Here’s Why Apple Needs to Fix App Store Search

While we all love our iOS devices, there’s a lot that can be improved. We recently highlighted the flawed model of how iCloud documents handles files, but there’s another area that’s been widely criticised since quite some time now and that’s searching the App Store for apps.

The awful search is especially annoying when popular new apps like Letterpress and Gmail are released, and iOS users can’t find the app through the App Store unless they already have a direct link to the app.

Google indexes the entire internet with billions of links, and it doesn’t have any problems in indexing real time content, so why does Apple, which has a fewer than 800,000 apps in its store, suck so much at search? Why does it take so long to index new apps and games? It’s not like the App Store is an insignificant component of the Apple product ecosystem. In fact, it’s one of the major reasons why its ecosystems became so popular, and every other competitor rushed to emulate the model.

Another example of how the App Store search engine fails: Try searching for “time management.” The intention being to find some time management apps that help you maintain a schedule and keep track of it. What you get is simply a list of “time management” games, most of which are from the same developer:

itunes-app-store-search

And the problem’s not just restricted to search itself. As you know, the App Store was revamped as a part of the iOS 6 update with major cosmetic changes. The search interface went from the list layout we’re all familiar with, to an all new swipeable card layout, which includes just one result per-page.

Now even that would have been fine from a user standpoint had Apple’s search accuracy been good, but sadly, as we all know, that’s not the case. You’ll most likely have to swipe through multiple cards to get to an app that you wanted to find.

temple-run-app-store-search

List are easier to navigate, so even if an app you wanted to search was at the 100th position, iOS’ momentum scrolling would get you there in less than half a minute, but you certainly won’t reach the 100th position within even a minute in the new layout.

app-store-search-navigation

And we haven’t even gotten into how badly this affects developers; whose apps take a huge hit in terms of search visibility  because of this layout.

Search queries are ambiguous. There’s no single right answer for a certain search term that all iOS users would agree to. By adopting such a layout, and not even giving a list based choice, Apple’s choosing to ignore the possibility of correctness varying from user to user, and thus making the App Store experience frustrating.

Here’s hoping that Apple’s working on a fix for these issues in upcoming releases of iOS, although the search accuracy is really a server side issue rather than an iOS issue.

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  • SHALASHASKA

    I dunno what’s happening to this website .. I’ve been a faithful reader for almost 4 years .. Now it’s littered with articles like this .. Please maintain neutrality .. This isn’t a rant blog :) cheers

    • http://rounak.me/ Rounak Jain

      you think search on the App Store is fine?

      • FrrrEalz

        The name of the website is iPhone HACKS. Not iphone reviews / discussion blog.

        • http://twitter.com/iphonehackx iPhone Hacks

          We love to write about everything Apple.

          If we only wrote about hacks then there would be nothing to write, which is why the title of the blog says ‘iPhone Hacks – iPad, iPod touch and iPhone blog”

    • http://trishussey.com Tris Hussey

      It’s a pretty fair challenge to Apple I think

    • http://twitter.com/iphonehackx iPhone Hacks

      Hey Shalashaska,

      Thanks for the feedback.

      We view this a major problem from a user and a developer point of view. You don’t think it’s a problem?

  • Alex

    You’re really, really missing the issue here; the Search Engine is intentional.

    Apple wants to be able to have and market ’750,000′ (or more) Apps to promote iDevices to customers comparing them to other devices, but the truth is 700,000 of those apps suck. When Apple sells an app that sucks, the customer does not think ‘some small developer ripped me off’, they think ‘the apps in the app store suck’ and if it was a paid App they think, ‘Apple ripped me off’. So, what Apple wants is 750,000+ Apps for marketing purposes, but they only want 50,000 (or less) Apps that people actually download; they only want Users to download the Apps Apple wants them to download because they provide a good User Experience or otherwise support Apple’s agenda.

    SO, their answer is, control the User Experience by pushing the Apps the User sees and buys. The new search engine makes App discovery of non-Apple pushed Apps close to impossible as it bases keyword (which are combined words in an app name plus the keywords) search results on total downloads, NOT the keywords themselves.

