Mobile App Search is So Bad AltaVista Could Have Done It. Chomp Is Biting Off the Problem

There are roughly 500,000 iPhone and iPad apps in Apple’s iTunes App Store, and almost that many smartphone and tablet apps in Google’s Android Market. That gives mobile consumers lots of choices, but it has created an untenable situation for mobile developers. Unless you get lucky and your app vaults onto the top-5 or top-10 charts, or is anointed as a “New and Noteworthy” or “Featured” app by a human curator at Apple or Google, it’s virtually impossible to get noticed amidst all the noise. As a result, there’s a very long tail of perfectly good apps that are failing to find their natural audiences, simply because mobile users have no way to discover them short of browsing page after page of poorly organized lists in the app stores.

I’ve been covering technology long enough to remember when there were 500,000 sites on the entire World Wide Web. That was back in mid-1996, when Yahoo-style guides and directories were still considered the best way to find new stuff. As the Web swelled—to 1.7 million sites by December 1997 and 3.7 million by December 1998—the directory model quickly became unworkable, and people started turning to first-generation search engines like AltaVista. But search results in these early days tended to be pretty random, and vulnerable to manipulation through spamdexing schemes. It wasn’t until Google came along with its Page Rank algorithm in late 1998 that Web surfers finally had a reliable way to locate high-quality content.

The app world hasn’t yet had its Google moment—which is more than a bit ironic, considering that Google itself runs one of the two largest app stores. Just try searching on the term “restaurant guide” in iTunes or the Android Market. The top result at iTunes is something called VegOut, and the top result at the Android Market is the U.S. Army Survival Guide. I kid you not.

In any rational universe, the top results for “restaurant guide” in both stores would be Yelp and Urbanspoon. But at iTunes, these apps don’t even appear in the first 180 results. Zagat, which would be a logical number 3 result, does turn up in the 17th position at the Android Market, but that’s probably just because Google now owns it. The overall rankings are so goofy that even AltaVista couldn’t have come up with them.

Chomp CEO Ben Keighran

Entrepreneurs aren’t waiting for Apple and Google to fix the mess they’ve created; several startups now offer alternative ways to find great mobile apps. The one with the biggest lead is probably Chomp, which is based here in San Francisco. Chomp’s own app for searching apps is available for both the iPhone and Android phones. In many ways, it’s what the iTunes App Store and the Android Market should be—a fact that Verizon recognized in September by announcing that it would build Chomp into the Verizon app store that ships with all Verizon Android phones.

Lately I’ve been getting to know Chomp co-founder and CEO Ben Keighran, an Australian-born programmer-entrepreneur who moved to the Bay Area about six years ago. “Search is really broken on both Apple and Google for searching for anything other than the name of an application,” Keighran says. “It’s just like the Web. Search wasn’t important at the beginning of the Web; what people needed was a curated directory. Search wasn’t important at the beginning of the app store revolution. And now it’s an incredibly broken feature.”

Before Chomp, Keighran was best known as the creator of a Java-based text messaging service called Bluepulse, which, at its peak around 2006, was handling 10 million messages per day for mobile subscribers in India, South Africa, and other countries. Bluepulse actually started out as an app store, so Keighran has been thinking about the problem for a long time. “Technically, it was a lightweight, 63-kilobyte browser, and it downloaded a list of apps you had said you wanted to use, and you would launch the apps within the browser,” Keighran recounts. “But it wasn’t used as much as the messaging feature, so it kind of got rolled into the messaging product.”

Keighran moved Bluepulse from Sydney to San Mateo, CA, in 2006 and raised almost $10 million in venture funding for the company in hopes of … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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15 responses to “Mobile App Search is So Bad AltaVista Could Have Done It. Chomp Is Biting Off the Problem”

  1. honkj says:

    almost that many smartphone and tablet apps in Google’s Android Market

    no there is not… there are about 1/2 that 500,000, and a bunch of those are so poorly done that they are unusagle, and that is before counting the malware on the android market place… the Research report that said Android had 300,000 was the same researchers who last year said Android had about 300,000 apps, then google two months later, corrected them and said it was 200,000, they were off by 100,000…

  2. Good stuff, Wade. I think Ben is great too, but no 3rd-party discovery platform has made a meaningful dent in the discovery problem, and the “official” stores have zero incentive to send traffic anywhere else.

    As I pointed out earlier this week ), expecting the app stores to do your marketing for you is a little like expecting DMOZ (yes, I’m that old) to drive your web traffic. App publishers need to take responsibility for their own discovery problem and “alternative search engines” are going to matter as much as Blekko when it comes to driving demand at scale.

  3. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    Chris — Thanks for your comments. I agree with you that developers can’t count on the official app stores to help them do their marketing. But I guess I disagree with your prediction that search, including alternative search engines, won’t be a meaningful part of the solution. I think there are basically three ways people discover apps: 1) unpaid research/reading/word of mouth, 2) paid advertising and in-app promotions, 3) search and serendipity while actively “app shopping.” Publishers can have some influence over the first two, and thanks to startups like Chomp they can now have some influence over the third. Also, I expect that Apple and Google will learn something by watching challengers like Chomp and will eventually make search within the official app stores less painfully bad.

  4. Rory says:

    There are some decent app search engines available, such as or (one I created). Smaller app developers are going down the line of paid advertising campaigns & getting their apps reviewed by the growing number of app review sites.

  5. Jian says:

    I think Chomp is a nice try, but like Chris DeVore mentioned above, I am not sure if Chomp’s business model is solid enough.

    It seems to me the best they could do is to build it up and sell it to either Google, Amazon or Apple. Since those big guys combined control pretty much all of the app markets.

    Also, I am not that convinced about natural language based analysis of app reviews. I think something like a curated semi-automatic review system is the way to go.

  6. Temujink says:

    I have found the best out of the lot. They support both android and iOS, with a lot of controls to discover.

  7. Ganeshan Nadarajan says:

    It’s what the iTunes App Store and the Android Market should be—a fact that Verizon recognized by announcing that it would build Chomp into the Verizon app store that ships with all Verizon Android phones.