Deeplinking, iOS 15, and Android 12: what works, what breaks, and what changes

By John Koetsier July 2, 2021

The good news is that nothing’s changing about the actual user functionality of deep links.

The bad news is that in iOS 14.5 and iOS 15, there are significant changes to how marketers can use them and what marketers get out of them. And while Android 12 is adding significant new privacy features to Google’s mobile operating system, they don’t appear to include anything around deep linking … yet.

Deep links, as mobile marketers know, allow one-click access to specific resources or sections deep within an app.

They also allow one-link access to a brand’s information and offers, whether they’re online or in an app, and can also enable directed in-app experiences for people who have not yet even downloaded your app, via deferred deep links.

On Android, that’s achieved via Android App Links, and on iOS deep links operate via the Universal Links framework. Both are supported and “just work” when developers and marketers use Singular Links.

deep links deferred singular links android app links universal links


Deep links are old …

Deep links have been around since 2006 in a web sense. There, they simply refer to linking directly to a page or resource inside a website rather than the home page itself. But deep linking as a mobile technology to enable direct access to a specific in-app location started in an incredibly kludgy and hard-to-use way as early as 2008 in “iPhone OS 2,” as Apple’s mobile operating system used to be called.

Google popularized the technology in 2012 when it added deep linking to Google+.

(Remember Google+, Google’s abortive attempt at a social networking Facebook competitor?)

Over the years they’ve undergone significant changes. But most of the complexity of how developers need to associate web resources with app resources, how to create links, and how to measure their use and effectiveness is buried under a simple link creation interface in the Singular dashboard. One change in iOS 14: app-website associations are no longer managed by apps on devices, but by server functionality in Apple’s CDN.


Nothing’s changed for users

Marketers use deep links to get existing app users from a push notification, an email, an in-app message, or even a website to an offer, resource, information, level, or functionality within an app. Marketers also use deferred deep links to provide a custom experience to brand-new users who haven’t yet installed their apps.

If, for example, McDonald’s offers a 10% discount for mobile ordering, McDonald’s would probably like to have new mobile customers land right on a thanks-for-installing-here’s-your-10%-off-coupon page right after getting the McDonald’s app from Google Play or the iOS App Store.

That still works and works just fine. At least, from a user perspective.

Marketing measurement, however, is a different story.


Deep links and marketing measurement in iOS 14.5 and iOS 15

While the user experience part works just fine, measurement on iOS now relies on knowledge of a user’s in-app choices that the link origination point has no means of knowing.

“Generally, deep link measurement is as dead as IDFA-based measurement,” says Singular’s Jonathan Chen. “You can’t attribute unless you have consent.”

But, of course, the IDFA is not quite dead. And deep linking measurement is not quite dead either. Someone could have your app and upon completion of the deep link and entry into the app experience, you can check on ATT (App Tracking Transparency) permission. If they’ve granted it, you can attribute that user action, measure it, and record it.

But as we know … most won’t.

And those that do might be really deferred. Imagine a deferred deep link scenario for a new user or customer who does get your app, but you are only asking for the IDFA via ATT opt-in on second or fifth open, or maybe after a different event or level of engagement.

Of course, deferred deep links have their own core problem: they depend on attribution which is unknowable because it hasn’t been set yet. In the classic model, marketers knew that a device with an IDFA of 123456 saw an ad, clicked on a link, installed an app, and is now opening an app. The deferred functionality can then tell the app where to direct the new user or customer.

In other words, getting them to the 10% discount page for mobile ordering.

You don’t have that IDFA anymore in most cases, making deferred deep links hard to implement. At least for very specific use cases. The 10% discount page for new mobile users might be a blanket offer to everyone: easy to implement. A $50 off to a specific customer for a specific reason via a specific offer … not so much.

There may be a work-around, however.

iOS has a universal clipboard so that iPhone owners can copy something in one app and paste it in another (and, in fact, copy on a Mac and paste on an iPhone, or vice-versa). This is very useful for long strings of text. But it’s also dangerous, in some ways, for passwords or other sensitive information that users might copy, because other apps that are active can see what is on the universal clipboard.

So if an originating app or website or email could paste something on the clipboard and a newly downloaded app could access the clipboard … and if it all happened fairly quickly and if the user hadn’t already done something else somewhere else and copied something else … there could be a way of connecting a stimulus with an action.

The failure rate could be high with this methodology, and the longer the gap between the click, the install, and the eventual app open the higher it will get, but some use cases are quick, so it could work. Inviting someone to a private chat channel in a messaging or social app, for instance, might be something someone acts on immediately. But some use cases require certainty, like vouchers, rewards, and customer-specific discounts, and in all scenarios you’d need a backup methodology in case it fails.

(Welcome to the blast from the past: “enter this code” for your discount.)

Plus, there are likely privacy and Apple guideline risks here. It’s not hard to imagine how this could be used to break privacy rules and track devices/users even if they have not consented via ATT.

So this requires serious thought and consideration before implementing, and apps had better be able to defend what they do and how they do it to Apple during the App Store review process.


Deep links and Android 12

Android 12 is the next major leap for Google’s mobile operating system, and it will bring more personalization, more privacy, and better performance to the most popular operating system on the planet.

In terms of privacy, Android 12 will add notifications about apps using permissions — think Apple’s privacy nutrition labels — as well as visual notifications via device light-ups when the mic and/or camera are on. Android 12 also will introduce a very interesting new feature: a “private compute core” that functions as a sort of firewalled edge computing capability for potentially sensitive personal data like transcriptions.

android app links deferred deep links

The privacy features in Android 12 don’t include a Google version of App Tracking Transparency, however. But some versions of ATT will likely come to Android in some way at some point (the specificity in this sentence is shocking, I know). FLoC is delayed and third-party cookie deprecation is delayed.

But they have not been taken off the table.


Privacy-safe marketers may need a blast from the past

Deep links are still great functionality to make your apps work well and your users or customers happy. They won’t be panaceas for marketing measurement, however.

And in some cases, they never were.

Self-attributing networks like Facebook, Google, Snap, and Twitter never allowed measurement links for mobile campaigns, meaning that deep links and deferred deep links had to be set up separately per platform, if at all. Wrapped links — like those on Twitter that always start with, or links from a URL shortener like — also don’t work.

Fortunately, there’s a technology that has worked for decades: the coupon code.

The technological solution still works, and there’s likely more than can be done here. But the backup plan is as old as the very first newspapers.

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