Finding new apps for your iPhone or iPad is a notoriously difficult task. You might hear about a great app from a friend or a coworker, but when you go to search for it — by name or with a keyword — in the App Store, it’s either buried under a list of irrelevant results or doesn’t appear in the list of results at all. In fact, it’s often easier to just search Google for the app you want, and then navigate to the App Store from there.
But as Sarah Perez reports for TechCrunch, developers have noticed a series of improvements that are beginning to make App Store search results far more intelligent and relevant. Apple works to continually, if slowly, improve the algorithms that deliver App Store search results, since the way that apps are ranked and surfaced plays a critical role in the overall success of the App Store. When consumers get search results that don’t make sense, or that offer a poor user experience when compared to competing apps, users become wary of the App Store’s suggestions, and even of the apps listed in the store themselves.
Many changes to Apple’s algorithms in the past have focused on changes to the way that apps are ranked in the Top Charts, meaning the top Free, Paid, and Grossing apps on the App Store overall and by category. The new change is focused on how results are returned when you, the user, type in a keyword to find an app. A keyword search is becoming a more common way to find apps in an App Store that features more than a million apps.
Current research estimates that at least half of iOS apps are found through search, and developers think that the changes to the App Store’s algorithms could signal that Apple is beginning to develop its own version of Google’s Page Rank algorithm. However, it’s too soon to say with any certainty if this is the start of Apple’s attempts to develop its own version of such an algorithm for the App Store.
The changes that began on November 3 bring several adjustments; apps are now ranked in search results using a mix of contextual keywords for the app — including partial keyword matches — in addition to competitor brand names and other matches. It’s the first time that the App Store has ranked apps for keywords that aren’t in the title or in the “keyword” field.
Perez notes that at first, the results seemed to be weighted more toward historical downloads, which means that free apps tended to rank higher than paid apps. But following the initial November 3 adjustment, Apple made another change to make the results more relevant and more extensive.
Perez gives the example of a search for the keyword “Twitter.” While in the past, popular apps like Tweetbot wouldn’t appear on the list, the changed algorithm does surface Tweetbot, as well as other popular Twitter apps like Twitterrific, and eliminates irrelevant results like Instagram. The App Store now does a better job at pulling in lists of competitors and similar apps, and uses a new suggestion function that takes into account the main features of the app.
The changes indicate that when you search for an app, the App Store will put less emphasis on the keywords that developers manually specify in iTunes Connect, the service that enables them to manage their apps and submit them to the App Store. The changed algorithm places more emphasis on the information that the App Store can use to determine how apps are related to one another and how they rank as relative to each other. That means that whether you search for an app by name or by keyword, you should get more extensive and relevant results, ones that are more likely to have the features that you need.
While the algorithm is more sophisticated, it doesn’t yet seem to take into account metrics like usage, details such as whether the app was ever featured in the App Store, links from positive reviews or press mentions, or other factors that could help the App Store to surface better recommendations for high-quality apps.
Even without those changes — which are all likely candidates for additions Apple will make in the future — you should find it easier to conduct searches in the App Store and actually find what you’re looking for. For the many users frustrated with how difficult it has been to find the apps they want or high-quality apps relevant to a keyword, the App Store experience has just gotten a lot better.