Why App Store Search is Broken and How to Fix It

As the editor of one of the best iPhone app publications around, I spend a lot of time in the iTunes App Store. Significant portions of my every day life are spent browsing new offerings, spotting trends and checking out the latest updates to already popular applications.

Every time I visit the App Store I can’t help but notice how broken it is. Searching and even browsing for apps is an incredibly inefficient process that gobbles up time easier than playing Angry Birds. Below we’ll discuss what’s wrong and why Apple needs to quit dragging their feet and implement a fix already!

A Lack of Progressive Improvement

Apple debuted the App Store in July of 2008. The idea was simple, to let anyone and everyone have a shot at creating great applications for the iPhone and distribute them in a widely publicized forum. The result was a carefully planned gold rush.

The unprecedented influx of developers has led to the current number of well over 300,000 applications available for download to anyone with a mobile device containing the logo of our favorite fruit-inspired technology company.

How has Apple responded to this growth? Despite receiving the occasional minor facelift, the iTunes App Store is almost identical to what we were using three years ago. Sure, the system worked well for a few thousand apps, but isn’t it starting to show some inefficiencies now that we’re pushing half of a million?

Search Clutter

To illustrate some of the problems, let’s run a typical search. I’m a sucker for note-taking apps so I opened up the iTunes store, navigated to the App Store section and then ran a search for “notes”.

screenshot

An App Atore search for note apps

We’ve already hit a problem. I took special care to first navigate to the App Store section before running my search, but did that give priority to apps in my search in any way? Nope. Instead, I get all kinds of movies, songs, shows, books, audiobooks and of course, apps.

If I scroll down far enough or use the navigation, I finally find the applications section. Here I choose between the iPhone and iPad applications. Where’s the option to only view universal applications? There isn’t one. The categories aren’t mutually exclusive, but your search options are!

screenshot

Choosing between iPhone and iPad apps

The Sea of Icons

Once I decide to search only iPhone apps, I’m brought to a grid of apps that meet my search criteria. With a fairly generic search term like the one I entered, you get tons of results. I don’t know exactly how many results, because this isn’t printed in the results. Nor does it tell me how many pages of results there are, just “Page 1″ along with “Back” and “Next” links at the bottom of the page.

Notice how little information I’m actually receiving here: the app name, icon, price, category and date of the last update.

screenshot

Click randomly and hope you stumble on something great

From here I’m forced to judge an app based solely on its name and icon design. This inevitably leads to tons of unnecessary clicking to view an app’s dedicated page only to immediately realize that it’s not what you’re looking for at all.

If only iTunes had some sort of list/icon hybrid view capable of showing you more information. Oh wait, it does.

screenshot

Click randomly and hope you stumble on something great

Wouldn’t something laid out like this be great for searching apps? The app icon could be where the album art is placed and the app description could go where the song list is on the right. It’s already built into your iTunes music library so the format is familiar and they could include a similar view-switcher so that the old icon grid view is still there for anyone that wants it.

Drilling Down

An even bigger problem with the endless sea of icons is that there’s no way to refine my search any further. My search likely yielded hundreds or even thousands of apps, why can’t I filter the results and save myself a few hours of searching?

For instance, from this point I should be able to tell iTunes to only show me the results for the free apps with 3+ stars in the productivity category. Unfortunately, I’m stuck with the pitiful results that iTunes gives me. Or am I?

Better Search Already Exists

You might be thinking that this is all nice in theory, but the App Store is a huge database that can’t just be filtered willy nilly without intense code overhauls. However, the truth is that it’s really not that hard for the system to drill down further. In fact, everyone else is already doing it.

Services like Uquery offer App Store search with the exact features that I’m requesting from Apple. Notice the layout of the results and the filters on the left.

screenshot

Uquery: Better App Store Search

Chomp, another popular App Store search service, takes things a step further and even adds a screenshot to the results. This is in addition to a brief description (which admittedly could be a bit longer) and filtering options. It’s extremely nice to be able to get a look at the app before clicking to find out more information. I’d love to see something like this from Apple.

screenshot

Chomp App Store Search

The iPad Already Does It

For users who prefer to search for apps on the iPhone rather than in iTunes, you fall into the same problems. And yet again there are third party developers like AppShopper offering a better experience.

