App Store Paid Search to Improve Discoverability

“One Friday afternoon in May 2002, Larry Page (Google’s co-founder) was playing around on the Google site, typing in search terms and seeing what sort of results and ads he’d get back. He wasn’t happy with what he saw. Larry was horrified that the AdWords engine, which figured out which ads worked best with which queries, was occasionally subjecting our users to useless messages.”

That excerpt is from the book How Google Works, which details how Page knew there was a right way to blend organic and paid search results within an optimal user experience. Google succeeded brilliantly and now own 95 percent of the market share for paid search clicks on mobile search — a billion-dollar industry.

Page’s predicament is the same one 100 Apple employees are reportedly tackling behind closed doors at the company’s Cupertino headquarters. This team of iAd castoffs is trying to figure out how to get paid search into the App Store ecosystem, presumably without deteriorating the consumer experience.

Paid search would be a huge win for Apple. It would bring in cash for the download (they get nothing today unless the app is paid) on top of in-app or Apple Pay purchases. That’s 30 percent of all IAP revenue plus a percentage of the download. Not bad, right?

Let me take a step back first though because what this really comes down to is discoverability. To be completely honest, I don’t know if Apple knows how to fix that in the App Store. They tried hard in iOS 8, but also in iOS 7 and previous operating system releases. It’s not fixed though and it’s a major issue, considering some estimates believe 63 percent of all downloads start in the App Store. What we don’t know is how that percentage is split up among keyword search, featured categories and top lists.

Why is search so important to developers? It’s because search leads to the highest quality installs. Consumers were searching based on interest and intent. What paid search in the App Store does is put discoverability in developers’ hands to appear at the top if they so choose — by opening their wallets. But what makes finding apps in the App Store so difficult? Noise.

I was searching “wine” in the App Store last week when I found myself lost among the dizzying array of options. This is a category I know very well and I wasn’t looking for anything specific, but to see how Winery Passport was ranking.

Among the Top 15 apps for that keyword, I found two that hadn’t been updated in at least a year, one of them since 2012. I also saw a jigsaw puzzle game — what!? There are 1.5 million apps available for download today. We don’t know many of them are stale, and I reached out to my friends at App Annie to get the data, but they’re still digging.

The “wine” search query is in much better shape than others I’ve seen, but the reality is none of those three apps should be surfacing. How is it fair for developers to compete for discoverability in the App Store when their competition are apps that are neither relevant or optimized for the latest OS? Just because these developers pay the $99 annual fee to Apple doesn’t mean they should be entitled to prime placement.

Those old apps, however, still generate revenue for Apple. The company says it generated $20 billion in service revenue the last fiscal year. Services aren’t just from the App Store, but the 30 percent cut Apple takes from developers for app sales and in-app purchases is believed to be a large portion of that.

How would paid search appear on screen? That’s tricky since real estate is limited, at least on phones, but that’s where the majority of the audience is. On an iPhone 6, one and a quarter apps appear on the 5.5” screen at the same time. But phones aren’t getting any bigger, they’re shrinking, in large part due to Apple trying to enter emerging markets. Apple’s recent iPhone SE boasts a 4” screen, the same as the iPhone 5 and 5c, the latter released three years ago in September 2013.

I don’t have any inside information so my best guess is Apple could design using a card format. They’ll display the paid search apps at the top, above organic, in a two-row format featuring an icon, title and short description. The other option, and easiest implementation, would be to replace the first listing as it is today with one from paid search and annotate it with a “Sponsored” icon. In either case, the “cards” would be swipeable from left to right, similar to how Twitter does for apps in their feed. Doing it this way ensures the organic results still get visibility.

Apple would need to build in a governance to which keywords apps could bid for. Google paid search in the Play Store already exists. I’ve used it. It works well, but there’s still a lot of room for adoption. You’d be crazy to not use it though. After all, you built an app and want to be discovered, now you can controlwhat keywords that happens for.

Apple has also yet to move beyond the 100-character keyword field, app title and IAP names for which keywords apps surface. Small tweaks for relevancy were made in November, but those were just that, small. A bigger win here is Apple using the indexed content to surface apps. The example here is using Spotlight search any user who has Winery Passport can find any winery by name or city. Why can’t Apple use that same API feed to surface the app for similar searches in the App Store?

This is also working off the assumption that text-based search is the way to fix discoverability. Apple knows a lot about you, including your Twitter and Facebook friends – you enter your log in info in the OS settings. The App Store could become more like Nuzzle and offer social recommendations of apps — much better than apps nearby, remember that? If I search “news,” I can see what news apps my friends are talking about, maybe some of the content even. Apple already knows related apps, which are apps people are downloading like the one you’re looking at. All of this data can start to make results more personalized.

While developers are frustrated, does the same ring true for consumers? Those I’ve polled don’t see App Store search as an issue. That could be because they’re not doing that much searching. They’re instead doing direct brand searches and finding apps through top charts and featured screens. But those featured apps are hand curated, serving as purposeful for Apple to both promoting apps that will help them sell more hardware (and retain current consumers) and generate the most revenue from app purchases.

In the end, Apple forming this 100-person team means the company is thinking about making the App Store a better place, for both consumers and developers. The next version of that App Store, presumably in iOS 10, will likely be more social, speedier and controlled by marketers.

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