Beyond App Store search: how to find the iOS apps right for you

One of the most challenging things to do on any iOS device is find a good app. Not because there aren’t any out there. Quite the opposite: there are thousands of good apps, which can be a problem.

With over 800,000 apps in the iOS App Store to sift through, Apple(s AAPL) isn’t helping by cracking down on some of the better apps for discovering apps you might like. Finding what you are looking for remains a challenge.  While there is no one way to tell if an app will meet your needs or not before buying or downloading, the following will shed some light on the challenges in identifying apps you might like, and offer some advice on how to find them.

The App Store’s search problem

Searching for Apps

Searching for Apps

iOS apps are searchable by app name, company name, and keywords only in the App Store. Since most apps try to limit their names to what is viewable on the home screen (about 12 characters depending on what letters are used), company names do not necessarily represent the functionality of the app. Developers are also limited to a total of 100 characters in listing the app’s keywords; which can present a challenge for developers getting their apps discovered by customers. While the 4,000 character description may be enough to explain the functionality of the app, that description is not used in the search.

What does not help matters much is that there are three different search interfaces. When you search for apps on your iPhone, you will not see any results for apps that only install on the iPad. This can be frustrating if you are looking for an app that works well on both the iPhone and iPad, and the developer has elected to create an app for each device, rather than a universal app for both.  The iTunes search on a Mac will initially show you results for all content matching your keywords, including songs, movies, books and podcasts.  You can filter the results to show only iPhone or iPad apps, but this gets frustrating each time you refine your search.  The iPad has the best search experience of the three as you see only apps in the search result, and you can search for both iPhone and iPad apps.

The problem with all three is that the search results are presented in a fashion that you can only see a handful of the search results initially.  You must click, swipe, tap or scroll to see more than a few results.

Fortunately Apple is not the only place that you can search for apps available in the App Store.  Apple has made what is called the Enterprise Partner Feed available to third parties.  It is a data feed of every piece of metadata in the iTunes Store and App Store. This enables third parties like and to organize, display, and query all of the metadata information in the App Store.  If you have become as frustrated as I have with Apples search, try one of these instead.  Note though, you will find the search results different with each service.

Wish lists and app lists

Wish Lists and App Lists

Wish Lists and App Lists

A great resource for me has always been AppShopper’s Wish Lists. Once you open a free account with AppShopper, you have the ability to create and manage a wish list of apps that you are interested in. With this list, you can monitor apps that interest you and set up an email alert whenever the app is updated or the price drops. This is a great way to keep up to date with apps that caught your eye but you weren’t quite ready to buy because it was missing a key feature or was priced a little too high.

AppAdvice on the other hand has a different twist to lists: rather than you coming up with a list of apps that interest you, they have created topic-based lists called AppLists.  Examples include Apps for Volunteering, a collection of apps that was put together for individuals that are interested in volunteering their time and resources in their communities.  There are also lists for Foodies, Comic Geeks, Poets and Coffee Lovers.  These AppLists are a great way of discovering apps that are more narrowly focused than Apple’s broader categories.

From time to time, Apple will come out with a good topic list of the top apps that is very similar to AppAdvice’s AppLists. Two of my current favorites are titled Entertain your Kidsand Apps for Parents.  While topical categories from Apple are great ways to discover new apps that are closely related to one another, there is no one place to go to see all of the topic based lists of apps that Apple has put together. You will see a select and frequenlty updated number of these lists on the iTunes home page or on the features page in the App Store, but not all of them. The best way to gain access to these lists is to subscribe to Apple’s iTunes newsletter when managing your Apple ID.  Under language and contact preferences you will see a checkbox for iTunes newsletters. This is where Apple tends to announce the new lists they have pulled together.

Do your homework

Reviews, Rankings and Releases

Reviews, Rankings and Releases

Reviews, releases and rankings are the three Rs of app shopping.  One of the first things you should look at is the original release date of the app and how often it has been updated. With services like, you can also see how often the developer has decided to change the price of the app as well.  Apps that are frequently updated likely point an attentive development team and can lead to a better experience overall.

Reviews posted to the App Store can go either way.  Give less attention to reviews that complain only about the price rather than features or quality.  Just because an app costs more does not make it bad.  You may find value in an app that others may not.  If, on the other hand, you see lots of reviews claiming that the app crashes or is buggy, then you need to look back at the version history to see if the developer is paying attention and trying to resolve the issue.

You also need to consider the total cost of ownership when buying an app, which includes in-app purchases. This is not hard to figure out as each app in the App Store will list its available in-app purchases.  Something to look for is how the in-app purchases are ranked since they are sorted by popularity: if you see high-priced items listed before lower-priced items, then you know that users of the app have found it necessary to buy those in order to use the app.

Use Genius to replace outdated apps

Use Genius to Replace Apps

Use Genius to Replace Apps

Genius is a great tool for finding new games that are similar to the games you have already purchased. But it is not a great resource for finding new apps that are completely different from the ones you already own. A good use of Genius is to locate a replacement for an app that you used to love, but has not been updated in a while or has just stopped working all together. A great example of this is when Google(s GOOG) announced that it would be shutting down its Reader service. You can use Genius to look for alternative news apps that are not dependent on this service.

For now, there is nothing out there better than word of mouth that can assist you in finding great apps that will enlighten your life or make you more productive.  And with Apple pulling apps from the App Store that can help make this task easier, one begins to wonder if the situation will ever improve.