Richard Robinson, the Co-founder and President of Yolu, led one of the last panels of the day on the app discovery market with Luo Chuan, the Co-founder of AppChina, Tomer Kagan, the CEO of Quixey, Ouriel Ohayon, the Co-founder of AppFire, and Niren Hiro, the CEO of searchman.com. All four companies are either improving the app discovery experience or helping developers optimize their chances for user discovery.
With hundreds of thousands of apps available for iPhone, Android, and other platforms, the legacy systems for app search in the Apple Store and Google Play are quickly proving inadequate to help us find the apps actually useful to us. As apps become ubiquitous as our medium for interacting online, and as more and more businesses use apps to interact with their customers, intelligent app discovery will become even more critical. Each panelist had a different take on where current solutions fall short and how to address the problem.
Among the key issues with current app search engines, many panelists pointed out that current apps are listed in a directory, not too different from the indexing of websites before search engines. But as Tomer Kagan pointed out, “directory doesn’t scale to the next generation of the web.” Ouriel Ohayon listed three distinct problems with the directory approach, one, that the apps store experience is built the same for everyone, not taking into account individual preferences and unique needs. Two, app stores are crowded, and with tens of thousands of veteran app developers with sophisticated marketing techniques, it’s difficult for new developers to get noticed. Third, the app browsing experience is painful. App stores are designed to make money, so their recommendations may not align perfectly with the needs and interests of customers. Niren Hiro also added that the category structure has largely become ineffectual at organizing apps for discovery, as human-curated category definitions can hardly keep pace with the rate at which developers are creating new tools and services.
Another key problem with current app stores is the lack of transparency for developers as to which indicators affect rankings. Unlike Google SEO, where sites can observe almost instantly the effect of changing keywords, the Apple store is completely opaque, leaving developers guessing at how to game the system. Currently, many developers have followed the pattern of product launch, generate social media buzz, and once in the Top 100, ramp up marketing spending to get into the Top 10 list. According to Ohayon, the main driver of downloads lists is still determined by the lists published by app stores; any app that reaches #1 can easily expect 100-300k downloads per day. Hiro also added that reaching #1 often requires huge marketing expenses, and generally only a small percentage of developers, often the social games, can afford a consistently aggressive advertising campaign. Unfortunately, much of the innovation comes from the long-tail of developers who can’t break out of the 4-star plateau. Searchman.com helps developers optimize this situation by adjusting key words and analyzing the key word strategy of competitors in the same category.
Ouriel Ohayon did point out that for some apps, building an amazing product is enough to reach number one, citing the example of “Check the Weather” which managed to distinguish itself from the hundreds of other weather apps to become the top grossing in the category with zero marketing spend. Tomer Kagan cautioned though that these apps targeting mass-market audiences should not necessarily be held up as a standard for all developers. For the vast majority of apps in the future, like those developed by businesses that offer services within a specific city only, the traditional tricks for climbing the app store rankings are often beside the point for driving desired user adoption. Currently “hyper-local” apps such as these lack options for reaching their relevant user base. Quixey has developed a search engine that crawls the web for all relevant information on an app, making unstructured data on review sites and blogs searchable, and enabling discovery of apps that are context-specific to users.
While app search is painful in the US, China is worse. Google Play is effectually out of the game due to government censorship, and Richard Robinson described the competition between local app stores as “Darwinian” with hundreds of Chinese app stores competing for user attention. Some larger players have emerged though, with AppChina among the top for traffic. Luo Chuan recommended that for app developers interested in the Chinese market, choosing app stores with a 200 million downloads per month (“1st tier” app stores) should be a minimum criteria. On AppChina’s success, Luo Chuan believed that the suite of services offered on their platform was critical to their success. They partner with developers to distribute and market apps, and offer a unique online payment SDK adapted to local Chinese needs, allowing users to pay via Alipay, credit, debit, and even SMS or calling cards. AppChina also tries to enhance the user search experience by taking gender, profession, and situation into account for their recommendations.
On a positive note, app markets like Apple do currently offer a huge advantage to developers relative to the last generation distribution system. As Hiro described, in the past developers had to first convince a carrier to put them on their line-up of apps, spend months working out a revenue sharing agreement, then have to contend with carriers underreporting revenue. In contrast, Apple has created a global marketplace independent of carriers, radically improving distribution time and new market accessibility for developers. Still, stores like Ohayon’s AppFire are hoping to improve the experience even further. He named a faster browsing experience and building a trusted ranking system as key components, focusing on rating apps by quality rather than popularity.
On the subject of the future of app discovery, each panelist highlighted different trends that will affect the market. Luo Chuan pointed to the overwhelming growth of Android devices in China, with over 500 million devices predicted for China alone in 2015. Tomer Kagan remarked that closed systems like Apple’s app store are just a temporary stage on the way to more open and transparent mobile ecosystems. Ouriel Ohayon predicted that native apps are here to stay for now despite the pace of innovation in web app technology. Niren Hiro made a final cautionary statement for Apple and Google. “If the rules of app discovery are not made open and clear, I think that there is a danger developers will flee the two platforms,” he said, comparing the situation to the disillusionment of social game developers with Facebook’s platform over unfair ranking practices. He continued, “It is important that the rules are clear, and give everyone an equal chance to grow a healthy business on the app store.”