iOS App Store Search is Still Broken

Over five years ago I wrote “Solving the iOS app store search problem” about solving the iOS app store search problem. It’s not really any better now than it was then. In fact, it is worse.

I’ve been publishing apps on the iOS app store since 2010. I’ve been struggling the last few years to prevent You Doodle, my only real success on the app store, from disappearing entirely. I’ve watched the early days where new and recent apps had their own section in the app store, all the way to today where search ads, paid downloads and an endless barrage of ads to download other apps are the only way to survive. The lucky few who go viral or get featured by Apple have a chance to survive, but most apps are dying a most painful depth.

Apple is encouraging a game the system attitude with their approach to app store search. Search ads encourages paid apps that provide little to no useful functionality but target hot keywords in the hopes of a few downloads and users who won’t seek a refund.

Many of the top free games immediately bombard the user with ads to download other games from the same publisher. It’s such a wonderful user experience to open up a game and have to click through a ton of popup ads before even trying the game out. Thanks Apple, you are encouraging this.

Downloads are still the #1 way that an app is ranked in the app store. That is why the system is gamed so much. No downloads means no ranking for your title, keywords or description and basically means your app does not exist. This makes it incredibly difficult to survive as an indie developer who is not willing to game the system by providing a terrible user experience.

Apple does not seem to mind a terrible user experience. When searching app names, I get a giant banner add at the top of search results from an app that is not the one I searched for. This is, sadly, following the example of Google who absolutely bombards with paid search ads and allows the highest bidder to appear higher than than the company that was searched for.

Apple, I have some suggestions after dealing with your app store search for almost a decade. I hope you will consider them.

  • Only show the thin search ad style, get rid of the larger search ad, it is confusing and pushes real results off the screen.
  • If a user is scrolling through search results, I think it would be ok to sprinkle the odd additional small ad in between the search results as long as it is very obvious it is an ad.
  • Make the “Ad” label larger, more clear and bold.
  • Change the background color of the ad to be more obvious.
  • Change the font style slightly so that the ad is more obvious.
  • When using search ads, please vet the apps more thoroughly. Too many people game the system with bad paid apps that cost too much.
  • Make downloads less of a factor on keyword rank. This is, and will always be, too easy to game the system with.
  • Remove the 100 char limit on keywords. Change the limit to be up to 100 words (WORDS, not characters) that must be highly relevant to the app. Reject any apps that attempt to stuff in keywords that don’t match the app.
  • Allow longer titles, but still truncate in the display. If you are not willing to fix your horrible keyword problem, please bring back the longer titles. You Doodle does literally a hundred useful unique things, but people can’t find it because I only have a tiny title and a dozen keywords I can use. Lame.
  • I don’t want to make a different app for every unique feature. I know it’s great for an announcement of 10 million apps in the app store, but it sure is a terrible user experience having so many apps to deal with. See above bullet point.
  • Add more human curation and review of apps in the store to determine ranking. Every app that is submitted new and updated and passes app review should at a minimum get a few people at Apple to give it some sort of opinion or ranking.
  • Please clamp down on app cloning. Remember the flappy bird days where there were a thousand flappy clones a day? Well guess what, this is still a huge problem. The top apps and games are copied constantly in the hopes of lazy developers siphoning some users and piggy-backing upon the top app success.
  • Apps that addict people or make them open the app over and over should not rank higher. This makes no sense. Time spent in app should not be as high a factor in app ranking. If an app is efficient, easy to use and does not require much time in the app, that should not count against that app. Millions of people checking their feed for 15 seconds every 5 minutes does not a useful app make.
  • Use machine learning and make reviews more of a factor in app ranking, ignoring fake reviews, paid reviews or malicious reviews.
  • Make the buggiest/crashing apps as a percentage of non-crash users lose ranking. See Crashlytics dashboard, it reports percentage of crash-free users.
  • Make old apps that are not updated regularly (at least annually) lose ranking.
  • Be more transparent and less secretive about the iOS app store search engine ranking algorithm. Please don’t be like Google and try to be secretive about it. You are great with customer data privacy and security (usually). I hope you can transition that to your app store.
  • If someone searches for an actual app name, show that app first, ahead of any ads or other apps. I know this is tricky as many apps have similar names, but a trillion dollar company should be able to figure this out.

I’ll be back to add more items to the list as I think of it. I hope you will seriously think about this. I’m just one guy and don’t know everything but my own indie developer position has gotten much more difficult over the last few years because the app store now favors lazy or sneaky developers, or the big companies that can pay for downloads and game the system. I imagine thousands of other indie developers are also hurting.

Thank you,

– Jeff Johnson

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