The Halting Progress of App and iTunes Store Linking

Sometime around January 15, 2015, the iOS App Store and iTunes Store stopped providing links to apps and other media. Hopefully this is just a temporary bug, but it seemed like as good a time as any to consider Apple's uneven history with linking from its stores.

In the beginning iTunes links reflected the WebObjects underpinnings of the store itself and looked like this:

http://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewAlbum?i=315611467&id=315611219&s=143441

That's a Green Day album by the way. Can't tell? Nor could anyone else.

The next iteration of App Store and iTunes links cleaned things up. That Green Day link became: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/21st-century-breakdown/id315607458. Without too much trouble, you can tell it is an album called 21st Century Breakdown. Look a little closer and you can see that the link points to the US store. These links are still with us today and are the foundation on which the affiliate linking program is based.

The trouble is, in an era of Twitter an itunes.apple.com link is too long -- that Green Day link has 68 characters. Sure, it's better than the old WebObjects links and there are plenty of URL shorteners out there, but third party URL shorteners mask the source of the URL.

One way Apple has dealt with this for a while is with what I call "short search URLs." These are not short URLs in the traditional sense. Instead of sending you to a specific item, a short search URL kicks of an iTunes Store search. If the search returns just one result, you are taken to that result. For instance, appstore.com/logmyrun, takes you straight to the iTunes page for Squibner's run tracking app. But a link like appstore.com/amazon takes you to a search results page with dozens of results.

With iOS 8, Apple quietly added custom short URLs to its iOS App Store and iTunes Store with the formats appsto.re and itun.es, but the implementation undermines the brevity of the links. Instead of just copying a short link, the "Copy Link" action extension copies the title of the item and a short link, which largely defeats the purpose of a short URL, especially with apps where titles are often crammed with SEO keywords. Even an app with a short, non-spammy name like Overcast results in 76 character copied to the clipboard:

Overcast: Podcast Player by Overcast Radio, LLC https://appsto.re/us/jhe90.i

Another issue is that few app extensions handle a mix of text and a URL well, which severely limits the utility of third party extensions within the Apple stores. Most share and action extensions just grab the title of an app, which is the part I am most likely to edit down to something shorter, and miss the URL altogether.

Short URLs are equally frustrating for anyone who uses iTunes affiliate links from an iOS device. The affiliate linking program has come a long way since the days when there were multiple providers covering different regions of the world, but the program works with itunes.apple.com URLs only. That's something we solve natively with our upcoming app Blink, but right now the best solution involves multiple extra steps that can only be mitigated somewhat by a combination of apps like Workflow or Pythonista with an app like Clean Link that can resolve the short URL to something usable as an affiliate link.

Which all brings me back to last night as I was working on Blink and thought I was passing it App Store links. At first I assumed it was me, but I soon discovered that the problem was that the short links had disappeared entirely from the the App and iTunes Stores. As of the writing of this, all that "Copy Link" copies is the title of the item. I'd like to think this portends something exciting like the imminent release of the developer analytics promised at WWDC last June, but more likely it's just a temporary glitch.

Current glitches aside, linking to iTunes media and the affiliate linking program are far better than just a few years ago. That said, there are a few things I would like to see Apple implement in the near term, including:

  • consistent use of short URLs across iOS and Mac;
  • giving users the option to exclude the title of an item from a copied URL; and
  • integration of short URLs with the affiliate linking program.

Those three items alone would vastly improve the linking experience across each of Apple's platforms.


Note: If you are interested in Squibner's upcoming app Blink, you can see some advance screen shots and sign up for updates as we approach the release day at getblinkapp.co.