screens in Siri and Spotlight without setting up Universal Links. Apple doesn’t have one single index; they have a public index and a local device-specific index per user. When we know any particular Apple Spotlight search, for example, is aggregating general public and personal private, we can see why Apple has three ways to get info from different indexes.

Three indexes

NSUserActivity is like something that might be bookmarked, something that’s been interacted with by the user.

Type of screen API


NSUser Activity

When Apple gets enough activity on a screen in an app, Apple may move it to the public index.

NSUserActivity 2



Web Markup

Corresponding content on web page and app. To do this markup, Apple knows your website exists with iTunes connect. Use either the support URL or marketing URL to point to your corresponding website.

Web markup

Ian Sefferman: Apple, the Next King of Search

  • Spotlight: general purpose iOS search. (This is the potential gateway for Apple to be the next king of search.)
  • Universal links: mapping the web to your app
  • App indexing: indexing your app into Google


Gett is the taxi hailing app in Israel. If you put your destination in, Gett saves that destination location in case you want to use it again. Then, next time you search for the app, those location pages are results that come up in search.

Imgur indexes all their content into Spotlight and if you have the Imgur app and search Spotlight for “cat” you’ll see Imgur app results. This is search in a privacy conscious way.

Spotlight uptake in apps has been going up linearly since iOS 9 was released. 35% of the apps that have implemented Spotlight search rank in the App Store Top Charts.


Universal Links

This is the next generation of deep links. An example is Open Table, and how you can search Google on your Apple device, and then go to the app from the search result.

Universal Links by category:

Universal Links by category

27% of apps using Universal Links are in the App Store Top Charts. The level of engagement has been going up for apps with Universal Links. Engagement here means the number of app opens that come from Universal Links (Google Search, another app using the Universal Link).

Measuring Spotlight Referrals

By adding some code you can tell how many people open your app from a Spotlight search:

Measurement spotlight referals

Similarly you can add parameters to count Universal Link referrals:

Measurement Universal links referrals

Subscribe to the BCI blog link

Related liveblog from SMX East (2015):
Emily Grossman’s How Apple’s Changing Up Search: From Siri to Safari to Spotlight.

Virginia Nussey is the director of content marketing at MobileMonkey. Prior to joining this startup in 2018, Virginia was the operations and content manager at Bruce Clay Inc., having joined the company in 2008 as a writer and blogger.

See Virginia's author page for links to connect on social media.

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One Reply to “App Developers: What You Need To Know About Apple iOS App Search & Universal Links #SMX”

Thanks for the update. I always look for latest iOS app updates due to my hard core interest in it.


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