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Apple is reportedly testing a feature that displays relevant categories when users search the App Store for things like news readers, calendar apps, and other popular products. The feature, first reported by MacStories, appears to be available to a small subset of users.

Searching the App Store has never been particularly easy. The marketplace hosts hundreds of thousands of apps, many of which feature common words like “paper” or “news” in their name or description, making it difficult to find a specific app amongst all the clutter.

The App Store’s current structure doesn’t help much, either. It rewards apps that attract more downloads than their competition even if the apps themselves are bunk — just look at all the “Flappy Bird” clones that rose to the top of many categories — and favors apps from specific developers. Combine that with the surprising amount of time it takes Apple to add an app to its search results and you have a nigh-unsearchable marketplace.

Apple often pretends that the App Store is meritocratic, but it’s more like a dictatorship with a chaotic jumble of apps available on the fringes. The current system gives the editors in charge of curating apps for the “featured” section of the marketplace great power over which apps find millions of users and which apps languish in the digital back room of the App Store.

Improving the App Store’s search function might change that, making it possible to sift through all of the software available on the marketplace and find exactly what users are looking for. Or, at the very least, it could make it easier to find a well-regarded new app from one of the world’s largest technology companies. One can hope, right?

Reactions from around the Web

MacStories notes that many of the details about this new search function are unknown:

While the company introduced a feature to discover apps popular nearby last year, the new search suggestions could provide a general layer of filtering that is independent from geographical location. At this point, it’s not clear whether Apple may be optimizing search suggestions based on user taste and purchase history – first tests suggest that related searches are simply based on app category rather than user personalization; right now, it’s hard to tell whether some search suggestions may have been manually curated by Apple or not.

Business Insider explains the discoverability problem developers face in the App Store:

Often, an app and its contents are completely invisible to search requests. This makes the marketing and promotion of apps very difficult: Developers need word of mouth to popularize their apps. They’re reduced to relying on 1960s-style methods of promotion — PR and mentions in media outlets — to get attention for their products.

There’s also a chicken-and-egg situation: To get more downloads, an app must usually appear in the top charts in the various mobile app stores, so that people can see that exist. But to get the apps into those charts, people must already have downloaded them.

Gizmodo expresses frustration at how difficult it is to find Facebook Paper in the App Store:

One of the most exciting new apps in months has hit Apple’s App Store today: Paper, an app that provides a refreshing new Facebook experience. This is an app that, conservatively, hundreds of thousands of people want to download today. Good luck finding it.

[...]

If you want to download Paper—and you do—here’s a direct link. Meanwhile, Apple, it’s nice that you’ve got so many more apps than everybody else. But it would sure be helpful if you made it possible to find the ones we’re looking for.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pando]