Google needs to tackle its app discovery problem

by: Simon HillApril 23, 2014

The app discovery experience in the Google Play Store is still frustratingly bad. It is over reliant on a handful of charts which are typically populated by the same small group of apps and publishers. The search functionality is poor, there’s a serious lack of content curation, and it’s impossible to filter results. There are signs that Google is finally addressing this issue, but it could do so much more.


The struggle for indie developers

The app discovery issue is typically reported from the developer point of view. One of the attractive things about the early days of the app revolution was the fact that, theoretically, anyone could make an app, and if it was good enough, it would gain traction. With well over 1 million apps in the Play Store and a number of big name publishers with deep pockets involved, this is far less true today. It’s a problem that was exacerbated by the fact that, for a while, everyone and their Granny thought they could make an app or game and rake it in.

A Distimo report from last year revealed that new publishers accounted for just 3 percent of the top 250 in the Play Store and claimed just 1.2 percent of the revenue. Established names are adept at dominating the charts and they use their existing portfolio to promote their new releases. There are various techniques developers and publishers employ to try and manipulate their way into the charts, some fair and some decidedly dodgy. The charts themselves create a positive feedback loop – the top apps are more visible, so they get downloaded more, so they’re made more visible.

It’s undeniably tough for indie developers and that means we are missing out on some great apps because we don’t know about them. Check out our Indie app of the day to find a few.

Setting developers aside for a moment, there’s another problem here that doesn’t get enough attention. The app discovery experience for us, the consumers, is terrible. Browsing the Play Store is tedious and often unrewarding.

Check out the best indie apps, and if you’re a independent developer, be featured on Android Authority


Problems with the Play Store

Boasting that you have over 1 million apps is all well and good, but the question that’s often posed in retort is how many of them are worth downloading? The answer is a small percentage. All of the apps in the Play Store are divided into just 46 categories and 20 of those are types of games.

If we take the Business section as an example we have 288 apps in the “Top Paid in Business” chart and 540 apps in the “Top Free in Business” chart if you search on your desktop. The same search on my phone showed 284 apps in the paid section and 500 in the free section. The same search on my tablet for all apps, not just “Designed for tablets” showed 264 in the paid section and 500 in the free section. This is presumably listed by straight download numbers, because some of the apps have very low ratings. The difference in numbers probably relates to device compatibility. The numbers shown vary from category to category, but you’re never seeing more than one thousandth of what’s on offer.

Finding tablet apps

Thankfully Google finally added some filtering by adding the “Designed for tablets” section last year, but there is still a problem here for tablet owners. If you search on the desktop site you can see a list of which of your devices any given app is compatible with. Let’s use Zomato as an example, because it tells me the app is compatible with my Nexus 7 and it is, but looking at the app on the Nexus 7 reveals the “Designed for phones” text. Firing it up on the Nexus 7 we find that the app lacks a landscape mode and it’s clearly not optimized for tablet use.


If we jump back to our Business category app chart and use the “Designed for tablets” filter we find just 60 apps in the paid section and 500 in the free section. There is still a lack of optimized tablet apps and it’s disappointing to find an app is compatible with your tablet, but doesn’t deliver a polished experience because it’s really designed for use on phones.

Google’s other recommendations

The top charts show the same apps over and over, many of them span more than one category, but Google has been adding new sections. We also have the New Release charts, which show the most downloaded apps in the last month. Beyond that Google has stirred in a “Recommended for You” section, a “Like recent installs” section and quick suggestions based on your app ratings.

If you look at the app home page you’ll also find bigger charts for “Top Grossing” apps and “Trending” apps. You can find the “Top Grossing” chart in individual categories as well, though it doesn’t seem like a very useful measure for consumers. For some reason the more useful “Trending” chart isn’t there when you drill down into a category.

Lacking the human touch

One of the reasons that there are a lot of poor quality apps in the Play Store and a lack of decent recommendations is that app submissions are not reviewed by humans. The “Our Favorite Apps” section lists just 18 apps and half of them are well known names that appear in the other charts. The “Editor’s Choice” section is a little better with 40 apps, but once again many of them are big names already being promoted in the other charts.


