It's time for Apple to open up about its App Store algorithm changes

Editor's Corner
Shane Schick

The rankings within app stores--any app store, from any provider--shouldn't be harder to interpret than Egyptian hieroglyphics. Unfortunately for developers, however, the thinking of some platform vendors, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) in particular, can be more inscrutable than the Sphinx.

It took Fiksu, a mobile app marketing software provider, to take a close enough look at what's going on to reveal last week that Apple has obviously been making major changes to its algorithm. While some details may not be fully known to anyone outside of Cupertino, Calif., Fiksu published a blog post which showed the increased importance of a common measurement: user ratings:

"In late July, we first began to notice apps unexpectedly shifting position without a corresponding increase or decrease in downloads. Upon closer inspection, we discovered these position changes correlated with the apps' ratings... Apps with ratings of 4 or more stars received a rank boost in late July and have maintained that rank throughout August. Poorly rated apps with less than 3 stars received the opposite treatment about two weeks later, dropping off precipitously in rank and staying that way."

This will obviously have a huge impact not only on discoverability, which is an ongoing developer challenge, but also on how developers allocate their resources around the marketing and promotion of apps. Ratings have traditionally been the thing that gets people to consider a download, but store charts are arguably even more powerful because they are viewed more often. If the former ends up having a substantial influence on the latter, shrugging off bad ratings for your mobile game with a simple "Haters gonna hate" could be highly dangerous.

It's possible that Apple is reacting in part to increased attempts by the vendor community to game the app store ranking system. For example, TechCrunch recently profiled Ovano's Acquisition Insights, a dashboard that shows how much a developer or publisher is spending on paid discovery. As it becomes more obvious how spending to get users pushes up a title in Apple's App Store, it might make more sense to look at how much existing, "real" consumers value the app or game.

The point is, Apple could do a greater service to developers, analytics firms and digital marketers by bringing greater transparency to these kinds of changes. Fiksu also noted that store rankings are now changing every three hours. The underlying message is obvious--the store charts are only valuable if they reflect an organic, fluid reality--but by communicating it more overtly, Apple would help discourage the kind of tactics that have plagued Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) via snake-oil search engine optimization salesmen. 

If ratings matter more now, what about reviews? If the rankings aren't just about downloads, why not a greater focus on engagement? As the definition of a "top ranking" app evolves, only the likes of Apple can really answer these questions. Developers and the community that surrounds them shouldn't have to fill in the blanks. --Shane