Lost in the Sea of Apps

With the sheer number of offerings available at Apple’s App Store and Google’s Android Marketplace, it is easy for a developer to get lost in a sea of apps. An app that doesn’t reach record downloads becomes just one drop in the ocean and, as a result, sinks lower on the list until it’s almost lost to the audience it’s trying to reach.

The problem of app discovery has the potential both to hold back developers and to present opportunities to those solving the problem. Think of it this way: Google did just fine organizing the world of Web pages; the same could be true for the world of apps. Right now, the current approach — app stores — isn’t cutting it.
“The challenge is that with so many thousands of apps available, the app stores themselves are not that effective in terms of filtering down and finding what it is that you want,” said Noah Elkin, principal analyst covering mobile for research firm eMarketer.
To address this, Apple created recommendation sections in its App Store. It also created Genius, which suggests the top apps similar to ones a user already has on his iPhone or device.
“The recommendations functionality is useful,” said Greg Sterling, senior analyst at Internet2Go, noting that it won’t solve every issue, however. “It’s certainly not going to address all the challenges of app discovery,”
Whether in the App Store or through Genius, an app needs to be downloaded to gain rank and earn placement on top app lists, where it will get noticed.
Google’s Android Marketplace faces very similar issues. One might expect the search giant to solve the problem, but the market is flooded and thus apps quickly become buried. However, the search giant just last week made modifications to the Android Marketplace, which it discussed on the Google Mobile Blog. Changes include country filters, new top app charts, editors’ choice, top developers and trending-apps categories as well as improved related apps, which appear to the left side of an app page.
“The staff picks on Apple are helpful,” said Sterling. “It’s a good feature because simply seeing the top apps and those similar to ones you’ve already downloaded doesn’t give you access to something new. It’s analogous to a music critic telling you about a performer you haven’t heard of before. Completely unrelated to your taste but still interesting.”
Apple has different filters for its iPad App offering.
“There’s an interesting difference there. You have more categories that help you narrow your search, but are not available on the iPhone,” said Elkin. He believes it’s a combination of a larger screen and the newer platform. “Having more real estate on the screen allows you to do that, but there’s no saying they couldn’t do that more on the iPhone. The interface on the iPhone hasn’t changed that dramatically since the app store was introduced.”
The app stores need to better serve the customer, and Elkin said the store front shouldn’t be the limitation. “If apps are going to be an important part of the iOS and generally the smartphone ecosystem, being able to find what you want relatively quickly is important for the user.”
Identifying the audience and learning to target may be the developer’s best strategy. PrivacyStar, a caller-ID app available for Android and BlackBerry, has a strategy to attract users.
“Our downloads are driven by a fairly mature and sophisticated direct response marketing strategy and an increasingly growing community of PrivacyStar users who are evangelists for our product,” said Josh Smith, CTO of PrivacyStar.
In a bid to increase downloads and rise up in rankings, many developers resort to buys on cost-per-install networks that offer free apps or even give user’s incentive. These programs charge fees to the developers; typically a few pennies over the actual cost of the app. The question is whether Apple and Google continue to allow this type of promotion, and what effect it has on the developer.
“I think Apple is pushing back on that kind of thing,” said Sterling. “It may be a foolish decision for the developer if they don’t get the desired results. I think that’s ultimately going to be less effective than word of mouth, advertising and reviews. “
As the world goes even more high tech, it’s ironic that the way to get noticed is the oldest form of marketing around: word of mouth.
“It’s a noisy market,” Sterling said. “If you build something useful, people will talk about it and write about it.”
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