Why is Apple Building “Yahoo Directories for Mobile”?

In the early days of the App Store, search wasn’t really that important. With relatively few apps (and very few good apps), the directory/browse experience was ideal. For those of you who were around/pubescent during dotcom #1, that might remind you of a nimble upstart at the time– Yahoo. They proposed to categorize and organize all of the worthwhile content on the internet and did a truly outstanding job– for a while. Eventually, the web got too big and Yahoo Directory collapsed under it.

Enter: Apple. Proposing to categorize and organize all of the world’s apps. You can see the cracks forming. So what will Google do?

Mark my words, Google will onebox mobile app results. Hell, it might (should?) add an “Apps” vertical. If it did, it’d almost instant eclipse the App store in importance for most developers.

I know, I know.  It’s a bold prediction.  Hear me out.

Google has been working on search innovation for a decade and they’re getting damn good at ferreting out intent from your search queries.  In recent years, they’ve done what’s called oneboxing.  If they can confidently guess what information you want (or at least what search vertical you’re interested in), they tack it onto the top of the search results.  You’ve seen it thousands of time now.  Search for “weather seattle”, a stock ticker symbol like AAPL, or append the word “video” to any search.  Despite their brutal campaign against the folks in the world of SEO, Google is still better at search than anybody.

If you’re searching in a mobile browser for “Angry Birds”, there’s a pretty good chance that you’re looking to download it– and Google can trivially know what platform you’re searching on and which version might be best for you.  If you search for “currency converter” from your mobile phone are you well-served with a JavaScript-driven converter on an ad-infested web page (or worse yet, a non-functioning Flash/Java applet)?  Or would you be better served with a link to the best native app for the job?

You’re probably as disgusted with App Store search as I am– it’s fine for brand searches (like “Angry Birds”) but painfully bad for category searches.  The App Store is using ridiculous algorithms, forcing developers to stuff keywords into titles and giving us the equivalent of meta-keywords to help our cause.  Hell, the App Store even uses the developer’s company name as a meaningful factor (congratulations, Currency Converter, Inc., your shot at ranking for that search term just went up!).

What it should do (which would require a Google-sized index of the web) is the same thing that Google does– rank based on number of links (to the app store page), the quality of those links, and the anchor text used for those links.  It could also layer in social data, ratings, active usage data, and other things that only Apple has at their fingertips.  But they probably won’t– Apple is not a search company.

But Google is.  They could be a better way to find/buy apps almost overnight.  And it’d be a huge boon to app developers for all platforms.

The Rub

The big problem here, of course, is that Google will be helping Apple sell more apps (at least when people are viewing onebox results on an iPhone).  And Apple will still be hauling in their rapacious 30% (a fair fee if Apple is bringing the customer to the table– less so if all they are doing is handling the purchase/update process).  So even if Google includes a paid spot or two in their onebox, is there enough revenue room for Google make a buck?  With game developers paying $3-5 per install on the marketing front, I think so.  Outside of games, it’s a little less clear.

So what do you think.  Will Google do this?  If they do, would it be the right move? If Apple manages to do something productive with their Chomp acquisition, will it matter?

  • http://twitter.com/brookr brook riggio

    Great idea! I don’t really see Google going for it, from an idealogical perspective, though. I could see them listing Android apps, however.

    As an aside, it seems you suggesting that Apple, who manufactures, markets, distributes, and sells every device which a developer can target, is somehow *not* brining customers to the table? I’m having a hard time seeing that perspective.

    • http://www.rescuetime.com Anonymous

       You’d see it if you spent enough time with app developers.  The App Store drives a lot of downloads if you’re in the top 25.  It’s OK if you’re in the top 50.  It falls off pretty fast after that.  They can make their own rules, but I’m not thrilled that they get 30% of revenue for customers that *I* bring to the table (via word-of-mouth from building a quality app, spending marketing dollars, PR, blog posts, etc).  Because our app isn’t in the top 50, I’m not sure how much they bring to the table, but I honestly think it’s near-zero.

      30% is a fair lead-gen tax.  It’s less fair for what I (and many other devs) get.  It’s akin to Google charging 30% for being in their index (even if you’re page 21 of search results for the keywords you care about), with your only option being de-listing yourself if you don’t want to pay.  That’s not a perfect analogy– Apple also handles delivery, updates, and ecommerce.

      More griping here: http://www.avc.com/a_vc/2011/10/occupyappstore.html

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