Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

Apple Cracks Down on App Cross-Selling

Apple appears to have made multiple moves to crack down on the bustling industry of app developers buying downloads of their iOS apps.

Specifically, Inside Mobile Apps is reporting two big adjustments: in the last few days, Apple has rejected “dozens of apps” that use offer walls, and it has also apparently changed the ranking algorithm for its all-important top apps list to favor user engagement over number of downloads.

Apple declined to comment on the reports.

Offer walls are a method of cross-selling apps, where developers use companies like Tapjoy and Flurry to give users options to install other apps in order to earn virtual currency within a game.

The practice is now less influential on Facebook but incredibly pervasive for free mobile gaming apps, as I reported at length in March. Developers pay per install of their app so they can get on Apple’s top app leaderboards, which previously were determined by number of installs.

Similar practices on Facebook (in fact by some of the same companies; Tapjoy was formerly known as Offerpal) achieved notoriety in late 2009 when they were exposed for their scammy tactics in a series of articles about “Scamville” by TechCrunch.

To get on Apple’s free app leaderboard (which is one of the main ways users discover new apps), developers have been paying Tapjoy something like $30,000 to $500,000 for pay-per-install campaigns. That may seem exorbitant, but it’s seen as significantly cheaper than acquiring users with CPM advertising through Apple’s iAd and Google’s AdMob.

In its rejections of apps with offer walls, Apple has reportedly cited a clause in its developer agreement that prohibits app makers from manipulating or cheating its chart rankings. This is similar to Apple’s approach to mandating use of its own in-app purchasing by starting to enforce an existing clause about it with the rejection of Sony’s Reader app earlier this year.

As for the alteration of its app ranking algorithm, Apple now appears to be weighting factors other than recent number of downloads. That change has resulted in apps that clearly have large numbers of active users, like Facebook and Pandora, jumping up 10 or more spots in the most recent version of the list.

The leaderboard has been shaken up again in the day since Inside Mobile Apps reported the changes (a game called Stylish Sprint is now in the top spot), so other signals–perhaps something to highlight up-and-coming apps–may be in play as well.

And while Apple declined to comment, when we covered this topic in depth in March the company gave us a statement that defended its app discovery offerings, thus downplaying the role of companies like Tapjoy.

Tapjoy, for its part, said in a prepared statement:

Tapjoy has been and continues to be very supportive of the Apple app ecosystem, and we were not surprised about the Top Free & Paid rankings algorithm changes–we’re all for incremental changes that add to the user experience and keep the environment dynamic. But banning the largest and most effective channel for application distribution, engagement and monetization has a significant and long-term negative impact on the user experience, developer innovation and advertiser utility.

The moves bring Apple’s App Store practices closer to that of the Android Market, which uses more than just number of downloads in its app ranking algorithm. Pay-per-install campaigns are less prevalent on Android, though that’s also because much of the developer ecosystem is still focused on Apple.

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald