Google Tweaks Android Rankings to Reward Engagement

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Not long after I wrote about the need for more engagement numbers from app makers, Google has apparently gone ahead and started factoring in the stickiness of apps in its Android Market rankings. That’s according to the CEO of social networking site myYearbook, who said his Android app has nearly jumped into the top ten of Android Market based on apparent changes last month to the algorithm that seem to factor daily active users instead of just install numbers.

Geoff Cook said sometime in the days before March 24, myYearbook jumped from #63 to #11 in the Top Free Social category on Android Market according to Android App Tracker. Other apps also saw dramatic changes including Seesmic, which went from #39 to #10 and Gowalla, which jumped from #78 to #18 in the same category. Meanwhile, some of myYearbook’s mobile gaming apps like Tic Tac Toe dropped in rank significantly during the same period.

Cook’s best explanation is that Google appears to be factoring in more signals including daily active users of an app or perhaps a ratio of daily active users compared to monthly active users, something often referred to as the “sticky factor.” He said myYearbook, which has a DAU to MAU ratio of about 35 percent, seems to be recognized now for the amount of engagement and ongoing use it gets rather than the more modest number of daily installs. Conversely, games like Tic Tac Toe, which has a sticky factor of well under 10 percent, are being down ranked because they don’t seem to have the same time of engagement. Previously, app makers were under the understanding that the rankings were built from active install numbers alone, Cook said.

Cook said if Google is somehow factoring in engagement it’s a good sign, especially for developers and publishers with apps that inspire more steady use. He said the app store rankings are too easily manipulated by heavy ad spends or other techniques.

“It’s actually a strange way to rank apps based on new installs. It’s a fairly gameable system. The whole point of an ad spend is to drive you to No. 1 in the rankings. That may still happen but it’s nice if the rankings are not as gameable. I don’t know for certain if the algorithm changed to include daily active users with new intalls but it’s pretty obvious that DAU is more of a factor in the algorithm,” Cook said.

I reached out to a Google spokesperson who declined to comment about search algorithm changes because doing so might invite gaming of the algorithm. But the spokesperson said Google makes modifications to it on an on-going basis. Android Developer Ecosystem Manager Eric Chu was quoted last month on AndroidApps.com saying Google is currently working on strengthening the algorithm that helps rank apps in the Android Market.

Now this could have a downside for some app makers looking to break out. It might be harder for a fresh app to build a following and get noticed. But generally, I see this as a good thing. App makers, as I wrote earlier, often tout their download numbers but it can often hide how engaging and useful an app is over a longer period. By factoring in DAU numbers, it makes the process less about racking up installs and more about building a good product with a lot to offer.

It makes sense for Google to come out with this now, as they recently launched in-app billing. By highlighting more engaging apps, they have a better shot at monetizing them if they include in-app billing for purchases.

Cook said the tweak to Android Market has had a noticeable effect on myYearbook. The number of installs, which used to be on par with installs on iOS, has now jumped ahead. He says he’d like Apple follow a similar path in rewarding engagement over installs numbers. I think it’s a good move and hopefully, we’ll see more of this from app stores. The success of an app is not just how many people install it — it’s really about having an app that people want to use again and again.

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