Why App Store search (still) needs to be fixed

When news hit that Tweetie creator Loren Brichter’s new iOS game Letterpress  was available for download I did what many of you probably did: picked up my iPhone and searched the App Store. But according to the App Store, Letterpress didn’t exist: repeated searches turned up zero results. So I went to Brichter’s company blog and found a direct App Store link to the game.

Given that Apple(s AAPL) must approve every single app submitted to the App Store, this shouldn’t happen when new apps are released. Several colleagues had this same problem searching for Letterpress too. In general, it seems to take several hours for an app to surface in Apple’s App Store search function, even after press releases have been sent out about them and direct links assigned.

And unfortunately, this isn’t a new problem at all. I can also recall another specific instance of this: when Facebook’s new Camera(s FB) app debuted. I tried to download it the moment I saw it was available. But again, the only way I could find it was through a direct link, this time sent to me by a colleague.

While it’s annoying to users, it’s even more frustrating for iOS developers. They’ve noticed several other problems with search, which they think were caused by the update to the App Store when iOS 6 was introduced in September. That release, which incorporated design and search changes from Apple’s acquisition of Chomp, was supposed to help users find more apps they’d like, as well as surface higher-quality apps.

But the sheer size of Apple’s App Store is working against this goal. With more than 700,000 apps available in the store, sifting through them is nearly impossible. And for developers, getting noticed or standing out is harder than ever. That’s why Apple has been experimenting with new ways for sorting apps: through more categories, topical lists and featured collections, and highlighting quality with Editor’s Choice selections. Third parties have been trying this from the outside too, with companies like Appsfire attempting to highlight the best-reviewed apps rather than the most-downloaded.

Developers have complained about App Store search nearly from the time Apple opened it in 2008. But despite attempts to fix these issues over the years and most recently with iOS 6, in many cases, the changes are just causing confusion. Here are some of the other issues I’ve heard about most from developers:

Inconsistent search results

The changes of an app being found in search seems to depend on how many downloads an app has. “[S]earch results vary significantly between countries and the only correlation we’ve found was download numbers,” said Igor Zhadanov, CEO of Readdle, whose company has sold several iOS business apps since 2008. Sometimes if you have only a few downloads, you can’t be found easily in search. If you have a lot, then you will appear higher in the results. As an example, he said his company’s Scanner Pro app is displayed higher in more than 50 different search queries on the U.S. App Store compared to Canadian one —  Scanner Pro sells better in the U.S. than Canada.

The problem with searching for new apps, shown by the Letterpress anecdote, hasn’t always been this bad. In previous iterations of the App Store, Zhadanov thinks Apple would “credit” brand new apps for about two weeks after release so they’d appear higher in listings and be visibile. The credit would make an app discoverable through search so they’d have a chance to build an audience. But since iOS 6 brought significant changes to the App Store, “it doesn’t seem to be the case” anymore, he said.


The acquisition of Chomp by Apple was intended to revamp App Store search and the way in which content was displayed. The new look of the mobile App Store, as it appears on iOS devices, is indeed Chomp-inspired, with search results displayed in full-screen panes representing each app rather than a traditional list. To scroll through search results or lists of apps, however, you need to swipe horizontally. It seems like a nice design choice because the images are so much larger, but it means just one search result appears at a time. So it’s much more work for users than simply scrolling vertically as before. And app developers, like Zhadanov, complain that people no longer bother scrolling through more than three to five apps now. Users I’ve talked to confirm this too. So, if you’re not in the top five results then it’s more likely a user won’t see your app. And that makes the next point even more upsetting for some smaller developers.

Off-target search results

The top result when searching for the app called Coaster

The App Store’s search function sometimes doesn’t deliver results in a way that seems logical to normal users. Here’s an example: When you search for “Coaster” in the mobile App Store, the first two results you get are Madcoaster and iRollercoaster, two rollercoaster games. Not until you’ve swiped horizontally to the third search result do you get the only app that’s actually called Coaster — the drink-ordering app I was looking for. Why does the exact search term, which is also the brand name for the app I’m searching for, not surface as the top result?

Coaster’s founder and CEO Inderpal Singh agrees the iOS 6 App Store upgrade is part of the problem. “With the new iOS 6 App Store, it’s almost impossible to find apps by brand — at least those without a million downloads,” Singh wrote in an email to me. The Coaster app is free and has been on the App Store since the spring, but doesn’t have downloads in the millions like the rollercoaster games. But it’s rated well by users and has a not-insignificant number of reviews and downloads. “Without any knowledge of Apple’s SEO methodology it’s tough to make your app noticed,” he said. “Coaster averages 5 Stars, has 85+ reviews and thousands of downloads. And is actually called Coaster. Not sure what more we can do to be #1.”

Need for transparency

It’s not Apple’s job to be the marketing arm of these small developer shops. But it is in Apple’s interest to cultivate a marketplace that works for both users and developers. Apple has worked hard to rid its App Store of incentivized install campaigns and other efforts to game App Store rankings. But if apps can’t be found via the search function, other methods of gaming the store will inevitably arise.

There are other legitimate ways of building a following of customers through outside means — advertising, media coverage, etc. And it’s in developers’ interest to figure out the best practices for dealing with Apple’s changes.

If users are not scrolling very far through results pages, one response is that developers need to take SEO even more seriously, said Carl Orthlieb, VP of engineering at Appcelerator, a cross-platform mobile development environment. His company surveys thousands of developers each quarter about their work on platforms like iOS.

“Like any change around SEO, you’ve gotta go and change your strategy,” he said. But he agrees that it’s tough for many developers to adapt when Apple institutes big changes. “It would be great if Apple would provide transparency into how this works.”

Apple did not respond to a request for comment on this story.