Looks Like Apple Has Changed Its App Store Algorithm Again

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Last week we were alerted to an interesting tweak that had appeared in the Apple App Store: searches for apps were suddenly ranking results higher by user ratings and app descriptions, rather than the names of the apps themselves. Today, one developer says he’s started to notice another change: Apple is now putting a bigger emphasis on keywords plus names.

Tomasz Kolinko, a developer and one of the founders for App Store analysts Appcod.es, says that he discovered the change because his own app, Love Letter Writing, had “advice” in the keywords and hadn’t been showing up in a search for “writing advice”. Today, they noticed that it has come back.

This has some impact on more popular apps as well, he notes in a blog post: “Instagram Camera” now has Instagram as its top result — although he points out to me that Instagram just pushed through an update, where they most likely tweaked their keywords anyway. Back on his app, “writing advice” now gives you the Love Letter Writer app as the top choice. “So do other searches we’ve tested.”

We reached out to Matthäus Krzykowski, co-founder of app search and data company Xyologic, to get his reaction, and he’s confirmed what Kolinko has found: “The Appcod.es guys are right, things are back to ‘normal,’” he told me in an email.

He believes that we may see more of these small changes as Apple continues to tinker with the concept of search and discovery in a store that is now teetering at more than 850,000 approved apps, with over 600,000 active (Appsfire’s founder Ouriel Ohayon notes it’s actually more like 650,000). “It’s hard to read Apple’s cards, of course. However we are not surprised to see Apple tweaking their algorithms. App Discovery on iOS, while still better than Google’s, continues to decrease,” Krzykowski says. “Less and less new apps and developers benefit from the current approach each month. They clearly know they need to tackle this and we are expecting them to continue to tweak their algorithm and test things out.”

Kolinko also cites the apps from the developer 30 South, who last week blogged about how searches for “debt snowball method” weren’t yielding his “Debt Snowball +” app. This is now also showing up again when that phrase is entered into the search window. (All searches done for this via the U.S. App Store.)

“The change seems not that drastic, just a couple of apps appearing back on the search results. I doubt most iOS users would notice the change,” he notes. “It is important for the developers, though. Last week plenty of iOS devs were pushing the updates to fix their keywords, because many of them stopped appearing on the search result list. Now it seems it that the most important SEO rule is not there.”

While Kolinko agrees with Krzykowski’s assessment that this shows Apple is still ironing out the details of the search — possibly integrating elements from its Chomp acquisition, possibly not — he also points out another issue with these changes. “After months (or years) of the search being very, very stable, Apple now does three changes” — there was another minor change around Wednesday — “within a week. Is it a new modus operandi, or are they just ironing out the details, and will settle with the new algorithm?”

An algorithm in flux is bad news for developers who have up to now relied on SEO to position their apps. “In the past, you had a nice search position, and it was like a good real estate. You just profited from it. If Apple will now change the search more often, developers won’t feel as secure from now on.”

[He does point out that means good news for companies like Appcod.es because developers will need to turn to other methods to track these things.]

Kolinko laid out a useful SlideShare on how the changes are working, with a little update at the beginning for the changes from today, which we’ve embedded here.