    In your example “Temple Run 2″ the App Temple Run 2 comes in 3rd because it has the 3rd most downloads of all apps with “temple & run & 2″ in their keywords (again, app name and keywords). Yes, there are other parts of the ranking algorithms, such as frequency trends, but for our purposes this simplified description works. The result is NEW apps which are not pushed by Apple or somehow otherwise promoted, are lost hundreds or thousands down on the lists of search results and are dead on arrival.

    Also, this system prevents pirates from spamming the app store with apps of similar names by listing them in various countries. Say there was a top raked app named “Cloud”, can’t Trademark that and kick others off, so there could be as many apps listed on the Store as their are countries to list them in. However, what’s the point if your new App “Cloud” won’t show up right next to the popular App “Cloud”, no, yours’ with no downloads on day 1will be last in the 75,000+ Apps with the word “cloud” in their keywords. Get it? This part is actually good; in other words, dude, get come talent and use an original name.

    However, in general, what will this result in? A lose of innovation; why invest in development unless you know from the start Apple will favor you, or a major review site will, or you have tons of cash to buy users and run up the download count? The App Store no longer supports and promotes “new” apps; those days are long gone. If you didn’t stake your claim in the App Land Rush by last year, go Android or something, you’re not getting in without spending TONS for Users.

    How does Apple win? They control “Featured”, “Top Charts”, and “Genius” results, therefore, Apple controls what an overwhelming number of Users download, they control their ecosystem and User Experience.

    Apple needs to do some more work here. If the App Store is no man’s land for small developers without giant VC funds, who will innovate? The VC funded apps 99 out of 100 times suck (how often do you REALLY use Color, or Summly, or even Clear?), or big names apps from Brands outside the App Store, like The Weather Channel (who has done a great job on their App BTW).

    Point is, we need more. We need an App Store where Steve & Waz can build an App in their Garage that sucks as much as the Apple I, or Apple II, or Mac 128 sucked, but which is SO innovative, so meaningful, it can be noticed and supported and grow into the iPhone 5 of Apps.

    • Eddie g

      Wow very interesting stuff… Makes perfect sense thx

      • Macmaniman

        Great comment!

    • http://rounak.me/ Rounak Jain

      Very interesting but I don’t think Apple would willingly offer a crappy experience just for this. But who knows?

      • Alex

        That’s part of the point, they are trying to avoid a poor experience without the trauma of throwing tons of Apps of the Store. Imagine the press a good house cleaning would get! ‘Apple’s obsessive control over their Walled Garden strikes again! Big Brother Apple wants to tell you what software you can use because they know better than you what is good for you.’ etc.

        So they control instead through the search engine; there’s a great deal more thought going on then they’re generally given credit for. It’s taking time, but the historic bad apples (pun! and I’m intentionally avoiding naming names, but it’s easy to find them) are falling down the charts slowly but surely as Apple pushes search results as well as “Related” and “What others bought”.

        The sad thing for many, however, is that the pirates who are now involved in some big name Apps that have cleaned up their act, the ‘sins of their past’ having now been washed away, and there was no action taken which would result in helping the next developer with talent who comes alone; they own their App Store Land now with legitimacy. Again, I won’t name names, but those of us who’ve really been around know who they are. They got to the top with steps that wouldn’t pass todays’ published App Review Guidelines, and now act all pure. Again, innovation loses; how does a truly innovative, and ‘honest’ developer without massive deep pockets for legitimate user acquisition (anyone read about the past holiday season’s average user acquisition costs?) ever make it? Sooner or later, if ‘great software’ is to be made, Apple will have to clean house, because ‘great software’ will come from the brilliant hungry innovative developer. Don’t agree? Okay, what Apps have Adobe, or Microsoft, the likes of Corel, or even Apple themselves (ever use Cards for example, or Bento, oh my) have truly moved the bar? The answer is: none.

  • Kimk69

    Wow, nice comments Alex.

  • http://rounak.me/ Rounak Jain

    yeah, that’s a good way when you’re on a PC/Mac, but it’s just too difficult to do it on device. For search on device I normally use AppShopper’s search.

  • Alex

    Another great part about this method is that it takes advantage of Google’s spell checking. If you’re spelling challenged, or simply can’t quite recall the exact name of the app, Google will help quite a lot; another area in which the App Store search engine falls short.

    Thanks for posting such a great link! I’ll keep it in Notes for quick Copy & Paste on device.