Google needs to tackle its app discovery problem

April 23, 2014
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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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?

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