The crazy part is, Apple seems to understand at least the filtering aspect of the problem, and they’ve even addressed it, just not in iTunes or on your iPhone. Check out what iPad owners get when they search the App Store.

screenshot

iPad App Store Search

Look at that! Apple has included numerous filters that make it easy to trim your results from thousands to something much more manageable. I’ve waited patiently for these to make their way into the Mac and the iPhone App Store search, but it still hasn’t happened. Apple has the created these cool features and implemented them in a single location, and they work great. Don’t you think it’s time to roll them out across the board?

Conclusion

I absolutely love the App Store. It’s literally one of the best things Apple has ever created and has come to define the current generation of personal technology. However, it’s starting to outgrow its infrastructure and Apple needs to begin taking steps to address this issue. I shouldn’t have to look to a third party to run a basic search on Apple’s marketplace.

For now, I’ve made my iPad the primary place that I go to search for apps. Hopefully, Apple will begin to roll out similar filter features on other platforms. Until that happens, you should check out Uquery and Chomp for desktop browsing and AppShopper or one of its fifty competitors for browsing directly on your iPhone.

Leave a comment below and tell us your preferred method of searching the app store. Do you search Apple’s tools or have you switched to a third party solution?


  • http://fairheadcreative.com Adam Fairhead

    Hmm, tough one … When I search on Google, I’m met with a sea of links, and can only find relevence based on a snippet of text and a title … If I want to find an image in Google, I have to then specify the “Images” section after searching …

    Whether it’s text or icons, web/images or music/apps, you certainly pick up on “the state of search” as we have it today, and the problems it can bring.

    The key point I think you found is the lack of a Filter/Refine search function. That would help users drill in deeper. Certainly more friendly than trying for a long tail.

    Thanks for the read, I enjoyed it. :)

    • David Masterson

      It’s worse than that. Apple already has the apps subdivided in many ways — the major division being by category. However, do they allow you to take advantage of this subdivision for searching — no! Even though the tool looks like it will allow it, it doesn’t work and often the results are *MUCH* more than you intended. For instance, searching in the Productivity section for “landscape” apps will not just return Productivity apps. I really think that Apple is doing this on purpose because, if the App Store made it easy to really refine your search, people might begin to realize that a large percentage of applications are not well done. By making it hard to find a “good” app, you often take the first one that meets most of what you want.

      The App Store needs a lot of work!

  • Arnoud

    Hear hear! Thanks for the suggested alternatives, very useful! Can’t believe it’s taking Apple this long. So overdue.

    Adam, on Google it will search images only if you go to that section first. Besides you can get page previews via the overlays as extra info. It also includes filters and an advanced search with even more options. If Apple would supply a similar amount of options, I’d be happy..

  • http://www.appforthat.de Julia Altermann

    Josh, thanks for those links! I didn’t know about either and now you’ve ruined my Sunday. Instead of sunbathing I’m looking for new apps to review ;)

  • Fred

    And if you do happen to scroll to page 10 of the apps on the iPad, see one that you think you like and tap on it to review it further when you press back you’re back on page 1 and you have to scroll that 10 pages again… What madness!!!

    • http://appsforipads.net MaggieB

      THAT is the part that drives me absolutely crazy! WHY must it make me start completely over each and every time? If they think it increases visibility and sales they are sadly mistaken. It infuriates, sometimes enough that I exit the App Store without making a purchase at all.

      I no longer shop at online stores that make shopping difficult. With competition as high as it is in any marketplace one has to provide high value to it’s customers… Oh wait could the fact that we are locked into the App Store, rather than having a choice, be why it’s lacking?

      • DavidM

        The restart is an obvious glitch in the system. Since it doesn’t happen all the time (just most of the time), I would wager that the server is resetting in some way underneath and the application knows to restart when a reset occurs. Very dumb interface and I’m surprised that Apple hasn’t done something about it yet.

  • Emma

    Thanks for those links, I’ll definitely be using Chomp from now on!

  • http://www.fatstax.com Mark Walker

    Nice post. Thanks for pointing out the other ways to find an app. Knew there had to be alternatives but hadnt done the research. Apple has to know this is a problem. Im wondering why its taking them so long to fix it. Too many other opportunities to work on?

