In it’s current state, Google Play’s app search struggles to provide relevant results. And at the same time rewards publishers with large marketing budgets that pad download counts rather than developers who make quality apps. SEO keywords clutter app titles as developers recognize the flaws in the search engine while app descriptions remain ignored.
Improving the app search in Google Play will help not only users in finding the quality apps they are looking for, but also developers in exposing their apps to the right audience.
Canada Post provides a service called ePost. If you’re not familiar with it, they send you electronic copies of common mail like utility bills that you can view online. It’s a free, awesome service, and very popular with Canadians.
Now, while I was on their website I noticed they offered an Android app. So I grab my phone and immediately open Google Play, searching for “epost”, expecting to find the app on the first page. After all, “epost” is a fairly specific, non-ambiguous search term.
The first few results listed email clients, after which it looks like Google Play decided to show me a list of the top 1000 most downloaded apps for Android. Apps with millions of downloads like, Twitter, Google+, Facebook, Dropbox, and yet none had a single thing to do with what I was searching for. After looking through all 20 pages of results, I still couldn’t find what I wanted.
Obviously something was wrong, I pressed a few of the apps and carefully combed through their descriptions, and there wasn’t a single instance of the word “epost” anywhere to be found in them.
After going back to Canada Post’s website, I found a direct link to the app page on Google Play, and confirmed that the word “epost” does exist prominently in the app’s description. So why didn’t it show up in the search I just made? The app is fairly popular, with 100k – 500k downloads and its description contains the word I was searching for.
I experimented with a few more search terms and got similar results. And here is what I discovered:
- Way too much importance is placed on an app’s download count. If you have two apps that do the same thing, the one with the most downloads will appear higher. In fact, it was very common to see apps with very high download counts appear in totally unrelated searches.
- The title of the app has too much influence on how high an app appears in the search results. You can see developers exploiting this by appending key words to the apps name.
- Not nearly enough emphasis is placed on the description of the app. As shown in my example above searching for “epost”, the app description was entirely ignored. This makes it not only more difficult for users to discover apps, but also for developers to expose their apps to users.
What Can Be Done?
I think it’s fair to expect a certain level of quality from a company like Google, especially when it comes to search engines, and it’s quite clear they could do better with the search functionality in Google Play.
- When showing several similar apps, don’t sort them by download count, but by actual quality. Google has several metrics available such as install/uninstall trends, user ratings, application error reports, that could all be used to give a metric of an app’s overall quality. An app that has recently had lots of low user ratings, many crashes, and an increasing trend in uninstalls should rank lower than a similar app that has glowing user reviews, low error count, and an increasing trend in active installs.
- Give app titles less weighting when determining relevancy in search results. Let developers be creative with naming their apps rather than trying to cram some SEO in the 30 or so characters allowed in the app title.
- Developers spend a lot of time putting together their app descriptions, making them as detailed, yet brief as possible, not only to sell users on it, but also to attract search engine hits. It would be nice if Google recognized this effort and considered an app’s description when determining it’s relevancy in a search.
In The End
As a user, when you search for something in the app store, you expect to get a list of apps that contain the words you were searching for in the app’s description. And as a developer we expect our users to be able to find our apps if they search for terms contained in our app’s description. Right now these basic expectations aren’t being realized, and it’s hurting both users and developers.