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Apple (s aapl) is apparently tweaking its App Store rankings to factor in more than pure download numbers, a welcome sign if true. It could be an attempt to mimic what Google’s done with the Android Market (s goog) which now appears to take into account daily and monthly engagement data, so this seems to be a case of Apple playing catch-up.
According to Inside Mobile Apps, several ad network and pay-per-install executives have noticed a change with the App Store rankings, though it’s too early to say what these changes are based on. Peter Farago, vice president of Flurry, said it’s clear that Apple is using more than download numbers, which he welcomed because it spoke to the true popularity of an app. It’s possible that Apple is now factoring in ratings and daily use into its rankings, said Inside Mobile Apps. I’ve reached out to Apple and will update if and when I hear something back.
Facebook appears to be one of the winners from the reported algorithm change (which apparently occurred around April 13-14), jumping to the top of the free iPhone app rankings after sitting at #13. According to app tracker App Annie, Pandora Radio, another long-running app, also vaulted into the top ten from its perch at #22. Skype also moved from #33 to #15 and now sits at #11. These are popular apps that have been around for a while, but their sudden movement lends credence to the idea that Apple changed the ranking formula last week.
The app ranking algorithm behind app stores is a closely guarded secret, in part because app store owners don’t want developers gaming the system. It seems that the App Store and Android Market were previously guided largely by download numbers. But the rise of pay-per-install providers such as Tapjoy and W3i, who offer virtual goods and currency in apps in exchange for downloading an app, has helped apps vault into the top rankings, even if they’re not as organically popular. That can lead to questions about the app rankings when its made up of apps that are generally not that good, but appear to have gotten there by paying or gaming their way to the top, something investor and Hunch CEO Chris Dixon recently noted.
If Apple is following the lead of Google and changing the app rankings, I think it’s a good thing because it will better reward developers who build apps that are more engaging. There are still ways to game the system by getting people to positively review apps. But in general, I think it’s good if we downplay the importance of straight download figures. This might put a hurt on some developers who have come to rely on pay-per-installs and other marketing efforts to gain visibility for their apps. I understand it can be hard to get noticed in a huge market of apps, but ultimately, developers need to be more concerned about putting out a good app than paying to promote it.
For Apple, improving the rankings to emphasize more engagement and higher ratings can benefit the bottom line. For the App Store, and its competitors, to remain successful they need to stand for quality. If the rankings get taken over by lower quality apps that have bought their way in, it will create less confidence in the rankings and may cause people to be less willing to download apps. If Apple did tweak the rankings, it makes a lot of sense. The store is the cream of the crop of all app stores. Tweaking the rankings ensures that it remains at the top.