We heard last month that Apple has a team of around 100 people working on revamping the search functionality in the iOS App Store. If true, it’s long overdue because App Store search is a truly terrible experience. You know it, I know it, developers know it, everyone in the world knows it – except, it had always appeared, the Apple execs in charge of it.
If Apple is actually going to fix App Store search so that it works, that’s excellent news. But one part of the report sounded distinctly less encouraging.
One of the methods that Apple is considering is paid search. Essentially, developers and companies could pay to have their app shown more prominently in search results.
That gives the impression that Apple is more focused on generating additional revenue than delivering a great user experience …
I’m an Englishman. We don’t do hyperbole. Our mother-tongue is understatement. So when I say that app search is truly terrible, I mean it.
When a glitch last week meant that some apps were failing to show up even when you searched for them by name, it was initially hard to be certain that this was indeed a problem with the service. Search is so bad that this can actually happen even when it’s working normally.
So let’s begin with just how bad search is, starting with a search for Lightroom:
It’s the top hit on iPhone, but where’s the iPad app? It’s not even listed in the visible results – you have to scroll before it comes into view, at hit 8. And the top hit? An app called ‘Free Learn Lightroom 4.’
First, this is a deceptive app – free in the name, but requires a £2.99/$4.99 in-app purchase. Second, it has two five-star reviews written by people who know the developer. The other 5-star app says ‘videos will not play unless you rate it with five stars.’ The remaining reviews are 1-star reviews saying the app doesn’t work. How does that even pass review, let alone achieve the top placement in search for a major app name?
Let’s try a search for Spotify:
The App Store has managed to show the correct app in first place for both iPad and iPhone, which is an achievement in itself, but what happens after that? Second-placed ‘Youtify’ looks reasonable at first glance: it’s shown as having ten reviews with an average rating of four stars. But when you click through on the reviews, there are four reviews. One is an obvious fake/nonsense review, one 5-star review contains a complaint and the other two reviews are 1-star.
Why is this app the second hit? And what about the third hit? This is an app with literally no reviews or ratings. What on earth is the algorithm that generates results like this?
I could give plenty more examples, but I doubt you need me to: I’m sure you’ve experienced enough of them yourself.
In fairness, it’s not all bad. There are searches where the app name is the first hit on all devices, and where the other top hits pass both relevance and quality tests. But it’s a lottery: whether you’re searching for a major app or a lesser-known one, it’s complete pot-luck whether the results are good or bad.
So what should Apple be doing? The real answer is to go poach some search experts from Google – they are the people who know how search should work. But there are some steps which seem pretty obvious even to a non search professional.
First, things need to start with the app review process. App names need to be checked for relevance, as do all the keywords. It shouldn’t be possible for an irrelevant app to spam its way to the top of the search rankings by using deceptive names or descriptions.
Second, apply some intelligent criteria for ranking apps. We’ve addressed relevance, so I would have thought the next obvious one would be popularity. If a million people use an app, there’s probably a good reason for that. (I’ll address the flip side of this in a moment.)
After popularity, reviews and ratings would be the next obvious criteria. It’s clear that some developers manufacture a few 5-star reviews through friends and so on, so the algorithm needs to look at the number of reviews as well as the ratings. The greater the number of reviews, the more confidence we can have in the majority of them being genuine.
One other thought on fake reviews: the worst offenders are going to create fake accounts to review their own apps. I would have thought it wouldn’t be too difficult for Apple to use the vast amount of data at its disposal to identify these. For example, Apple IDs that have no other activity beyond downloading and reviewing a handful of apps.
Third, the system also needs to flag 1-star reviews so that complaints – especially allegations of deceptive practice – can be investigated.
Fourth, Apple has made a great song and dance about Apple Music benefiting from human curation as well as algorithms. The App Store could also benefit from the human touch.
Apple has featured apps, of course – and this is precisely the place for Apple to surface great new apps that don’t yet have the popularity to make it in the search rankings. If popularity becomes a greater factor in search, then Apple will need to up its game here so that new apps stand a chance. But it’s obvious that no human being has even bothered to examine the results of searches even for popular app names. Even low-level interns could review results and screen out the unsuitable matches.
Finally, please: no paid placements. Apps should be surfaced on merit, not on which developers have the biggest bank accounts.
What scorecard rating would you give iOS App Store search? Take our poll, and please share your own examples and thoughts in the comments.
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Images: Engadget (top), Tekreveue (bottom)