The App Store gets a makeover, but Apple still keeps developers in the dark
Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) is once again rearranging the virtual shelves of its App Store, introducing a new Food & Drink category to help iOS device users more efficiently target applications related to cooking, dining and boozing. According to an Apple email sent earlier this week to iOS developers, the Food & Drink category will spotlight iPhone and iPad apps designed to help consumers cook and bake, mix cocktails, manage recipes, locate restaurants and bars and learn what their friends like to eat and drink. Apple plans to migrate all relevant apps to the Food & Drink category by July 8; developers have until that date to opt out of the switch and retain their app's existing category tag.
The addition of the Food & Drink category is just one facet of what appears to be a much larger App Store renovation--but as usual with Apple, the specifics of the overhaul are strictly on a need-to-know basis, and apparently developers don't need to know. Ever since Apple acquired mobile application discovery solutions provider Chomp in late February, onlookers have been waiting for a revamped, more user-friendly App Store and it appeared to begin taking shape last month when multiple iOS developers reported changes to app search results, suggesting Apple was now emphasizing metrics like relevancy and user ratings over names and keywords.
Ben Sann, founder of BestParking.com, told TechCrunch that the firm's free garage finder app began topping multiple App Store searches including "Chicago parking," "DC parking" and "SF parking," in all cases ranking ahead of apps that more closely matched the respective query. Sann theorizes that Apple is placing a greater premium on download volumes, recommending BestParking ahead of other parking apps with fewer installs. Matthäus Krzykowski, co-founder of app search and data firm Xyologic, speculates that Apple has been factoring download volumes into its rankings for some time, and is now improving topic detection algorithms to deliver more relevant results--for example, the App Store now responds to a keyword search like "gas" by suggesting location-enabled gas station finder tools or gas pricing comparison services instead of racing-themed games or novelty apps. Xyologic also believes the App Store is relying on indicators like user ratings and comments to deliver improved search results.
But sometime last week, Apple apparently overhauled the App Store search algorithm yet again, this time reinstating the importance placed on keywords plus names. "The big news for the devs last week was that if your app was called 'Dunkin,' and your keyword was 'Donuts,' you stopped appearing for a search phrase 'Dunkin Donuts' in the App Store Search. For example, our app, 'Love Letter Writer,' had 'advice' in the keywords and Apple's search didn't show it in the result," writes developer Tomasz Kolinko, co-founder of App Store analysis firm Appcod.es. "We just checked, and this rule is no longer valid. 'Instagram Camera' shows up 'Instagram' again, and 'Writing Advice' shows up our 'Love Letter Writer' again. So do other searches that we've tested."
What's going on here? No one but Apple knows for sure, and its lips are sealed. Apple's secrecy isn't just frustrating, however: It's also costing some developers their livelihood. Earlier this year, Apple warned iOS developers to avoid bot farms and related services that promise to artificially inflate their App Store rankings, threatening the loss of Apple Developer Program membership for anyone found gaming the system. VentureBeat reports that Apple has since expelled a host of developers for attempting to game the system, and while some were engaged in brazen rankings manipulation, others simply made errors, and some innocent startups got caught in Apple's dragnet. Moreover, Apple has ignored all requests from developers pleading for reinstatement.
"We had an app rejected and we didn't know why," an anonymous executive at a "seasoned" game development company told VentureBeat. "It would be much better if we had clear communication from Apple about what the guidelines really are. It seems like everyone is worried about this, but the information isn't evenly circulated. People think that Apple plays favorites."
There's no question that the App Store needs to improve search and discovery: The storefront now offers more than 650,000 iOS apps, including 225,000 optimized for the iPad tablet. There's also no question that Apple must strive to level the playing field, bringing the hammer down on developers who flout the store's rules. But there's no good answer that explains Apple's continued refusal to offer developers--all developers, not just a select few--clarity and transparency around those rules. Finding an application in the App Store may never be simple, but finding out information about the App Store shouldn't be so difficult.--Jason