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Chris Dixon, has an important post pointing at a big issue: The App Store top rankings is not a spot only meant for the best apps, but also for those who can buy downloads in parallel networks (disclosure: this is what appsfire help developers with, but read more on that below). 

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Chris realized that by discovering what looks like a low quality, scammy app (Night Vision, which indeed does not bring much but is highly ranked) which does not work like advertised. The question is why is that happening? Why are such apps like those so highly ranked? 

The reality is that you can end up finding many "weird apps" consistently present in the top rankings.  Mirror apps, "booth" apps, Battery life apps, phone trackers, flash light…They are more or less well done and more or less useful. They are not the best designed apps, nor the most useful, But they are there. And they are not there by mistake.

Chris Dixon, points to Tapjoy where you can buy app downloads as the responsible for this situation. 

There are many places where you can buy Downloads on the app store: traditional networks, like admob, Flurry (with App Circle), Jumptap…. and discovery services like ours, cross promotion networks and many more. Even on iAds you can buy downloads (clicks to be more precise)

There is nothing wrong with buying downloads. This is how marketplaces should work. Their should be efficient marketing channels allowing you to access market shares. This is how the web and the mobile web work and will work. 

But like with all things there is a dark side. 

The deep nature of the problem is elsewhere and we thought we could bring some light on this.

1. Channels like Tapjoy will push any app ready to pay: there is not content or quality filtering helping users to find out whether this is a good app or not (except the elementary metadata available in the app store). This is not the case of all networks. For example with Appsfire with do not promote any app that comes to us. We try to evaluate the interest for users before we shoot (based on objective elements). Tapjoy could fix that. And they may one day.
2. Some of those "scammy" apps are made by the same developers or are part of parallel app rings cross promoting each other – there are a few like those and they can be found by looking at who create the apps or the name of the network at the bottom of the recommendation list (see image below). Usually the quality/usefulness level is about the same and you will end up with suggestion to download other apps which will also create some download velocity effect. Chris suggests in the comments that Apple should ban apps using cross promotion but this is not right. Cross promotion is a fair, honest way to get visibility when done right. The problem is not there.

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3. A ranking is just a ranking. If you need a better discovery experience you can't just go where the volume goes. This is the same with music and movies. Apple could probably solve that if they were building a ranking based on usage rather than download velocity. A relevant discovery experience has to take care usage (but not only, i am sure that Chris would know that with the experience he's got at Hunch)
4. It is doable to get high ranks. It is harder to stay highly ranked. The "Stay power" is the magic juice. Some apps have it (groupon, instagram, angry birds, doodle jump, …) some of those apps (not all) do buy downloads but they have something more. They have a damn good app. those are the good apps you want to find. In the case of those "scammy apps" the stay power is more due to promotion than pure "merit"
5. Some people actually like those kind of apps. they create some sense of fun to users: yep, kids like fart apps to show their friends, they like make you believe they can track your cellphone, or make you look fatter,…We re not all equals. Apple has approved those apps for a reason. If they get success why not. What we should care about is variety (which the app store provides), quality (which is relative) and ways to evaluate and access it conveniently (this is where app stores in general fail). Sometimes the app store ranking make me think of the Twitter trends: i would never find there what is interesting to me. but many people do. 

Again there is nothing wrong with buying downloads. The problem comes from the fact some channels don't filter quality and that users can't figure out quality either because they don't care (specially when downloading an app substitute in app purchase) or because they can't (they don't have enough information about it). And from the facts rankings won t help so much for quality discovery.

Figuring out quality is something Apple is rather good at when they showcase on app in the featured section. But only 0.00x% of the apps get featured and many more apps are good apps worth downloading. 

Filtering quality is the job of a good recommendation engine which merged with the right promotion mechanism should help finding more conveniently the right apps for you.

Finally i think Chris and i agree :)

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For now, the end result is that we'll keep seeing such apps in the top rankings. This is not going to change tomorrow. What should change is how users will educate themselves on how to find great apps. This happened with music and movies. There is no reason this should not happen with apps.

  • chris dixon

    yeah i think we mostly agree. i also do like some “silly” apps like larry the talking bird, and bought other talking characters via cross sell in the app. night vision just seems to me to straightforwardly misrepresent what they do and they are clearly gaming the star system.

    with so many investment $ flowing into apps I worry this problem is only going to get worse…

  • Dennis R

    I agree with Chris that there are two types of apps here. While both “Talking tom cat” and “Flashlight” are not appealing to hackers/entrepreneurs, they do provide entertainment value for people. More importantly, they do exactly what they say.

    What *is*, bad, however, are “GPS Tracker”, “Night Vision”, “Fingerprint scanner”, etc. apps that don’t provide entertainment value and *do not* do what they claim to do.

  • Emmanuel Bellity

    A ranking based on usage and retention rates instead of download velocity would be quite interesting !