Why Apple needs to fix App Store search

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Search has become the foundation of everything we do online. From Google and Bing queries to Siri, Spotlight and Songza, the apps and services we rely on would be worthless without those tiny magnifying glasses and shaded bars to guide us.

Those search tools are never more essential than when we’re shopping. Whether we’re browsing for clothes or music, we rely on them to find the stuff we want. But when it comes to finding apps for our iPhones and iPads, searching the App Store is often a lost cause.

The keys to success

app search movies instagram

Looking for a "movies" app? Surely that means you want to try Instagram.

Of course, if you know exactly what you’re looking for, there’s a good chance you’ll find it. Type the first few letters of Launch Center Pro or Monument Valley, and the App Store’s search field will instantly return the app you want.

But if you need more guidance, the results can be more unpredictable. When you looking for, say, the best note-taking app, you’ll likely find yourself navigating through a sea of irrelevant results before you find what you’re looking for—assuming you ever do.

And as you might have guessed, Apple is characteristically tight-lipped about how it ranks apps in its App Store search results, leaving developers just as befuddled as consumers.

“I honestly have no clue whatsoever how (search) is calculated,” says Hosam Hassan, lead software engineer and founder of Taphive, makers of TodoMovies. In his particular case, searching for movies in the App Store iOS app currently returns Instagram in seventh position, Pinterest at number 10, even the game Doodle Jump at 14, along with dozens of apps that have little or nothing to do with movies and don’t even have “movies” in their titles—all of them ranked way higher than TodoMovies.

It doesn’t have to be this way

Over at the Google Play store, it’s quite different. Conducting the same movies search returns a full list of apps that are all related to the silver screen. You’ll find a healthy mix of highly rated video streamers, box-office buzz trackers and Hollywood-inspired games, without a single head-scratcher among them. Popularity and rating certainly play a role, but it’s clear that Google has put the work in to make sure that Android users can find a variety of good apps that’ll fit their needs.

Apple doesn’t seem to have given app search the same level of attention, leaving developers directionless and forcing them to experiment with keyword combinations and intrusive push notifications in a desperate attempt to rise in the rankings.

“Unfortunately, Apple doesn’t provide us with any advanced analytic tools, so it’s just guessing for most of us,” says Tanmay Sonawane, creator of the popular note-taking app Write. “I could never tell exactly which keyword is helping me and which isn’t.” He points out that, since most developers run multiple promotional campaigns simultaneously, it’s hard to tell what effects App Store keyword changes produce.

Each time a developer pushes a new update to the App Store, it can attach up to 100 characters of keywords to the app—tags and phrases that can make or break an app’s position in search results. Apple then applies its own secret algorithm, matching an app’s keywords against the number and quality of its reviews while also comparing it with other apps that have similar combinations.

“Identifying the keyword targets is challenging because there is no keyword tool for iOS apps as there is for Web search,” said Dan Peguine of BillGuard. “So we use other techniques to identify our target keywords. For example, we ask users who we believe discovered us via the App Store what keywords they used. We’ve found that to be a good indicator.”

Without a set of advanced analytical tools, developers are pretty much shooting in the dark.

The Chomp effect

app search todomovies

If you know exactly which app you want, chances are you can find it.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Back in early 2012, Apple excited developers when it announced it had acquired Chomp, a startup search company that dug much deeper than the App Store’s existing title-only search. But when Chomp was fully implemented with iOS 6, it not only didn’t live up to expectations, it made things worse.

“I know that is the general consensus in the community,” said Jamie Smyth, CEO of TypeEngine (which helps publishers create Newsstand apps). “Even though the Chomp acquisition allowed you to search for apps based on type instead of just the name, the problem didn’t really get solved. It seems as though Apple wants to control the discovery, because when clause 2.25 [of the App Store Review Guidelines] came out, they basically banned all third-party app-discovery apps.”

Without the services of things like AppGratis and AppShopper—which still operate online but were removed from the App Store after Apple put the clamps on third-party promotion—developers have been in a constant battle for position within iOS’s walled garden.

Along with the guess-the-keywords game, Apple’s post-Chomp algorithm has spurred developers to experiment with the actual names of their apps, too, often embedding lengthy explanations right in their titles—Write for iPhone - A Beautiful Note Taking and Writing App or BillGuard - Money Tracker & Personal Finance—to help steer potential customers.

“An app’s name, and the keywords it uses are some of the biggest influencers in search results,” said Dan Counsell, founder of Realmac, creators of the popular list-maker Clear. “All the research I’ve done suggests that the download volume acts as a multiplier on the name and keyword match.”

Looking for answers

app search calendar world of warcraft

A search for "calendar" puts World of Warcraft ahead of Any.do's Cal app.

Developers without as much visibility or as many reviews as Clear are still hoping to hit on that perfect combination of keywords that will vault them to the upper echelon of search rankings. Those who are lucky enough to land on Apple’s featured list may enjoy an instant boost in downloads, but even that prime spot is no guarantee of good search position; developers I spoke to all agreed that Apple’s seal of approval, while helpful in many ways, has no direct effect on search rank.

But if being featured doesn’t help, Sensor Tower thinks it can. The mobile search-engine optimizer proudly counts such perennial high rankers as Clash of Clans, Notability and Soundhound among its clients, and has narrowed App Store searches down to the letter—literally. As the company explains, simply making keywords plural can have a dramatic effect on position. A search for photograph yields more than 11,000 apps with the same keyword, essentially diluting the results. But adding an s to the end eliminates about 90 percent of those returns.

Not all developers are keen to play this tedious game of trial and error.

“As for boosting rankings, the only reliable way is marketing, where you pay up to $3 per download (of a free app),” said Thorsten Rauser, a developer with the Binary Family and force behind Please Fix the App Store. (That site's manifesto declares, “Paid apps have become almost invisible...regular updates are penalized, and...new apps don’t get visibility or stand a fair chance against old titles.”) Rauser says that such pay-for-play marketing can only be financed by apps that manipulate users into making as many in-app purchases as possible—”a road we don’t want to walk down.”

Rauser, who said he has all but given up on iOS app development, has gathered the support of some 70 developers to his cause, but fears Apple is unwilling to fix the problems.

So what else can developers do, except keep trying to game the Store in hopes their apps will rise to the top? Omer Perchik, founder and CEO of Any.Do, is “definitely not happy” with search status for his company’s Cal calendar app. (It’s currently ranked number 45 in a search for calendar in the iTunes app store and falls to 77th in the iOS App Store app; don’t even get developers started on the discrepancies between OS X and iOS searches.) Still, he’s willing to put the work in to get it higher.

“I believe it’s a process. When you launch you get promoted within the search results. But after a while you get to your actual position and then you need to start climbing back.”

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