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  • Marc Molenaar

    Apple, wake up! Their business model cannot be critisized, considering they are way ahead of any competition when it comes to music players, computers, phones, tablets, and information business models. But there is always room for improvement, and this is certainly one of them.
    When I search apps on iTunes, I really dislike being presented with inappropriate search results such as music, especially when you first select the app store. Then the results are presented without any clue on how they are sorted, let alone the fact that you cannot influence the sorting or apply filters.
    On iPhone the same thing, no way select sorting methods or filtering, and reloading results everytime you change anything in your search, like adding search results.
    I think it is in Apple’s benefit to be the number one reference when it comes to finding apps and whatever else you wish to find in their store.
    It bugs me to have to resort to third parties, although I realize that this probably creates a more objective playing field and opportunity for other businesses.

  • Imns

    I don’t have access to my computer right now so can’t confirm myself, but doesn’t the power search in iTunes help refine your search queries like it does on iPad AppStore?

    • http://www.coroflot.com/joshuajohnson Joshua Johnson

      Nope, power search is certainly there for the store as a whole but as far as I can tell, it doesn’t help you at all with apps.

  • http://www.projectplus.ca/ Luke Chesser

    I just realized when I started reading this article that I really intensely HATE searching for things on the App Store and iTunes. I never though about it until now, but subconsciously I’ve been avoiding using it I think.

    Good article

  • Helium Jello

    Good points and I couldn’t agree more about needing a far better search solution for apps, but uquery? Really? It hasn’t been updated in months, and appears to be completely dead. Great if you’re interested in what was released in October of last year, but…

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  • http://Search.xyologic.com Zoe

    Hey, thanks for the article, in simple words you’re hitting the point :)
    In my company we also have built an app store search – it is a bit geeky and aiming more at giving some stats and data about apps one is looking for, which is especially useful for developers looking for information about downloads or performance of their competition.

    Since when building our search we addressed exactly the points you mention above, I am curious how you’d like our search. Would you like to check it out and give me your thoughts? Thanks! :)

    Here the link:
    Search.xyologic.com

  • sz

    The itunes search is RIDICULOUSLY useless.. Say if I want to look for books in a specific language; WELL, I CAN’T, as there is no such options (at least in itunes, not sure how much better the ipad is..)… I’m seriously disappointed with my iphone, not that I expected much. In fact, my previous bitter experiences with other apple products (be it teh macbook pro, or the ipod touch), put me off and made me absolutely hate the company. I only got the iphone because my phone broke, so I had to upgrade.. As luck would have it, iphone was the only half-decent phone on offer (all others were essentially rather old models..).. Suffices to say, not happy with either the phone company, or apple. In my view, apple is nothing more that a bit of sleekness, coupled with some advantages which tend to dazzle people. However, opposite that sits the near fanatical attempts by apple to control almost everything, and a fact that the ‘ease of use’ has in many cases resulted in crippling of some features we need. It comes of as giving more, but in fact gives so much less… Itunes is a huge disappointment, and would perhaps be okay if the number of apps was in the hundreds. IT ISN’T, as tehre are THOUSANDS. Hence the need for a better way to search, and that would mean being able to choose the country, language, subject etc. that the app is connected to. What I hate the most is that THEY KNOW IT, but are not doing anything, comfortable in the knowledge that their app store takes away from us the consumers the ability to choose. We can’t just ‘go elsewhere’, unless if we want to break our contracts, pay the fine, and then move to a normal phone (preferably one not run by such a infuriatingly all-controlling company… I have no doubt they would start their own phone company, and make iphones available only to it, if tehy could cover the cost..)..

  • http://www.thingsthatmatterblog.com/ TheGooch

    I completely agree with the weakness of iTunes Store search options. I was able to activate column browser in the app store, and uses categories/subcat’s to filter the list down a bit, but it was still huge. After some playing with properties viewed (release date, popularity, etc ) and sorting by these properties, I found 2 apps that I wanted to view. I double-clicked on one and …nothing. I actually had to right-click, copy link into my browser, which pulled up the app in my web browser. I then clicked on “show in itunes” link to go BACK to iTunes and view the game details.

    Guess what happened when I clicked on the back arrow? Did it take me back to the browsing screen I had just set up? Nope. It took me back to the default app store view.

    Thanks Apple!

  • Shata hari

    App store still sucks with regards to browsing.even in ipad2. Once you install an app it takes u back to page one and you have to start all over again.

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