How to take Apple's (possible) App Store self-promotion in stride

It's an ambitious development studio with a growing collection of apps in areas like productivity and education, but if only it could improve its odds of being discovered in the App Store. That may sound like the dilemma of most studios, but of course it's a different story when the apps in question were designed by Apple itself.

A recent story on TechCrunch noted that there may be a bug in the way Apple's ranking algorithm is working to position various apps in the charts on its app store. It appears to be isolated to its mobile App Store versus the desktop version, but still, apps like Numbers and iTunesU appear to be getting a little extra promotion:

"The app store optimization firm Sensor Tower began investigating this odd behavior last week. According to its initial findings, Apple's apps seem to show up in random positions on the App Store app on the iPhone, and would sometimes remain listed in the Top Charts even after they were installed on the end user's device. The company was alerted to this behavior when it noticed that its own ranking data wasn't matching up with what was appearing in the App Store itself."

It would be great if Apple came out and explained all this, but I don't think anyone is holding their breath. In fact, this relatively minor incident will probably only serve to fuel the growing consensus among developers that app store discovery is not only broken, but possibly rigged in some cases.

This reminds me of certain stories you'd see about city politics or doping scandals during the Olympics. I had a journalism teacher who used to say, "This would be news if it didn't happen." Sadly, it's getting more difficult to imagine a scenario where app store discovery worked really well, or served to bolster the fortunes or more than a very limited number of companies, several of whom (ahem, Facebook) have more than enough marketing resources of their own.

Some might argue that Apple is well within its rights to promote its own products and services in the App Store ahead of any possible competitors. An app store is not a democracy, after all, and without Apple's hardware and even a few of its apps, the ecosystem would probably not be what it is today. It's just that the self-promotion, if that's what it is, goes against the image Apple tries to create when it boasts about how much money it has paid out to developers at WWDC every summer.

Being in any business sector means knowing and coming to terms with a certain number of risks and assumptions. For app developers, those probably include an assumption that Apple will put its own interests -- and maybe even its apps -- first. Is it unfair? Perhaps. Is it corrupt? That may be going too far. Can indie devs ever hope to survive? Despite everything, I believe the answer is still yes. --Shane

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