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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.

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

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 Jaime 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

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.


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