A few weeks ago we noted that even though the anonymous gossip-sharing app “Secret” was the talk of the town in Silicon Valley it was impossible to find inside Apple’s App Store. If you searched for “Secret,” the app simply didn’t appear.
Secret was easier to find if you did a Google search on your phone for this story about Secret, which contained a direct link to Secret in the App Store.
That lack of findability may have hurt Secret. It was once a top 20 app, but now it isn’t even in the top 200 iPhone apps. Secret is less popular now that dozens of Flappy Bird clones. (Although it did raise a bunch of new investment money.)
App search and discovery has been broken for some time, for two reasons. First is that Apple’s App Store search engine is famously terrible. It’s widely acknowledged that the Google Play search engine in Android is superior for finding apps.
And second, apps don’t respond to desktop search engines like Google and Bing the way web pages do. Often, an app and its contents are completely invisible to search requests. This makes the marketing and promotion of apps very difficult: Developers need word of mouth to popularise their apps. They’re reduced to relying on 1960s-style methods of promotion — PR and mentions in media outlets — to get attention for their products.
There’s also a chicken-and-egg situation: To get more downloads, an app must usually appear in the top charts in the various mobile app stores, so that people can see that exist. But to get the apps into those charts, people must already have downloaded them.
Oddly, developers seem to be ignoring two related search tactics that make apps more easily discovered, particularly on the web:
- Deep linking (the practice of using web links that open an app directly if it’s already installed on your phone).
- Google app search (allowing Google’s search engine to see the inside of your app and to offer it as a search result).
Deep linking has been around for a while. The TapFame blog describes it best:
Mobile app deep-linking is a way to link users directly to an iOS and Android app that is already installed on their phone. For example: twitter://timeline opens up the twitter app and takes you to your timeline. Try typing the following into your mobile safari browser:
The twitter app should open with the following tweet composed: “hello world”
Google app search is relatively new. The Wall Street Journal reports that Google is pushing developers to make the insides of their apps more searchable, and more interlinked with other apps:
Apps are walled off from one another. Many developers haven’t included links. Even when they do, Google must strike deals with app developers individually to examine the content, rather than unleashing spiders that crawl the Web unimpeded. Google hopes to surmount that obstacle by allowing app developers to submit their apps themselves to Google to be crawled.
Today, Google is providing links only to apps on mobile devices using its Android operating system, but Mr. Chang says it makes sense to expect it will work with Apple Inc. AAPL +0.14% ‘s iPhone as well.
The app search field is wide open, because about 80% of time spent on mobile is inside apps, not on the web. Users are thus largely blind to new apps 80% of the time.
Currently, developers are paying to get exposure to their apps. About 53% of Facebook’s revenue comes from mobile ads, and of that, app install ads are a major and growing portion. App ads on Facebook drove 145 million downloads last year.
“We’re testing in-stream ad opportunities with an initial group of advertisers who have mobile apps and want to connect directly with audiences across Yahoo mobile apps and sites,” a Yahoo spokesperson told ReadWrite in an email. “The purpose of these native ads is to help brands drive downloads of their mobile apps. These tests will begin to appear across all of our properties where in-stream ads run on iOS and Android devices.”
And adtech companies — who derive a lot of their income from developers who buy ads for their apps — want deep-linking standards set across the mobile web, setting up an environment for apps that looks a lot like the current desktop environment for keywords: Search for an app, and you’ll get some paid ads running alongside useful “organic” results.
But those developers will only get their money’s worth — and apps generally will only become easy to find — when developers use basic search engine optimization for their apps, such as deep linking and app search in Google.
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