App Non Gratis

App GratisWhen OMGPOP was an independent company with limited resources, releasing apps you never heard of, someone whispered to us that for a low six-figure amount, they could propel us to a Top 5 ranking in the App Store. Those were the days, well over a year ago, when bots ruled the App Store. Fake downloads in India, Chinese bot farms, all were tricks you could use to game the charts. We, like many companies, could never ethically use these tricks, and Apple moved quickly to shut down the scamsters. What was so scary was that, after the shutdown, I immediately saw some Top 10 apps drop hundreds of places in the App Store.

On Tuesday, they were No. 3, by Thursday they were No. 400. It was mind-blowing how fast some of these supposed “hit apps” fell quickly to obscurity. Given what happened — and Apple’s response — the question remains, why did app developers use these tricks?

The main reason is that it is hard to get discovered in the App Store. Without some advantage, users might never find your app — and the amount that you can spend to get there above board is limited. Another reason is that when you hit the Top 25, then the Top 10 and then the Top 5, the exposure in the App Store generates significant organic downloads. In other words, people see you on the charts and they decide to download your app. In some ways, it’s not unlike how record labels manipulated the SoundScan charts in the 1990s to make seemingly unpopular records become hits.

But it’s hard to keep the schemers down. When Apple smartly moved against the bots last year, there was a brief gap in the market. Into that gap stepped a new breed of companies to help market apps. Sure, the scamsters always had their tricks. Notice an app pop up at No. 1? Look for hundreds of reviews that only have one word (amazing, incredible, awesome), or look for a shockingly low number of reviews for an app that’s No. 1. These are indicators that folks are doing something shady to make it to No. 1. And Apple, to its credit, tirelessly shuts them down and closes loopholes. It’s a thankless task.

But there are known, above-board companies whose mission it is to help also market apps. AppGratis, until getting booted for violations of the App Store rules, was one of those companies (Free App of the Day is another). In some ways, Apple’s halt to AppGratis is a big deal. Many of the games and apps that are at the top of the charts recently engaged AppGratis, which uses its large audience to drive large download volume. They do this by offering their members discounts on paid apps. This is particularly important to small or independent developers who lack the cross-promotion networks and marketing clout of established companies, and who can rely on a deal with AppGratis to expose them to a large audience.

While it is a big deal — to both developers and consumers — for Apple to remove AppGratis, in many ways, in the long-term view, it does not matter. And that is the key point.

There is no doubt that Apple’s vigilance makes the app store a friendly, clean and amazing place for consumers. But the fight to keep it that way is tireless and never-ending. As long as there is money to be made, app developers and app marketers will find new angles to lay siege to the charts.

But the win for Apple, and ultimately the loss for the app developers, is that in the end, the App Store really is a democracy, and no amount of cheating ever truly wins. What I mean by that is that there is a hidden meritocracy in the App Store charts. By hook or by crook, you might find a new angle to drive your app to the top, but at the end of the day, if consumers don’t like it, your app is going to fall.

What matters more than hitting the Top 10 is the ability to stay in theTop 10. That is the secret. There is tremendous movement in and out of the chart rankings, but the apps that stay there day after day and month after month — games like Candy Crush or Words With Friends, or apps like Instagram — they are the true winners. And staying there just cannot be gamed. The other apps are like shooting stars. They hit the charts via AppGratis, but there is ultimately something not sticky or fun or compelling about them, and they quickly slide back down.

So AppGratis may be gone, but companies like it will continue to crop up to take the app developer’s money. A hit is always going to be a hit, and that can only be achieved by creating an amazing product that people truly love.

Dan Porter is the former CEO of OMGPOP.

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