The iOS App Store: Needles in Haystacks

One of the most confusing and painful aspects of developing applications for Apple’s iOS platform is that, once the application is submitted and under-review, the real hard part begins. I’ve been tweeting about this for a few days. I also realize that many developers aren’t thrilled about the app submission and review process, but as a user, I have put my trust into Apple’s rules and have plenty of apps that do cool things, so I don’t really have sympathy in these instances.

Once the app is OK’d by Apple and released in the App Store, however, this is where things get sticky. Currently, there are only a handful of app categories which are pretty broadly defined. Because iPhone users on the hunt for apps typically only search the top 25 or so of a category, apps that are not ranked as high start to collect dust on the shelf as they move to the back of the store. Some apps are not even categorized, therefore only reachable by entering a keyword search for that app.

Unless you’re a big brand and/or bringing a large web audience to your iOS app, it’s difficult for apps to get discovered. For instance, here’s sample list of apps that started on iOS first without much of a real web presence: Foursquare, Square, Shazam, Instagram, Bump, Instagram, and Angry Birds. (If you can think of others, let me know and I’ll update this list.) So, if you’re not in one of these two categories, folks resort to other means, some of which are frowned upon by Apple:

  • Developers and companies leverage connections within Apple and lobby for the editorial team of the iOS store to get apps featured or listed as “hot” apps, etc. This puts smaller developers and those not located close to Silicon Valley at a disadvantage, to a degree. Certain apps that are extremely well-designed and/or that leverage iOS capabilities in novel ways also stand out from the crowd.
  • App makers will do little things to “game” the ranking system, which is measured by the number and speed of downloads within categories. This entails soliciting positive reviews (and voting up those reviews) and paying companies (some shady) for paid installs, which largely produces non-ideal users and is frowned upon in Cupertino. Some apps will also create Twitter bots, for instance, to increase (the appearance) of distribution.
  • If developers are lucky, they can engage in various types of content marketing and/or hire public relations folks to help with getting general and targeted press for their app, but this is generally expensive and/or time-consuming and often doesn’t lead to great or sticky users.

Some of iOS app distribution may change this week with the release of Facebook’s revamped iOS apps (which let users see their Facebook apps and redirect to the device App store) and Apple’s iOS5 integration with Twitter (which I don’t have yet, but I’m sure will offer some new angle into app discovery, perhaps socially-driven). Apple knows this is an issue, too. A friend of mine there has commented they are well aware of the problem and that it is ripe for a trusted third-party to come in and editorially review and curate the entire app store, creating more categories, deemphasizing elements that are gamed, and other controls in place.

It would be interesting to hear others’ stories or perspectives, so please share/comment. Thanks!