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Why Apple needs to fix App Store search

Michael Simon | May 8, 2014
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.

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

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.

 

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