Was Apple right to purge AppGratis from the App Store ?

The Wall Street Journal published a report on “Apple Kicks AppGratis Out of the Store” and AppGratis formally responded to the WSJ story today. It is a detailed response that adds a lot to the conversation around app store curation, but it doesn’t address a couple of key points from the WSJ report.

1. Pay for exposure: The WSJ report noted that Apple was concerned that “AppGratis was pushing a business model that appeared to favor developers with the financial means to pay for exposure.”

Does AppGratis make paid recommendations? The AppGratis response doesn’t respond to this charge. However, anecdotal evidence (as well as a Forbes interview with the CEO of AppGratis) suggests that AppGratis does have a pay-to-play model wherein they “recommend” apps to users if the app-developers pay them huge amounts of money

Honest, real recommendations provide great value to users. Our iPhone and Android apps have received a lot of great coverage in the media (for example, the iPhone Economy app was featured in the cover page of Wiley Publishing’s Book on Incredible iPhone apps, got great reviews in MacWorld, GeekWire etc). So in addition to the value that users get, I recognize the value that developers get from good reviews/recommendations.

However, paid recommendations are bad for the whole app ecosystem. They are bad for users and they also hurt good developers who rely on organic user-base growth and real/honest reviews and recommendations. Large companies with free apps and huge marketing budgets clearly benefit from pay-for-exposure. That is why they pay huge amounts of money to AppGratis and other companies like TapJoy which offer incentivized downloads. These tactics result in artificially inflated download-counts. They manipulate app-store rankings and artificially push promoted-apps to the top of Apple’s top-apps charts.

So it is easy to understand why Apple would want to eliminate apps based on the pay-for-exposure model.

Rule 3.10 in Apple’s app-store guidelines explicitly states that “Developers who attempt to manipulate or cheat the user reviews or chart ranking in the App Store with fake or paid reviews, or any other inappropriate methods will be removed from the iOS Developer Program”. One could make a weak argument that all advertisements (e.g. iAds or Google-ads) amount to something like pay-for-exposure, but I don’t think that regular banner ads are comparable with what Apple is trying to ban. I also think that full-disclosure is important and that AppGratis-users should be told that the recommendations were “paid for”. It is interesting to note that AppGratis’ response hasn’t attempted to address the charge that they’re based on a pay-for-exposure model.

2. Push Notifications for advertisements and promotions: Rule 5.6 in Apple’s guidelines explicitly states that “Apps cannot use Push Notifications to send advertising, promotions, or direct marketing of any kind”.

One could make a weak argument that Rule 5.6 is bad for the user and that all push-notification-advertisements/promotions must be allowed. That may be a debatable point. One could also make the claim that Rule 5.6 isn’t being applied consistently. Again, it is arguable whether Apple is correct to permit advertisements in one class of apps (e.g. an airline advertising a sale) and prohibit it for another class of apps (e.g. AppGratis).

The WSJ report suggests that AppGratis violated rule 5.6 and the AppGratis blog attempts to counter this by saying that they only send one notification per day and that users opt-in. However, all iOS push-notifications are opt-in anyway. Apple’s rule doesn’t make exceptions for apps that only send one notification per day. So the AppGratis response does nothing to counter the fact that their app violates Rule 5.6 (as it is written).

Prohibiting app store chart manipulation: I’ve myself dealt with an app-store-rejection (for using a private API) and I understand why developers may want to push some limits. However, when it comes to matters like incentivized downloads and pay-for-exposure, I think that Apple is right to prohibit the artificial manipulation of app store rankings.

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