Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Apple's App Store Search Change - Part 2

Update: More Search Changes (Good News)

This weekend I wrote about changes to the iPhone App Store search algorithm. That post got quite a bit of attention, including the front page of Hacker News and a mention in TechCrunch. From that article, "Nonetheless, it’s hard to blame developers who tried to game the old system, any more than I’d blame websites that use SEO to get more traffic from Google."

I just thought I'd take a minute to respond to that, and clarify a few things I didn't explain as well as I'd like. First off, I think the idea behind the change is a good thing. It seems to me they want to lower the importance of the title and give more weight to other aspects. The point of this would be to presumably get people to stop stuffing keywords in their titles giving them 10 word titles for an app name. That also sounds like a good idea to me.

The problem, as I said in the last article, is that one small part of the change did exactly the opposite. They stopped searching on a combination from the title and keywords. For example (from the original article):

App Name - Debt Snowball+

Keywords - method, pay, off, free - etc

Doesn't show up for these phrases:

debt snowball method
debt free
pay off debt

Also note that it used to be against the rules to have your title also appear in your keywords. This means that this app, which doesn't have a huge keyword stuffed title, now DOESN'T APPEAR AT ALL for my top search phrases. I'm not complaining about getting knocked down a few notches in the search results (though that did happen in a few places), I'm complaining about being completely removed from almost every search that could have found my app except for a search of my exact app name. I've dropped to #2 for that search, replaced by:

"Debt Free - Pay Off your Debt With Debt Snowball Method"

Just to be clear as I throw my competitor under the bus, this is a very good app. However, the title illustrates my point very well so I'm going to use it. Without touching his keywords as I don't know what they are, this app shows up for all of those key phrases simply by having all of the words in his title:

debt snowball method
debt free
pay off debt

It turns out that this small modification of not combining the title and keywords has given the keyword stuffing app less competition, and completely taken out my non-keyword stuffing app. If you'll note my apps on the right, in the past I've done a few apps with titles that can definitely be considered keyword stuffing. Those apps haven't been hurt very much with this update. The apps that didn't have been all but killed. That's what I've been frustrated with. 

All of this could have been avoided by some simple communication from Apple. Just send a note that says we are making some changes to move away from people stuffing keywords in titles. If you want your apps title to be part of your keywords we are now allowing this. You should submit an update with your modified keywords if you want to appear for search phrases including both. Hopefully the huge loss of sales this week won't kill my rankings once my updates get approved and I start showing up in the store again.


Now, this last part doesn't have to do with the changes, but rather something I think should be changed. The auto-complete for the app store doesn't make any sense to me. When you start typing it doesn't work to complete the word you are typing, rather it puts down app titles that are close to what you are searching for. If you start typing "debt ..."instead of complete the word you are typing like "debt free" it gives the most popular apps. In this case, the top result is again "Debt Free - Pay Off your Debt With Debt Snowball Method." Now, there are probably 30+ apps that have 6-8 of those keywords. Before the recent change 3 apps were returned that happen to have all of them. Currently, only one app is returned (technically 2, the lite and full version).

I don't think that is the best user experience. While this is a good app as I mentioned earlier, I think it makes a lot more sense when someone is typing "debt free" to show all of the apps that are trying to solve this problem, and not just one of them. This could be solved in 1 of 2 ways. The first is to obviously stop auto-completing to app names and just use search terms. That being said, I assume the reason they don't do this is that they don't want people to get empty searches. Since they are doing only keyword matching, if someone throws and extra word out there they would have to improve their search algorithm. Empty searches are a very bad thing from Apple's perspective.

The second option, would be to also show apps similar to the exact match. Show the genius recommendations or the "other apps people bought with this" or something. When someone types in the word "debt" they should really be getting lots of options. There are quite a few very high quality apps in this niche (glad I decided to go for the easy niche, oh well). More than 1 app should show up for the user.

Discuss on Hacker News

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