App discovery: thinking outside the search box

1Executive Summary

Discovery. It’s the thorn in everyone’s side, developers and users alike. Andrej Nabergoj, the CEO of app discovery startup Iddiction, perfectly framed the problem with the most popular mobile app store, Apple’s. In an interview with GigaOM last year he said,

By definition, top-ranking apps get the lion’s share of downloads because they are the most easily discoverable
. . . Developers are looking for ways to achieve and maintain high ranks by spending money on various customer acquisition channels. Big guys can afford that, but what about the small guy?

It’s such an obvious problem that more than a dozen companies have cropped up to ameliorate the app-discovery issue for both users and app developers, from Yahoo to Tapjoy to Appsfire.

The iOS App Store is the best example of an app store direly in need of some sort of search intervention because of its sheer size: At Apple’s last official count there were more than 650,000 apps for download. The company has introduced features to help users find apps they like: curated app categories like games and education, starter kits and “New and noteworthy” and “What’s hot” sections, in addition to the top paid and free charts. All of those things can help people shopping for apps and those looking to get their app noticed. But more needs to be done.

Other stores are in need of help too. The Google Play app market, for instance, has a smaller volume of 500,000 apps, but it too could see its discovery tools improved. The Microsoft Windows Phone marketplace, by comparison, just hit 100,000 apps.

Here are the most interesting companies that are helping mobile app shoppers find new apps for their smartphones or tablets. These companies are thinking about the issue in exciting ways: outside the search box, outside the app store and outside traditional mobile devices.

The option to search everything, everywhere

Quixey wants to be Google for app search, both in the search giant’s ubiquity and its ability to return the right results. But it’s not just searching on your computer’s browser or your phone’s apps store. Its idea is to let you search any source, anywhere. And it will work best if you don’t actually know you’re using it. That’s because Quixey’s approach is to be integrated into many different platforms — say, a voice-control interface in a connected car, the search bar in a browser or the search function on a mobile device’s home screen. It won’t name names just yet, because the partnerships lined up are still not official. But the company says it is on pace to get 500 million queries on its service’s backend by the end of 2012.

How Quixey searches is key: The company crawls apps across iOS, Android, Facebook, Windows Phone, Google Chrome and other ecosystems and uses machine learning to figure out which apps will work for what you have searched for. You search not by keyword but by what you want the app to do, such as “Remember where I parked my car.”

Quixey co-founder Liron Shapira says the service should be “like Siri, for everything everywhere.” It should be effortless, he continued; for example, “You should be able to say what you want,” and Quixey should be able “to connect users with apps.” Quixey isn’t voice technology, but it wants to work in any kind of interaction medium available and be able to power app searches.

It’s ambitious, but the company’s prospects are good: It’s known for attracting top Silicon Valley engineering talent, and it has also lured in venture capital funds from Google Chairman Eric Schmidt.

The social recommendations option

Instead of putting the app-hunting process solely in the hands of a search algorithm, Appsfire leaves the curation task up to your friends. Appsfire, which hit 2 million downloads last year, is an app that, in addition to allowing app search and giving recommendations, lets people create lists or “app mixes” of either Android or iOS apps that they like and share them with their own contacts or friends through the app. Once apps are shared, the recipient can simply click to download.

The social recommendations element is an important one. It keeps you from having too many choices or feeling like you’re drowning in unclear options that have been suggested by a bot or a faceless editor. A friend’s recommendation is sometimes the only vote or option you need, which is what makes this a powerful option in discovery: An Econsultancy report found that 90 percent of consumers online trust recommendations from people they know.

The highly curated option

Nabergoj’s company Iddiction makes the discovery tool App-o-Day, which takes an even more narrowly curated approach than the others by recommending just one app per day to download. Though it’s not your friend’s recommendation, the App-o-Day team depends on being a trusted choice. And there’s a twist: It’s basically Groupon for apps. The apps it chooses are most games and are traditionally paid, but for a specific window of time, the app is offered for free through the service.

With App-o-Day’s iOS app, you can see the daily offering or follow the company’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. Usually the apps are unknowns and the developers are paying to be featured. People can try an app for free and, if they like it, tweet about it or talk about it on Facebook, which drives more free downloads. When an app goes viral, it rises in the top downloads on the App Store for the day and even stays there after the window for the free version has closed. But once it’s up there on the download charts, it will be downloaded by people willing to pay.

App-o-Day is still new, but already Nabergoj says it’s driving anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 downloads in one day of that day’s featured app.

The incentivized option

There’s another category of app discovery that’s seeing a lot of action: services that will give you something for trying an app. Tapjoy Games, for example, can be installed on an iOS or Android device as a Web app that can detect which apps a user has installed. If the apps have the Tapjoy SDK installed, based on actions you take — like downloading new apps, watching video ads or subscribing to a service — you will get virtual currency or game credits. Tapjoy Games will also recommend new apps that it can offer virtual goods or credits for, which is another way to encourage people to find new apps. The company announced in March that it has now been installed on more than 500 million mobile devices.

Fiksu does something similar with FreeMyApps, which gives credits to people who download free iOS apps that it sponsors. Those who earn enough credits can use them to buy paid apps. GetJar, which has its own mobile apps store, uses similar incentive offers of virtual goods or currency to lure people to try new Android apps.

All three of the categories above are interesting, but they require going outside the app store. That’s going to work for app junkies, but it doesn’t necessarily alleviate the issue for the casual user. People who want to find an app to help them remember where they parked aren’t going to spend time downloading or trying other apps when they have a task in mind.

What Apple is up to

In the end, the most important company to watch in mobile app discovery is the same one behind our obsession with mobile apps to begin with. Apple has occasionally tweaked its presentation of apps in the App Store to help surface more quality content – like it did recently with its Editor’s Choice and free App of the Week features — and it has cracked down on developers gaming the App Store rankings. But the most important thing it has done for discovery is to acquire Chomp, an app discovery tool, in February for a reported $50 million. Chomp lets users search for iOS and Android apps by what the app does, like Quixey. And like Quixey, Chomp searches data associated with each app: ratings, reviews, mentions in blogs, on social networks and within app stores.

This move is going to be even more important as the iOS App Store continues to be crowded. Yet Apple hasn’t made a peep about how it plans to use Chomp. An obvious idea: Right now the App Store’s search function is just a keyword search, so weaving in Chomp’s technology and particularly its proprietary search algorithm into the App Store’s search function could more easily help people find what they’re looking for.

Another idea? Work it into Siri. Don’t make people open up the App Store to find an app. Just let them say out loud, as with Quixey’s model, what they’re looking for and have Siri find it.

We may not have to wait that long to see what Apple is up to. It’s been rumored the company is overhauling both iTunes and the App Store this year, and with WWDC coming up, Apple could use the event to introduce new App Store search and discovery features — good news for app shoppers and developers alike.

It may not be such good news, though, for anyone else who has built an iOS-focused app search or discovery tool. But Quixey in particular is on to something. If it is able to partner with the right phone makers and other platforms, the company could introduce to the mainstream a whole new way of thinking about search — not just for apps but for anything we’re looking for.

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  1. Would like to see the effectiveness of going via print (membership oriented magazines, postcards) as well as events for app discovery but that would depend on who the app is targeted towards.

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