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Quality is the best strategy for app store discovery

With both algorithms and curators, Graham McAllister believes that good games are the key to the mobile app stores

So many games, but which ones to play? With around 1.5 million apps on each of Apple and Google's stores, how are users meant to find what they're looking for, or discover games that they didn't know existed?

Discovery is a big problem. To help users uncover the best content, both stores use algorithms to identify the apps that perform the best, and these selected few will surface in one of the more prominent areas of the store. Given the number of apps to be assessed, it's not a surprise that both stores take an algorithmic approach. It would take a small army of trained humans to do the same job, but it does introduce a few issues.

For example, what if the algorithm just doesn't find a best ­in­ class app? Great games could potentially lie hidden from a willing audience. The second issue is a major downfall of many algorithms: they can be gamed. This has resulted in some studios buying their way into the charts via burst marketing and investment in user acquisition. Those installs are picked up by the store algorithm, and translate to a higher chart position. This may briefly increase sales, but research shows that this is generally a poor strategy, as long-­term marketing campaigns prove to be more successful.

”What if Apple's curation team just don't get a chance to see your game? The discovery problem hasn't gone away”

To help combat the issues with algorithmic discovery, Apple recently made changes to the way games are promoted on the App Store. Many of its sections will now rely on curators to select the best content, staff who are trusted to know what good games are, and make us aware of their presence. This change has been met with praise from mobile developers, but it also has problems of its own. For example, what if Apple's curation team just don't get a chance to see your game? The discovery problem hasn't gone away. Instead it has shifted.

Is visibility on the store important anyway? In the Games section of the App Store, there are around 100 games easily visible - that is, 100 icons reachable on the front page via swiping and scrolling only. Let's call these Tier 1 Games. Going one layer deeper - via a tap to Tier 2 - leads to another 1000 games, more or less, split across 20 sections. There are also Tier 3 sections - two taps from the front page - that allow access to around 500 more games. So with relatively minimum friction, an App Store user should have access to around 1600 games across a wide selection of genres, and all should be on the high end in terms of game quality.

With around 400,000 games on the App Store, though, what if your game is one of the 398,400 games that aren't on the surface? Does this mean your game is facing lower discoverability and falling short of its commercial potential?

Getting Discovered

Being visible on the front page, or even one of the lower tiers, is one form of discovery, but is it the most important? Data from several sources, including Google, shows that around 50 per cent of users find apps via the search feature within the store. This means that all other methods - word of mouth, getting featured, reviews, being in the charts - make up the other 50 per cent combined. Being at the top of the charts or getting featured by Apple is not as important as you might think, but being discoverable by search within the App Store is a big deal.

The exact nature of how both Apple and Google return results from a search within their app stores have been closely guarded secrets, but at the I/O conference in 2012 Google revealed how its search algorithm determines which apps to show to the user. They classify searches into two types: categorical, like 'free games', and navigational, which is typically the specific name of a game. On the Google Play store, these two types of search combine make up the vast majority of installs. It's worth pointing out, however, that the structure of the Google Play store is quite different from the App Store, with far fewer apps surfaced to the user, so it's likely that search is used out of necessity rather than preference.

”The user experience begins the moment users first discover your game”

In terms of which results to return, this is mainly a metadata issue. The most important criteria, Google says, is the game's title. It needs to be clear, unique, and also creative. Good metadata is important as users are unlikely to type in the name of your game directly, and even if they know it they may spell it incorrectly. For example, on the App Store, a search for 'running' brings up Temple Run, but it also returns Sonic Dash and Minion Rush, other popular games in the endless runner genre. The technology behind this is most likely powered on Chomp, an app discovery startup that uses natural language processing and sentiment analysis that Apple acquired in 2012. It is also evident that games with high numbers of installs and good reviews will also appear higher in search results.

When it comes to choosing which reviews to display, Google will select those that are most similar to the device that you're on and the country you're in. This goes some way towards presenting the most relevant reviews, and filtering out irrelevant ones. Both Google and Apple have completely rational search strategies, showing the user the best games relevant to their search criteria.

Getting featured

Getting featured is still important. Research shows that around 10 per cent of users are installing apps based on a featured slot on the main page. Those slots are associated with positive game experiences, so games featured in them gain both visibility and status.

Google also revealed how it selects which games to feature, stating app statistics such as installs, uninstalls, long installs (an app that has been installed for months) and engagement as key. It mentioned that long-­term retention is an important criteria in deciding which games to feature, as it's likely a strong indicator of a good game. Google specifically calls out 'engagement and retention' as the key criteria for getting a game featured on the store, concluding with, "There's no substitute for user experience."

So what can developers do to create the best user experience?

First Impressions

The user experience begins the moment users first discover your game. So if this happens to be via search, then the name of the game, icon, description and screenshots all matter. A good example of using screenshots is the new title from EightyEight Games, You Must Build A Boat. In the five screenshots on the Apple App Store, the first begins by showing how you start out, then a few screenshots of gameplay, then finally a screenshot of what you're working towards. Clear, concise, perfect.

”Both the Apple and Google stores seem only to offer the bare minimum to help users find and discover content”

This is just to encourage the user to click the 'Get' or 'Buy' buttons, but once the game is installed the user experience then has to be sufficient to engage and retain the user. What do you do about that? Are you helping yourself?

If Google is telling us that its algorithms look at variables relating to engagement and retention (length of time played, number of times played, installs, uninstalls, time on device etc), then the user experience of your game is the key to getting featured. But getting users to play and enjoy your game, then to keep playing and enjoying your game, is no small task. Most games don't do this successfully, and there are many reasons why users don't engage with a game or fail to play long­-term. Developers need to ask if they have done enough to identify the potential issues that cause users to stray from the intended journey. If the answer is 'yes', then the next question they should ask is how they know that.

The move to a more curated app store is meant to benefit both developers and users, and it's a step in the right direction. Both the Apple and Google stores seem only to offer the bare minimum to help users find and discover content, and a Pfeiffer report looking into the usability, friction, and effectiveness of the app stores draws the same conclusions. Could they be further improved to help users discover the content they want? Certainly. But while we wait for those changes to happen, it's worth noting that the one constant in all of this,­ whether it's algorithms or curators, the best way to get discovered remains to make a great game.

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Graham McAllister avatar
Graham McAllister: Graham is the founder of Player Research, a Brighton-based user research and playtesting studio.
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