A long, long time ago, a brand new concept known as the ‘World Wide Web’ was emerging into the public eye. The idea of an interconnected network of information was novel, and the possibilities limitless, but the web lacked the organization necessary to make it really work. “Surfing” the web was all that could be done; users literally clicked across the web from hyperlink to hyperlink in search of a particular page, or with no real direction at all. That all changed in 1995, when Yahoo! began sorting through the mess to put websites into categorical directories that could help users find what they were looking for. Later, Google came along and fundamentally changed the way users interacted with the web with the introduction of a functional search engine. Suddenly, the web was more than an ocean full of disorganized information floating around; we were now armed with a high-tech fishing rod that could pluck out exactly what we needed.
Today, the booming multi-platform app economy is changing the way we interface with the internet and search. Apps now dominate our information intake, as internet users digest increasingly more data from their mobile devices. Rather than searching the web for a movie time at a local theater, we now pull up our convenient movie app. We check sports scores from a specific app with its own experience. Need to convert that Metric measurement to Imperial units? There most certainly IS an app for that.
But the reality is that the huge wave of apps has us stuck back in the pre-search ocean again. The near future will bring apps built into every device in our lives – our TVs, our cars, and our refrigerators are already starting to adopt the technology, so we are never more than a few finger taps away from the information we crave. The iTunes App Store, Google Play, and the Windows Marketplace all resemble a frenzied bazaar, with noisy developers hawking their wares. Since apps have taken over, the challenge has shifted from learning what users are looking for to designing a system for getting it to them.
Classic search engines assume that the user expresses their intent with a search query, but searching through apps requires a different type of mentality. What search terms would one enter to find the popular game app Angry Birds? “Shoot birds at pigs?” Search engines assume you are looking for information, but in the app economy, the approach has always had to be different. The standard thus far has been to categorize, a la early Yahoo!, and allow people to simply narrow down what they are looking for.
There are some startup companies trying to create app search engines to try and keep up with the more than half a million apps currently available to consumers. With as many as 60% of iOS applications having never been downloaded, there definitely needs to be a better way to deliver results, or innovative new businesses and their backers releasing new apps will continue to face a major challenge of how to be found. Despite all the progress forward, when search is made obsolete, we can’t regress to just ‘surfing’ in the new internet landscape.