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”.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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?