By Sandhya Raman
In late February, Apple gobbled up app discovery search engine Chomp, reportedly paying up to $50 million to integrate aspects of the service and Chomp's 20 employees in an effort to overhaul the search experience in its App Store. Separately, Verizon Wireless last year announced that it would begin preloading its Android-enabled smartphones with the Chomp app to encourage app discovery.
Meantime, the Apple App Store recently surpassed 500,000 apps, while the Google Android Market is quickly catching up with around 400,000 apps.
The headlines reflect an increasingly important issue in the app ecosystem: With all of these apps, it's hard for users to find those they really want and like. The problem--app discoverability--is clear.
In most app stores, the apps that get the most exposure are the apps that are already popular. In fact, digital marketing and advertising agency DigiDay found that 36.2 percent of users only look for apps on a mobile phone's home screen (just 27.6 percent look in the app stores for new apps).
Electronics Arts, for example, which has already made a name for itself selling games for the desktop and consoles, has an established user base, which it can leverage into checking out its app for mobile. After climbing onto an app list, whether as a top grossing app, most popular of the week, or being handpicked by the editors of a given app storefront, a title and its development company can gain momentum simply from the exposure they already have.
But most development companies and independent developers do not have the resources, the capital or an army of fans from a previous software endeavor. And, depending on the mobile operating store in question, there aren't many ways to promote apps to gain visibility.
How can this problem be solved? Should the app stores take the initiative to make app discoverability a more manageable process (as with Apple and Chomp) or should this be a focus for carriers, device markers or even other developers?
FierceDeveloper has taken a look at some of the major players in app discovery, highlighting their strengths and inevitable weaknesses.
Operator app stores--Carrier app stores like the AT&T AppCenter and Verizon Apps are generally smaller than traditional app stores. In addition, their potential customer base is limited to users who use a given operating system and subscribe to that carrier. The benefits vary by store. Verizon Apps features device compatibility, so a user is less likely to purchase a game incompatible with his or her device. AppCenter features app subscriptions, allowing users to rent a game in monthly increments before committing to the full price. Operator app stores test their apps, making them safer than stores without an approval process. In addition, carriers offer bundles that group content by theme. In January, Verizon offered a Super Bowl-themed pack that bundled ringback tones with NFL Mobile and other apps.
App curation--Appolicious employs editors to curate lists of apps based on topics. It features some unconventional categories like Best Zombie Apps. The lists include reviews of the apps from users and site editors, as well as similar apps which may not have made the list. An added benefit is that Appolicious features video reviews of some of the apps it spotlights, giving users a deeper look into how an app works. AppAdvice also looks at some interesting categories, including Best Fish Identifier Apps. The lists are broken down into apps that are essential, notable, decent and free, allowing users to discover which apps are the best, as well as which apps have similar goals but are cheaper.
App reviews--There are hundreds of sites devoted to reviewing apps. FierceDeveloper's sister site, FierceMobileContent, for one, reviews the best new apps each month. Fierce only examines a few apps per month, but sites dedicated to app reviews have thousands of listings. Additional app reviews give credibility; a game with 50 good reviews is a better gamble than a game with only four. With review sites, however, it is important to watch out for paid promotions and reviews planted by PR representatives. It is best to look at some of the best and worst reviews and to see what other reviews a given reviewer has made. A user who gives all of the apps from one company strong reviews, but does not review other apps, is usually not a trusted source. (Hint: FierceMobileContent is an independent, unbiased source for reviews.)
App markets--Traditional app markets like Android Market and Amazon's AppStore are designed to sell apps. Amazon's AppStore has the benefit of actively screening its apps to prevent malware attacks. Amazon's AppStore also offers a series of free and reduced priced apps, though Android Market is ultimately the largest Android storefront. However, Android Market lacks personalized search options outside of the search bar. Meantime, Apple offers app recommendations based on its "Genius" recommendation engine, initially introduced for music on its iTunes platform. Traditional app stores are designed to be marketplaces, making discovery tricky.
Mobile apps--Some apps themselves offer ways for users to discover other apps and for developers to promote their apps. Best Apps Market is free and does not require users to sign-up to get recommendations, but it only reviews other free apps. It is also populated with many sponsored apps and pop-up ads. App-o-Day, a new app for iOS users, spotlights one app a day--sometimes the apps are premium apps that are free that day, while other times in-app purchases within free apps are discounted. While these types of apps do encourage discovery of other new apps, they are limited to the developers who can afford to pay to be promoted.
Personalized recommendations--Personalized app recommendation, a service that companies like TapJoy and Hooked Media already offer, lets users share which apps they already own and currently like or dislike. Then, the system's algorithm determines which other apps may appeal to users. The success of services like these lies in how much information users are willing to share and how well the individual algorithms work to predict users' interests. Hooked, in particular, has the perk of updating information even when the device is turned off and can also measure how long users spend in individual games. However, these types of services work best for games rather than all apps. A user purchasing a utility app isn't likely to want to purchase another app with the same purpose, while a user who enjoys physics-based mobile games may want several similar games. AppBrain also tracks a user's app choices, with the option to backup and restore purchases, though some users have reported problems with syncing and freezing.
None of these options is perfect. And the app discoverability problem probably will get worse before it gets better. In the meantime, developers will need to try every possible mechanism to rise above the chatter.
One final point that underscores this whole market is a statistic from DigiDay that found more than half of smartphone users want to find out about new apps from Facebook and Twitter contacts, thus opening an entirely new front in the app discoverability battle.