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February 5th, 2015

Another Reason Why App Discovery Is Completely Broken

More than 80% of apps barely show up in the top lists of the App Store.

Even as the dollars pour in, it is clear that the app stores are fundamentally broken.

The problem starts with app discovery.

Apple loves to point out how much money it pays to app developers. Nearly $10 billion went to developer pockets just in 2014 and $25 billion since the App Store launched in 2008. The river of dollars flowing through the App Store make developers from San Francisco to Bucharest drool with desire.

At the start of 2015 the App Store has 1.4 million apps. But how many of those apps are actually seen by potential users? App Store economics have been well documented to show that 1.6% of app developers make more than the other 98.4% combined. About 11% of iOS app developers make more than $25,000 a month (only 6% of Android developers). Decent money if you are an independent developer but almost nothing if you are trying to grow a business.

In both Apple’s App Store and Google Play users cannot find the perfect apps for what they want to accomplish and developers have trouble climbing the ranks of app store lists to be seen by potential users. Unless a user directly searches for the name of an app or a type of app, a good chance exists that nobody will ever see that app.

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Walkers Haunt The App Store

Mobile analytics and business intelligence firm Adjust calls these “zombie apps.” Zombified apps do not show up in the top lists of any category or genre in any market more than two out of every three days of the year, losing out on important visibility and ceding discovery to more popular (though not necessarily better) apps.

According to Adjust, 82.8% of apps in the App Store were zombies in December 2014. The amount of zombified apps (1.136 million) are more than the total volume of apps in the App Store at the beginning of 2014.

Source: Adjust Apptrace

Source: Adjust Apptrace

It is no wonder that developers cannot make any real money in the app market. The app stores (both iOS and Android) are extraordinarily top heavy as entrenched interests consolidate power (and the top spots in their respective lists) and consume available resources like marketing and advertising dollars. The app stores are the epitome of capitalistic markets, for better or for worse.

The fact that there are more than 1.1 million zombie apps is stunning considering the breadth of the Adjust report. Adjust surveys all lists in all genres across in just about every app market across the world. The list of business and productivity apps in the United States is different from the one in France and so on. Adjust looked at the top 300 apps in every list to make its final determination of 82.8% of the App Store do not appear in a top list more than 33% of the time.

adjust_category_breakdown

A few app categories are more prone to zombies than others. Business apps have a high zombie rate at 91% (out of 192,282 total apps). Education and lifestyle apps categories are both above average with an 85% zombie rate.

The top three app categories (entertainment, games and lifestyle) make up about 65% of all zombie apps, with 747,432 total apps. It is hard not to see why. A quick look through the lifestyle category will show a user a variety of copycat apps like alarm clocks and horoscope apps. To a certain extent, many of the app categories are just bloated with random and ineffective apps that exist mostly to take up space.

The Problem Of Lists

Lists are highly effective forms of communication. Lists are easy to read, efficient and show that something (a human or an algorithm) put some thought into the creation of the list. Some companies have made their bones on the Internet dealing in lists (hello Evernote and Buzzfeed).

flickr_cc_winston_churchill

As we have discussed before on ARC, lists are a cruel and harsh form of discovery in the app stores. The search alternative—especially in the Apple App Store—is hardly effective in finding specific apps or apps that perform a specific function.

But what is the answer? If app fixing app discovery where easy, one would figure that Apple and Google would have figured it out by now. That is not taking into account that both Apple and Google profit from the top-heavy model over the theoretical egalitarian archetype.

The short-term fix for discovery may actually reside in more lists. More lists by humans, more lists personalized by the interest graph based on subject and genre (something that Google has undertaken with Google Play already). More lists to segment categories within categories (separating health/medical apps from fitness, for instance). But no matter how much the app stores are sliced and diced, the problem of discovery will never be fully solved by lists. Searching for apps is a lot like searching for music, sometimes you stumble upon a band that turns out to be your favorite.

The apps economy is thus at a paradox: at a time when the barrier to entry to build an app (or write software in general) is at an all-time low, the bar to succeed—even marginally—is extraordinarily high.

Lead image: “Zombie Walk 2009” via Flickr user Club Silencio, Creative Commons.

Bottom Image: The Wit & Wisdom of Winston Churchill on Westerham Pub Wall via Flickr user Gareth Williams (Creative Commons).