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

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turning the messaging service into a targeted-advertising play. BusinessWeek soon named him one of its “top 25 entrepreneurs under 25.” But the messaging service proved difficult to monetize and expensive to run, and Keighran ended up selling his Bluepulse shares and leaving the company in 2007.

He spent the next couple of years as an angel investor and startup advisor, working particularly closely with Aardvark, the real-time question-answering service later acquired by Google. But he never stopped thinking about app search. “After spending time advising and being involved in other people’s visions, I personally was getting really itchy to try and do another company and build something myself,” Keighran says. “One of the things I was really excited about was seeing the shift here in America from consuming services on a Web page to consuming services through an app. That is, to me, as big a shift as going from reading newspapers to reading on a Web browser.”

Keighran located a co-founder in Cathy Edwards, a fellow Australian and machine-learning and natural-language-processing expert who, coincidentally, had once advised Australian wireless giant Telstra that it should buy Bluepulse. Together, Keighran and Edwards decided they would tackle the app search problem head-on. “We believed that if people were changing how they consume things, there was an opportunity to change how they discover things,” says Keighran.

Keighran and Edwards assembled a group of experienced engineers from search companies like Google, Powerset, and Cuil, raised $2.6 million in funding from Blue Run Ventures, ex-Googler Aydin Senkut, and the ubiquitous Ron Conway, and moved into Aardvark’s old headquarters on 10th Street in the South of Market neighborhood. They released the first version of the Chomp app in 2010.

Finding an app on Chomp is a completely different experience from browsing or searching the established app stores, and the difference starts under the hood. Keighran and Edwards wanted their app search service to emulate Google’s search algorithms, which use hundreds of signals about a Web page—e.g., what other pages link to it, the text of the links, and metadata such as title tags—to determine how the page should rank on search result pages. The problem is that apps aren’t like Web pages. There’s no metadata to go on. When a search engine looks at an app’s page in an app store, all it can really see is the app’s name, its category (games, health, productivity, etc.), and the description penned by its developers.

Chomp tries to go deeper by ingesting all of that information—plus all of the reviews left by users, plus blog posts, tweets, and other external data—and using natural-language processing and other techniques to distill it all down to a few keywords that describe the app’s core functions and topics (Chomp’s engineers actually call them “appwords”). “We produce a whole new set of data that describes what an app does, and we use that data for search,” Keighran explains. The bottom line: if you search Chomp for “restaurant guide,” the top three results are—just as you’d expect—Urbanspoon, Yelp, and Zagat.

The other big difference between Chomp and the existing app stores is that Chomp actually feels like a store. (Which the iTunes App Store and the Android Market really don’t, when you think about it. Their search result pages just show screen after screen of little square app icons.) In Chomp, each app in a list of results appears inside its own sideways-scrolling page or “card.” The card shows the name of the app, the price, the percentage of positive reviews, and … 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.