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Seeking a Better Search, or Why Apple's App Store Design is Bad For Business

Addressing current flaws in the iOS App Store, how they hurt the sales of lesser-known apps, defraud customers, and what could be done to fix them.

Brian Stabile, Blogger

May 2, 2012

7 Min Read

    If you’re like me, you’re a really cool guy with exquisite taste, and we should hang out. You also are trying to develop apps for the mobile market. Why wouldn’t you? The app market seems like the easiest avenue to launch a title- Millions of people worldwide can buy your product and start enjoying it (or harshly critiquing it) instantaneously, with nothing more than a $99 fee to Apple! What better time to start a mobile app studio than... two years ago! App companies are anywhere and everywhere at the moment, the (*metaphor warning*) ‘dubstep’ of the software industry - there’s a large demand for them, everyone in the industry has a side project developing them, you can’t tell the difference between most of them, and consumers and self-proclaimed ‘fans’ only really know of the same four or five of them. (Please rate my metaphor in the comments. Thanks.) The massive influx of new companies makes it massively harder to promote your releases and get downloads. The design of the iOS App Store has also somehow succeeded in being another enemy on the path to appcredible success.


    Upon opening the App Store on your iDevice, there is a handy (Apple would say ‘elegant’, ‘mystical’, or ‘grandiloquent’) Search tab that opens a single text field at the top.  However, it is plagued by a flaw of gigantor proportions - SEARCHING FOR AN APP BY INPUTTING ITS TITLE VERBATIM DOES NOT ALWAYS RETURN THAT APP AS THE FIRST RESULT! While you would expect the search algorithm to weigh the results by criteria such as number of downloads total/daily, number of ratings and reviews, the fact of the matter is, IF THE SEARCH STRING IS AN EXACT MATCH WITH AN APP TITLE, THAT APP SHOULD BE THE FIRST RESULT. If there are multiple apps of the same name, it should decide where they fit on the list by then factoring in the other criteria, then followed by adding a weighted score comparing how close the title’s name is to the search string to the rest of the results. We have witnessed this first-hand: after the launch of our game ‘The Last Ace of Space’, it took about 3 or 4 months before it became the first result when you searched ‘The Last Ace of Space’. As of writing this (May 2, 2012), the free version, ‘The Last Ace of Space Lite' STILL shows up 11th place - the LAST result of the search, trumped by 9 other apps that literally do not have a single word from the search string in their titles - even ‘The’ and ‘Or’!

App Store Search for The Last Ace of Space

App Store Search for The Last Ace of Space

(Are these the results you would expect from this search?)

-Searching ‘Last Ace of Space’ puts the full version 5th on the list, and the Lite version is still last. 


-Searching ‘Ace of Space’ returns a game exactly named that as the first result (with their Lite version dead last, and our full version 6th place), yet it didn’t even appear in the results for the other searches, disregarding the fact that the entire title was within the search string.
App Store search for Ace of Space

App Store search for Ace of Space


(Why was the app 'Ace of Space' not even listed on the other two searches?)

-Searching ‘The Last Ace’ puts our game at 6th place, which is not visible on-screen with the initial results returned by the search. 

App Store search for The Last Ace

App Store search for The Last Ace

(Something is very wrong here.)

-Searching ‘Last Ace’ actually moves the Lite version higher up on the results! WHAT IS THIS MADNESS, AND WHO DO I DIRECT MY HATRED TOWARDS? 


    This system no doubt has destroyed many opportunities for us to get downloads of our game - if I tell someone I meet to “check out my iOS game ‘The Last Ace of Space’” (which I do constantly, believe me), what is the likelihood that person will search for the full title? More than likely (based off personal experience observing how people utilize most search engines), they will search ‘Last Ace’, ‘Ace of Space’, ‘The Last Ace’, and if the app is not found within the first 5 search results (that’s all that the user sees on the iPhone screen without having to scroll down), they will most likely give up and/or assume I made it all up to impress them. Additionally, there should be options to choose what criteria to search by, such as Company Name, App Name, App Description, Rating, File Size (Imagine if you could search for ‘Under 50MB’ apps when you are in a No Wi-Fi zone). There should also be a way to ‘queue’ apps that can’t be downloaded onto a device at the moment (for whatever the reason). For instance, if an app runs a promotion where it is free for 24 hours, and my device is either out of space or the app is over 50MB and I’m lost in a No Wi-Fi zone again, I can’t ‘purchase’ that app onto my account, so I miss out on the sale (NOOOOOOOO!). Apps should be queued onto a ‘Downloads’ menu, similar to how music and podcasts are in the iTunes app, and then downloaded later when the device is able to do so.


    Another issue is that large amounts of negative reviews should count more negatively towards an app’s rank than they do at the moment. I understand that it COULD be possible to use one of those ranking networks where you pay money to receive reviews and rankings (which I’m pretty sure will get your account banned if Apple finds out) to tank a competitor’s app with an onslaught of one star reviews, but Apple should have people on staff to frequently test games up near the top 200 of the charts to check for quality control. The trends seem to indicate that most consumers disregard the app ratings anyway, which normally leads to this common scenario: people download an app that has a very appealing app description, or something misleading, such as deceptive screenshots, or a cleverly-worded title that makes the consumer think it is an official spin-off of a successful app. This results in a lot of downloads, and that app shoots up the charts, even though most people leave 1-star reviews. Most users only check the top 25-50 charts in the app store, and if the app makes it that far, there is a false assumption that it ‘must be good’, and it gets downloaded, ratings disregarded, and the new users end up leaving 1-star reviews of their own. If the review ranking held more weight, a low-quality or misleading app’s visibility would drop quickly off the charts, and less people would end up buying a poor product, despite being at the top of the charts.

    Reviewing the present condition of the App Store, with its illogical search algorithm, and relaxed attitude towards ranking poorly reviewed and malicious apps, it becomes yet another obstacle for the companies whose apps aren’t blockbuster hits to get downloads, sometimes even when the customer searches for the exact title! For us ‘little guys’ without much budget to advertise, make sure that when spreading the word you include a direct link to your app (if using analog ads, include a QR code, for digital ads, include a direct link to your app in the App Store), because if you leave it up to the user to search for your app themselves, it might be too hard to find, and they’ll lose interest, and you’ll lose a download.

Brian Stabile is the co-owner of Astro Crow, an independent game company currently focused on the mobile market
Twitter: @astrocrowgames
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/astrocrow 

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