People have been saying for several years that the process of finding new apps is broken, that too much real estate is given to the top 1% of apps, which almost without exception, consists of large developers or companies that Apple (or Google) feature with prominence. There’s a sense that the bottleneck that the two major app stores have created is building up an insurmountable barrier to entry for new or independent developers to make their mark and get their app in front of most users. A lot of this is true. It is getting harder and harder for app developers to rise up amid the noise. In fact, some industry insiders predict the worst is yet to come, particularly for the future of paid apps: an increasingly dying monetization model thanks to the bevy of free and freemium offerings.
But is app discovery really broken for consumers?
First, some history. I found a post from SoftTech VC partner Charles Hudson from way back in June of 2011 that also questioned whether app discovery was really a problem for consumers:
Despite everything I’ve said above, application discovery is a problem for application developers. It’s really just a subset of the marketing challenge we all face in standing out in a sea of tens of thousands of applications that exist in app stores – being discovered is a good way to grow an application and absolutely essential in the growth plans of many companies.
The most vocal voice in opposition to that point of view was from Appsfire CEO Ouriel Ohayon who left the first comment on Charles’ post.
There is a clear cut need from users for better experience in app discovery. Most people don’t realize it at first. They start to download apps and after a while they observe they own more apps than they use. They then realize the discovery process lead them to make wrong decisions or inaccurate decisions. And this is precisely when they start to look for new discovery solutions.
Appsfire started in 2009 with the idea of being one of those discovery solutions. Last month, they announced they were pivoting away from app discovery to focus on native mobile ads instead.
Chomp was another entrant into the field, functioning as a sort of meta-search engine for mobile apps, across multiple platforms. Didn’t quite work out. The team was acqui-hired by Apple in February of 2012, who shut down the service entirely later in the year. While the hefty purchase price in relation to the money Chomp had raised gave the founding team more than a soft landing, the “problem” of app discovery remained unsolved.
Still, there are others, investors and VCs alike, who believe this is something solvable and are continuing to give it a go. But are these third party services really just solutions in search of a problem that doesn’t exist? Part of the mistake seems to be in assessing how people actually look for apps.
Most people who grew up on the desktop-centric web have a natural inclination to believing that standard web search is how people find anything they’re looking to find, be it content, software, whatever. But that isn’t historically how we’ve looked for software. Think about our own behavioral patterns. If we don’t have a particular title in mind already, we usually browse categorically depending on what it is we’re interested in doing. For something like games, it’s easy: we know we want a racing title or a shooter, so we go straight for the games category and drill down to find sub-categories for the theme of the game we’re looking for. Others like productivity are a little trickier. We could be looking for scheduling software or a reminder app, consumer-focused or an enterprise-level solution for our workplace. So some categories are probably more amenable to search than others. But in most cases, people have historically taken a browse-first approach to shopping for software, whether it’s online, through an app store or, in days of yore (har har), at brick and mortar stores like Best Buy or Circuit City. That’s because most people haven’t crystalized what it is they’re looking for when it comes to software the way they do when they search for content or other products.
As any good search marketer could tell you, someone searching for “sneakers” isn’t going to have the same level of intent as someone searching for “Nike Lebron XI Gamma Blues.” But there are also a relatively finite level of options, even for a search that broad. They’re probably either:
- Browsing for sneakers to purchase, either over the web or if they’re on a smartphone, a store where they can find sneakers right now
- Looking for information about the history of sneakers (e.g. Wikipedia)
- Blogs about sneakers
Let’s assume you do that same search on an app store. Maybe you want a better way to organize your sneakers. Maybe you’re looking for a social network where you can find other sneaker enthusiasts. Or maybe you do want to find shoes to purchase. You can find all of those things in the App Store for iOS.
The problem is that most app store queries seem to be an all-or-nothing proposition: either the search is laser specific for an app they’ve already heard of or the search is broad enough that it’s really impossible to discern, as a developer or marketer, what a consumer may want because the consumer doesn’t even know what they want.
And the app stores understand this. Which is why the search bar isn’t front and center when accessing either store, the way it’s traditionally been for organic search since at least the late 90’s.
So here’s the overarching question: is this just herd behavior that can be modified by a better solution, the way categorical searching in the early days of the web was replaced by smart algorithms? I don’t think so. And that’s because the way we search for content and the way we search for software are fundamentally different animals.
Of course, this shouldn’t breed complacency. The app stores do have major issues with regards to the way they display and rank apps. The spam, abuse & general unreliability of 5 star reviews makes it difficult to fathom how they’re still used as a major signaling mechanism by app stores when deciding which apps show up in a category and which don’t. I even think there’s still an opportunity to create a more comprehensive app “storefront” experience across all platforms. But unless I see evidence to the contrary, I don’t believe the way people find apps will fundamentally change, no matter how sophisticated app store search algorithms get.