How I’d Improve App Store Search to Improve Discoverability

If I ran Apple’s App Store, things would be very different. *Cue the daydream music.*

I’d start with App Store search and capitalize on the fact that 63 percent of apps are discovered there. That’s a large percentage for such a subpar discoverability channel. I don’t think many consumers think it’s subpar; it’s the developers who invest time and money into building products for the App Store, but have trouble getting consumers to find and download their apps.

When iOS 8 came out, the App Store experience was supposed to be improved: video trailers, Explore, related searchers. Here’s the thing: People are tapping in the App Store search bar and entering text there, not digging around at a category level, or even that Explore section. I have no evidence of this outside of some personal analysis, but when is the last time you found a great app by going to the “Productivity” category? You search or go to the top lists.

That’s why search is the biggest area of opportunity. Outside of algorithm tweaks here or there, the rankings haven’t changed much in recent years. But they should, and in this daydream, they will. App Store optimization fanatics, rejoice.

Apps that aren’t updated in over a year would be ranked lower than apps that do make regular enhancements. There would be some argument from developers who manage their app content remotely, but they’re still outdated. Apple releases a number of improvements to their operating system each year (larger screens and 64-bit support come to mind), so building an app populated with dynamic content can only last for so long. You would think, but I’ve actually seen Apple promoting apps that haven’t been updated in two years on a category level.

Just because a developer pays the $99 annual fee doesn’t mean they’re making the App Store better. How does letting someone download an app last updated in 2013 on their brand new iPhone 6 make for a good experience on the device? Apple should support developers who make their product more valuable by embracing the latest operating systems.

Reviews would still be weighted heavily in the search algorithm, but developers would have the opportunity to respond. I can’t tell you the number of times an unwarranted negative review had been left. Empowering developers to resolve negative reviews (and say thank you for the positive ones), not only helps them build better apps, but prevents these reviews from impacting an app’s ranking when they shouldn’t. (A lot of people don’t realize users can update a review after its been left but tracking down the user is near impossible. Google Play lets you respond in-listing.)

As for keywords, I go back and forth whether the 100-characters keyword field is a better solution than letting the algorithm crawl the description. For the latter to work, the algorithm has to be well tuned. I think that’s one of the reasons Apple has avoided it, while Google carried over similar crawling from the web to Google Play. But even in Google Play, it’s not perfect. At least Apple lets you explicitly tell them which keywords you want to be found under, which you are. That’s actually really powerful. The downsides: 1. there are no guarantees where you’ll rank for them; 2.those are the only keywords you’ll be found for, outside of the title, company and in-app purchase name.

Speaking of the title: I would limit the number of characters allowed. There have been rumors that Apple began penalizing apps with longer titles in their search algorithm in July. I still see a number of apps being featured on their main storefront with long titles though. What’s the point of even allowing 255 characters? Google restricts to 30. I believe 45 is more than enough.


Keywords should also only be acceptable if they’re applicable to your app content. For instance, I don’t want to search beer and get a jigsaw puzzle game, like today. The volume of downloads and reviews that jigsaw app receives is larger than some beer apps, which is why it’s ranked so high, but that doesn’t make it relevant. I doubt many people searching “beer” download the game.

We’re also still left in the dark with how App Store search will work in iOS 9. Apple has certainly been making a larger play towards improving spotlight search on the device, which means there’s a good chance they’ll tap into the same ability to surface apps in iTunes. This totally makes sense and could have the biggest impact on App Store optimization moving forward.

For instance, if a user searched a specific winery name in iTunes today, nothing would likely come up — there are a couple wineries with their own apps. Under my leadership, in two months, Winery Passport would surface since it has ABC Winery’s listing, so would Yelp, Foursquare and others, and that’s what the user searched.

This isn’t a complete list, just the changes that are top-of-mind. You can’t make everyone happy, and in the end, it’s the users who need to be happiest. They’re the ones buying Apple devices and that’s the company’s ultimate goal. I do, however, feel these go hand-in-hand. Apps that help a user accomplish exactly what they’re looking for, whether it’s a task or simple entertainment, make that device more valuable. Let’s not hide those apps then by making users have to dig deep for them, past irrelevant and outdated apps.

What changes would you make to the App Store? Let us know in the comments section below.

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