That’s why it’s nice to see Google rolling out the “My Play activity” feed showing your recent shared activity on the Play Store. This includes app ratings and any +1’s you may have bestowed. When you’re browsing apps you’ll occasionally see ratings and +1’s from your Google+ contacts. The trouble is that the usefulness of this depends heavily on your adoption of Google+, but it’s nice to be able to see what friends have been using and what they would recommend. If you click on the contact you can see their complete shared activity list. It’s a small step in the right direction.

It’s easy to criticize, how about suggestions?

Google isn’t going to employ the army of reviewers required to properly screen all the apps going into the Play Store. It would rather use algorithms and our own social networks to serve up recommendations, but there are plenty of other ways that the Play Store app discovery experience could be improved:

  • Advanced search – It would be great to have some advanced search functions, so you could specify things like the size (when you only have data connection and don’t want to download a big app). Even the simple ability to search within a category is missing. Google is the search king; surely it could beef up our search options in the Play Store.
  • Filtering – Google could learn a lot from Fetch. If you could apply filters to refine your search results in the Play Store it would be so much easier to find the right apps.
  • Curation – Apple’s App Store has a lot of the same problems as the Play Store and it’s worse in some respects, but one area where it is markedly better is the specially selected apps that are listed in a wide variety of sub-categories. The Play Store could also use more sub-categories.
  • Natural language search – It’s interesting to note that you can put in natural language queries and choose the Applications tab in Google Now to get better results than you can by searching directly in the Play Store.
  • Independent review aggregation – If the Play Store pulled in and aggregated detailed reviews from professional independent websites we’d be able to get a really good overview. Sadly Metacritic only covers iOS games, there’s a gap in the market for an aggregator of Android app and game reviews. User “reviews” are not always trustworthy, informative, or particularly coherent.

There’s no doubt that the Play Store is far superior to the old Android Market, but it’s still a long way from delivering a really good user experience. What would you like to see Google doing about it?

  • Lisandro O Oocks

    could it be that we’re just lazy?!

    • I don’t think we’re lazy when it’s easier to find an app using Google Search than with the search box from the Play Store. It’s just something that Google could do a lot better.

    • Kelly Caffrey

      Doubt that it’s that, I spend atleast 10 minutes just trying to look for a decent game to play or a useful app. Most of the apps featured are mainly apps with IAP( which ruins it) or in some cases I think its a fluke they’re on the front page.
      The reccomended apps for me are …. Wth are they? Useless apps.

      Note: My opinion

  • chuebner

    It would be niche if they even had a functioning search at all. I even saw a few times where I typed in the actual name of the app (most recently google camera) and the store came up with a dozen other apps but not the one whose name I typed in.

    • Bradley Uffner

      Seriously THIS. I’m tired of searching for something by the exact title and getting hundreds of results back that don’t match a single word I searched for, let alone the application I actually wanted. For a company that is practically the embodiment of searching this is shameful.

    • Anthony Ang

      Totally agree with you.coz im searching for the app

    • anonymous

      I’m actually having that exact issue with one of my apps. Lol.

      It seems like Google cares more about the description than the title of the app.

    • Danny Holyoake

      There’s a good technical reason for that, actually.

      You were likely searching for Google Camera just after it went live on the Play Store. It takes Google Play a couple of hours to index new apps into its search results.

      • chuebner

        If this were an isolated incident I would agree, but this has happened with older apps, too.

  • I don’t use Google Play to find apps, I just wait for the independent sites to tell me what is new and fresh, I find their whole interface to be quite flawed. I do try and test many of the apps that get submitted to us here at Android Authority, to see which ones are legit though. The quality continues to rise!

    • thartist

      The thing is that it’s really hard to find anything actually non-crap by searching in the Play Store. I do as you do, get recommendations from articles.

  • nhu

    This is complete bull shit. I have used Google Play and I have used Apple app store. When searching for apps, the ratio of success for Google Play to Apple app store is 90:10. So I have absolutely no idea where this is coming from…

    • Joshua Hill

      So what’s your point? Apple must really suck. Doesn’t mean Google doesn’t suck too and needs to improve especially given their search heritage.

