Guest author Robert Weber is the co-founder and senior vice president of business development at NativeX.
Google recently introduced an important new rule prohibiting deceptive promotion of apps on Google Play. It is good that Google is clamping down on spammy advertising. However, the new regulation doesn’t really address a core, underlying cause for why deceptive app advertising exists: practice: broken app discovery.
The fact that more than two-thirds of apps fail to break even, it’s no surprise that some independent developers desperately turn to sketchy advertising practices or automated bot farms to manipulate rankings. Of course, Apple’s App Store struggles with the same woes as well, but given that Google’s core competency is content discovery, it’s fair for the market to expect much more from the Google Play Android app store.
With that in mind, here are four actions that Google could take to help indie developers get discovered and make more money with Android apps on Google Play.
Rankings, Lists, Ratings And Profiles
Reform The Ranking System: At the moment, Google Play’s “Top Apps” lists are too directly tied to advertising spend. The more app publishers spend on advertising, the more downloads they get and the higher on the lists they are. Most indie developers don’t have a large advertising budgets to compete on this playing field. To make things even harder for indie developers, many Google Play users only download apps from these Top Apps lists. One solution is to create indie-only lists (see below). Google could also tweak its general ranking algorithms to give more prominence to apps gaining traction without ad dollars.
Address The 5-Star Problem: Similar to the crippled ranking lists, many or most apps with consistent 5 star ratings got them not through organic acclaim, but by working the system. (One common, if very dubious technique: An app prompt asks users if they like the app, but are only taken to the app store to post a review if they answer “Yes”.) It will probably take months to fix star ratings and rankings. But there’s other, simpler features Google Play can introduce now to help level the playing field:
Create Indie-Only Top App Lists And Badges: Is it fair that it takes over $100,000 in advertising to achieve enough visibility to grow organically? For every out-of-the-blue indie hit like Flappy Birds, thousands of other quality apps languish unseen. Google can help fix this to give app makers a more level playing field. To do that, Google could consider duplicating Top App lists only featuring indie developers. That could attract more volume for those with limited budgets. (There are many ways Google could define what constitutes an “indie” developer, but the underlying goal is to highlight apps made by small teams on limited budgets.) For similar reasons, apps designated as indie could have a badge or other special icon which affirms that status. This would also give indie titles an underdog appeal to consumers searching for original games to play.
Indie Developer Profiles: Related to the above, I’d love to see Google Play add a profile feature which allows indie developers to literally put a face to their apps. Doing this would instantly add a human interest element to Android’s app ecosystem and help create stronger ties to developers and consumers who love their games. (Consider how important the personal element has been to the success of Kickstarter projects.)
Even if Google were to implement all these changes, it would not necessarily guarantee sunshine and roses for app developers. With such a large market to compete in, most apps will still fail. Google Play is still a capitalistic market, after all. But with the “bad guy” advertisers handcuffed, indie developers at least have much more peace of mind. For now, they can work with ad networks which monetize in a brand safe, transparent, user-friendly way. Google just needs to capitalize on this move by also helping devs at the discovery level. That way, well-deserving, low budget games—no matter how much their big budget competitors spend—have less incentive to turn to the next shady ad practice.