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.
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 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 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.