      I suppose you’re the sort of person who says to the police officer when caught breaking the law ‘everybody else was doing it’.

    • swannanoa72

      Yes that’s correct. Comparatively your statement is true.

    • illregal

      Agreed, when I got my ipad i was amazed at how bad the app store sucks. Play store is leagues ahead.

    • MontaEllis

      I totally hate the ios app store; on my iphone it makes me scroll 1 by 1 through the search results, completely useless when there could be 20+ apps for something like ‘powerpoint’. PLEASE, write a rant article on something relevant, like how much worse ios App store (iphone) search results are compared to google play store (android phones).

      • αναιδής

        bitch watch ya moufh=

  • ssdickey

    All they need is a “Don’t show games” option. Or much better yet, just keep the games separate from the apps. There is already separate “Apps” and “Games” section in the Play store, but when you go into the apps section, they clutter it up with games too. They dont do that in any of the other sections… not even “Books” and “Magazines”. I don’t ever want to play or see the games and I’m sure that I’m not alone. Also… any type of advanced search would be my next request.

  • Albin

    I’d have to say my “discovery” process has nothing much to do with Google Play. When I’m 1) looking for a particular type of app I use Google Search to get lists or reviews prioritized by the search algorithm, and 2) I’ve mainly learned of new things from magazines like this one. Play Store is for after I already know what I want.

    My only other comment about PS is that I prefer to access it in the browser on the big screen of my laptop, rather then in the phone app, and they’ve botched the browser web site unbelievably since last year.

  • Guest123

    The Google Play Store sucks ass when it comes to app discovery. That’s why I almost always find apps via sites, reviews, xda, etc. . . and never via Google Play Store.

  • Sir Alex

    You get a great search capability, and then what?

    You still don’t know the good apps from the bad ones.

  • krishmasand

    From an Indie Developer’s perspective, I can definitely vouch for this. My app CurveBall ( ) gained some traction and good reviews initially through a Reddit Post ( ) but since then hasn’t gotten much attention or downloads from anywhere.

  • android authority

    your right i tried searching up the new google camera but all i got was like a hundred different choices. its really irritating. if i could id organize them all my self, one by one all of the 1.3 million apps that there are.

  • abazigal

    To be fair, as an iOS user, I don’t think the situation for the iOS app store is any better. I find it very difficult to find new apps I like as well, so I rely entirely on recommendations by websites I frequent.

    That said, I just read this article on Macstories about how Apple could improve their app store, and I think some of the advice inside could apply to the Google Play store as well. What do you all think?

  • Perry_F

    I seem to find most of my good apps from reading the reviews on the various android related websites. Many I would have never even thought of looking for.

  • bhills37

    What would I like to see? Full Google search capabililty. Why is that even a question? Is there really anyone outside of Google that doesn’t think Google should be applying its expertise to this? And why doesn’t there seem to be anyone inside Google who gets it?

    While they’re trying to get that revolutionary concept through their heads, I’d settle for separating games entirely from other apps. When you want a game you want a game; when you want a functional app you don’t. Why in the world are we always forced to wade through both kinds of results? Makes me wonder if anyone at Google actually uses the Play store search–I can’t believe that anyone who has the power to change it would put up with it.

  • Sam Johnson

    The most useful search features to me:
    1) Allow specifying language. I can speak and read a few other languages, but generally don’t want applications with a foreign-language description.
    2) Allow to specify country and/or region for which application makes sense. I don’t need to see Russian television listings, for example.
    3) Allow flagging applications that aren’t in accord with the search terms or exclusions, to be reviewed by a human at Google.
    4) Allow excluding things like ebooks or games.

  • My name here

    Yes thank you! I have had my Verizon google/android phone for two days now and am already regretting not getting an iphone for my business. I am getting irritated having to wade through candy crush and doggie hotel and all these other games to try to find ACTUAL informative and useful apps. Why do they even have categories if you cannot search apps in ONLY those categories?!?!?!?!?!?!

  • IndieDev

    We need to turn this into petition.

  • Jim
  • Rahul Vridhimaan