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

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a big screen shot. From the card, you can pull up the app’s official description, read reviews left by other users, and browse more screen shots.

If you decide you like the app, you can click the big green “Get it!” button, and you’ll be taken to the app’s page inside the iTunes App Store or the Android Market, where you can buy and download it. If you decide you don’t like it, you can easily scroll on to the next card.

Chomp could collect an affiliate fee from Apple for every sale that it sends their way, but Keighran says it’s not worth the trouble. “Most of the apps on Chomp are free, so speed is the most important thing,” he says. “Anything that could get in the way, like API calls, we are not interested in.”

What Chomp is interested in—and what it started testing with selected partners in September—is advertising. Developers and publishers will soon be able to pay Chomp to show paid cards for their apps in the flow of “organic” cards for a given appword. Smule, for example, might pay to have its Leaf Trombone app show up as the first card in a search for music apps. Zaarly and Milk, maker of the Oink social ratings app, are already trying out Chomp’s search ads program as beta testers.

As on Google, sponsored results are clearly marked as ads. Keighran thinks that if Chomp does its job right and shows ad cards that are relevant to the user’s original search terms, users will be happy to look at them and to click through to buy the apps. “When someone is searching for something, they are really telling you, ‘Give me something new, please’—they are in that mindset,” he says. “So when you’re joining a user and an app is the perfect time to bring in an ad. That’s why I am really excited about Chomp’s business model.”

Chomp had 25 people on staff when I visited this summer, and was on its way to 50, according to Keighran. If the startup plays its cards right (pun intended), it could get a lot bigger than that. In 2010 publishers spent something like $830 million to advertise their mobile apps, and all the estimates are that this figure will grow into the many billions by the middle of this decade.

Of course, Chomp has some competition. Just yesterday, San Francisco-based Tapjoy, formerly known as a provider of banner ads and special offers to help publishers monetize their free apps, shifted gears and went direct-to-consumer by introducing its own “personal app marketplace.” The company says it can show users personalized app recommendations based on the other apps they or their friends are using. (That’s an approach Chomp tried and abandoned in 2010, by the way—Keighran says users seemed more interested in exploring granular app categories.)

“I think that we are going to see a lot of new market places emerge in 2012,” Keighran told me via e-mail after the Tapjoy news came out yesterday. “Currently we have carrier, OEM, and white-label marketplaces, and soon we will have many new app marketplaces like GetJar, Amazon, and even Facebook’s new HTML5 app discovery marketplace. Chomp is aiming to help improve search both within these marketplaces, as well as [to] provide users with the ability to search across each of these marketplaces.”

Alas, even if Chomp, Tapjoy, GetJar, Amazon, and others manage to pry app-search traffic away from Apple and Google, you’ll still have to make a stop at the iTunes App Store or the Android Market to buy and download your apps. But with any luck, Apple and Google will wake up and buy (or copy) one of the up-and-coming app search providers, thus making life easier for smartphone and tablet users everywhere. It’ll be like 1998 all over again.

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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