The App Store's Search Problem is Actually A Discovery Problem

Mobile apps are finally starting to fix web search. The side effect is trying to wade through 1.2 million apps in Apple's App Store. In solving one search problem, a new one has formed, only this time the answer isn’t to improve app search, but introduce better app discovery.

With the App Store honeymoon phase over and some of its coolness factor long gone, consumers' daily usage has settled on 12-24 apps with dozens more used sporadically. A few apps have done quite a good job at repackaging web content (WhatsApp, iMessage, email, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram) into an easily digestible format. As the number of apps available in the App Store exploded, the cries of a growing app search problem grew louder, but the main issue with this logic isn’t that users can’t find useful apps, it’s that users don’t know what they should even be searching for. If I hear about a specific app, I’m able to find it relatively quickly in the App Store. I rarely search for generic terms like “stock research” or “food” in the App Store primarily because there is no reason to search for apps like that, just as there is no reason to search the web like that.

The next phase in app discovery will be that same type of personalization we see now with how apps like Twitter are fixing web search, but this time combined with location data. Many apps are location-determinant as they have specific use cases in a certain environment: education, enterprise, sporting events, the list goes on. In iOS 7 Apple introduced the “Popular Near Me” feature, which shows apps that are popular near my current location. In my case, I am shown five local news apps. Am I interested in those apps? No, but at least it’s a start. In iOS 8, Apple introduced location-based app suggestions on the lock screen, but I rarely have seen real-world instances of this besides having a retail store app pop-up when I’m within a few hundreds yards.  In these two instances Apple is addressing the problem of finding apps, but not through better search, but rather better discovery.

A more useful method to foster app discovery is to combine continued location-based app suggestions with personalization. Knowing that I am interested in stocks and following certain people on Twitter, and seeing I’m in a bank, I can be given app suggestions that not only are related to finance, but have some connection to app developers I follow on Twitter or I have shown some liking in the past through other social platforms. My app suggestions are tailored just to me.  Apps are personal expressions of the world. Some of us will like certain apps while others won’t.  Bucket-type “apps near me” don’t work, just as location-based suggestions using nothing but my location doesn’t fully solve the app discovery problem either.  Once location and personalization are combined to give me relevant app suggestions, I will be able to look at the App Store's 1.2 million apps with a little bit less confusion and anxiety.  



P.S. Imagine if Ping was unveiled for the App Store instead of iTunes so that you can “follow” apps and developers while getting the much-requested app previews and free trials?  Would make personalization that much more interesting because I would bet if a consumer likes one developer, chances are good they may like other apps that developer "likes" or is friends with.