How social search is finding its way to mobile apps

Being popular on Facebook and Twitter might soon mean more than bragging rights. It could also mean the difference between discoverability and obscurity.

Its tagline is "discover the apps that matter," but a recently-launched search engine might be better described as a place to find what's been voted most popular via social media services like Facebook.

Earlier this month Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Airupt announced Appcurl, which promises to filter through the plethora of iOS and Android apps and rank them in ways that will be more relevant than paid search promotions and other online marketing campaigns. Appcurl will be powered in part through conversations on Airomo, a companion portal where users can discuss apps they like and talk about what they want to see next.

"The behavior is similar to how it used to be in the early days of the Web," said Bala Velmurugan, Airupt's CEO. "People would visit a site directly after hearing about it from the organization that set it up. That's great when the number of destinations are limited. But the model couldn't scale, so search engines came in."

Appcurl promises to filter through the plethora of iOS and Android apps on the market and simplify discovery.

And just as traditional search engines are changing their approach, Appcurl is an example of the way social media may soon become a key component of app discoverability for developers. Much like Google is now using posts from its Google+ network of users to influence its rankings, getting to the top of search results may require some apps to win the online equivalent of a People's Choice Award.

"It can be difficult to figure out the true popularity of something in the app world, but we realized that social media could be a great analytic source of data," Velmurugan said.

Airupt is by no means alone in this space. A site called uQuery, for example, also allows visitors to follow their favorite Facebook friends to discover the applications they're talking about, using and downloading. Quixey, based in Mountain View, Calif., was founded in 2009 but emerged just over a year ago with what it calls "power search," which reaches not only across mobile but desktop and browser platforms.

"Social signals--that's something we've already realized and have been looking at for years," said Liron Shapira, Quixey's CTO. "We collect as many signals as we can and then factor it into our machine learning technology. We can take any kind of data related to the app to predict what the user wants."

Discoverability of apps has always been a great pain for smartphone users and making apps discoverable and visible has been equally challenging for developers, said Jude Ramayya, CEO of Dallas, Texas-based developer Impiger Mobile. Appcurl brings relevance to an app user's search with app preferences and popularity in social media, he added. It's now a question of critical mass.

"The concept is good but it's in the early stages and needs a large number of users in the network to make an impact," Ramayya said.

Current efforts in expanding app discovery
In the meantime, platform providers are by no means standing still. In February, Apple acquired the app discovery engine, Chomp, which, according to Ramayya, changed the company's discoverability algorithm significantly. "It's no longer solely based on downloads, app name, keywords, or app description," he said. "It's based on relevancy, user behavior, the topics and what the app does."

For the Android market, meanwhile, AppBrain has built-in social discovery where you can see which apps your friends use, share information with your network and even get a personalized feed to app news and events.

Airupt hopes to differentiate itself by taking its analytic capabilities and making them available via APIs, while building a variety of vertical services. These would include not only apps discovery but also data on how users manage content across devices and social networks, as well as location-based services, Velmurugan said.

"We want to become one unbiased third-party service optimized for mobile users," he said.

Whether or not Appcurl takes off, a key question that remains is whether social discoverability in the mobile app space will lead to new kinds of search engine optimization (SEO) similar to that performed by countless organizations to get their websites to the top of Google's results. Quixley's Shapira thinks it's an inevitable idea and a good one.  

socializing yourself to success

"Google made the world a better place by enabling developers to talk with site maps and things like that," he said. "You want to make sure that every app that every developer releases is connected to users in the best possible way."

Impiger's Ramayya pointed to a January 2012 Flurry report, which said the daily average native mobile app consumption was 94 minutes vs. 72 minutes on the Web. This shows why we'll see more of such mobile-social-local app discovery services soon in the market.  

"This could shake up the app landscape, because right now only those with large budgets and marketing ammunition fare in the top lists on all app stores," he said. But if social search takes hold in the smartphone space, you won't be able to buy your way to No.1 for much longer.