For the first time, it appears that Apple has incorporated app ratings into their App Store Top Charts rankings.
While this isn't an entirely unexpected development, it’s definitely a new change - one that we caught because we are constantly monitoring App Store positioning and visibility. After some in-depth (and still ongoing) analysis by our Performance Labs team, we can conclude that Apple is testing changes to the iTunes ranking algorithm. What we don’t yet know is the entirety and permanence of these changes.
Previously, two main factors impacted your App Store rank: download volume and velocity of those downloads. In order to rise up the ranks, your app needed lots of downloads in a short amount of time. And to maintain that rank, you needed to continue acquiring new downloads.
While these two factors still contribute significantly to determining your app’s rank, there are two key additions app marketers now need to be aware of:
1) Ratings now affect rank, in addition to downloads
Ever since Apple acquired Chomp back in early 2012, there have been rumours that ratings and reviews would at some point begin to impact rank and position. Some evidence has shown that ratings may lead to higher visibility in search results, but they had never been directly correlated with placement in the Top Charts.
Now it appears that Apple is at least testing this change. 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.
As evidenced by the graph here, 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. Average rated apps, between 3 and 4 stars, suffered a slight degradation in rank but have generally been less affected.
It’s unclear whether or not historical rankings matter, but there is some evidence that rating for the newest version have the most influence. We also have no evidence that reviews (either volume or validity) are affecting rank, although it would make sense for Apple to try to somehow incorporate those as well.
2) App store positioning now updates every 3 hours instead of every 15 minutes
In the past, changes in rank happened in near real time, and rank improvement could be witnessed every 15 minutes: as your installs rolled in, you could watch your rank climb accordingly.
However, for the last several weeks, changes in position have occurred more reguarly: consumer-facing App Store rankings are now changing every three hours. It’s worth noting that this is only the public face of the App Store: it’s not yet clear if the algorithm is updating constantly behind the scenes, or if rank data available via the App Store API is updated on a different schedule.
Why would Apple make these changes?
It’s obvious why ratings now matter: Apple wants the apps with the most visibility to also be the highest quality apps - and vice versa.
But why would they change the timeframe of rank updates? We suspect they are adding a ‘buffer’ period to prevent rank manipulation through short download bursts often associated with robotic downloads and other actions not in the best interests of the app ecosystem. Three hours allows enough time to identify anomalies and remove apps before they suddenly appear at the top of the rankings.
Additionally, Apple has in the past adjusted the timeframe of rank updates during periods of extremely high volume - specifically, during the infamous holiday ‘freezes’. Could it be that Apple is anticipating extraordinarily high volumes of downloads after the release of a rumoured two new phones and a new iOS in September? Or is the change in the interface part of the rollout of the new algorithm -- in other words, is Apple giving itself some buffer time to see how their new algorithm is affecting rank in the real world?
Time will tell if the interface change is permanent, but what we know for sure is that it is happening now. Stay tuned as we continue to investigate.
What does this mean for app marketers?
The first thing to remember is that we are still researching, monitoring, and gathering data. More changes could happen, either before or after the release of iOS 7 in September, and it’s also not clear that the changes have been rolled out to all apps in the App Store. However, we are comfortable making the following recommendations:
1) Continue to realise the benefits of volume and velocity
No factor appears to matter as much as the sheer number of downloads combined with how quickly you acquire them. In other words, if you want to rise in rank, get more downloads and do it quickly -- then continue to get more. As always though, stay away from methods that Apple has specifically cracked down on in the past, including robotic downloads and apps that mimic the App Store or use push notifications to drive downloads to other apps.
2) Get the bugs out and iterate as quickly as possible
We’ve always preached that you should listen to your users for feedback. Poor ratings and reviews should be looked at as cheap market research: now that you know what your users want, you can make changes and bring an improved app to the marketplace.
In practice though, this isn’t always what happens. Developer and engineering time is always in high demand, so app marketers are often left to promote what they have while waiting for changes in the next scheduled rollout. But this new change provides more ammunition to make the case that improvements need to be made more quickly in response to poor reviews -- something that will benefit not just the app, but also Apple (more chance of revenue from better rated apps) and users (apps improving more often).
We’ve seen no evidence, but there have been longstanding but unconfirmed rumors that other factors, including social reach and uninstall rates, could influence rank. As such, the currently observed changes could be preludes to larger changes that coincide with the release of iOS 7, but they may also be the extent of new changes. We’ll continue to monitor the App Store, and will release more information as we gather it.
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