Summary:

Looks like Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) might be putting a more sophisticated — and potentially more helpful — spin on how it ranks the most popular…

Apple App Store categories tab
photo: Flickr / SolYoung

Looks like Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) might be putting a more sophisticated — and potentially more helpful — spin on how it ranks the most popular apps in its ginormous App Store, which currently features an almost inconceivable 350,000+ apps in its catalog. But the news comes amidst allegations that Apple is at the same time making it harder for pay-per-install apps to make their way into the store.

According to some observations from the mobile app analytics firm Flurry, in the last three days, the rankings for several popular apps have been jumping: for example, Facebook has jumped to the number-one ranking, having previously placed between 10th place and 20th place.

One good guess from InsideMobileApps is that Apple has started to factor in active usage into its rankings, rather than basing those rankings on downloads alone, which is similar to how Google (NSDQ: GOOG) ranks apps in the Android Market.

This makes sense, particularly in a market that has been around for long enough now to have an established base of consumers who have definitely taken their foot off the download gas, but might still be heavy app users.

Meanwhile, another pair of reports in GigaOm and PocketGamer have picked up on another app issue that also affects download rankings: some publishers are claiming that Apple is rejecting apps that feature pay-per-install services. These are schemes that give users credits for app “A” when they download an app “B” from within app “A.”

This system is used especially in gaming apps as a way of marketing new titles in already-popular ones. One of the bigger games publishers using the system is Glu Mobile (NSDQ: GLUU), and some of the big providers of such services include Tapjoy and Adknowledge.

If either or both of these changes are as they appear, they are a sign of Apple trying to get a better grip on the user experience of the app store — something that is long overdue, considering how many companies (such as Chomp, and on Android more focussed portals like Kongregate or TeePee Games) have emerged that are starting to do that job for the native store providers. That drives people away from Apple’s home pages, even if they eventually drive more people to the store itself.

If these changes turn out to be permanent, we could start to see an evolution in mobile apps content, with a push for quality over quantity in the case of ranking by use; or a need for evolving different business models for marketing apps — if the pay-per-install scheme does in fact get ruled out.

Given that Apple has yet to comment on either of these only-observed changes, it could be, in any case, that there are other new criteria for measuring popularity in the rankings (eg, what about games that encourage users to buy credits, or magazine apps that have huge in-app subscriber rates?).

Apple appears to be adding in other changes, too: the store now lists 300 of the most popular apps, rather than just the top-50.

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