As the app market expands to a $77 billion industry, competition among app developers has grown increasingly fierce. Together, Google Play and the Apple App Store are home to a whopping five million apps, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of apps found on smaller platforms such as Windows Store and Amazon Apps Store.
This means today’s app developers must compete for users’ attention against millions of other apps. On Google Play alone, that number is 2.8 million. If an app doesn’t make it into Google Play’s charts, then it’s significantly less likely to garner the attention that is a prerequisite for downloads.
That’s a whole lot of pressure. And it helps explain why some Android developers have taken questionable steps to earn consumers’ attention. For years, fake reviews (whether automated or created by members of an app’s staff) have plagued app stores of all stripes. Once app store algorithms evolved to weed out the bulk of these false reviews, some developers turned to a different strategy: They incentivize users to leave positive ratings and reviews in an effort to drive their app up the charts.
While this strategy may seem less morally dubious than the use of patently false reviews, it’s nevertheless earned the side-eye from Google. The tech magnate recently announced that incentivized ratings, reviews, and installs undermine Google Play’s trustworthiness, and it unveiled plans for combatting this now-commonplace strategy. Here’s what developers should anticipate as these new rules go into effect.
The biggest takeaway? Beware of “incentivized actions”
Per Google’s announcement, the company has laid out a clear-cut definition for incentivized actions. This means there’s less wiggle room when it comes to determining what is and is not a reasonable way to obtain a customer review. Here’s how Google puts it:
“We deem an action to be incentivized if a user is offered money, goods, or the equivalent in exchange for the action – be it a rating, review or install.”
Google is making no bones about the fact that installs or reviews resulting from “the intent to manipulate the placement of an app in Google Play” will be detected and filtered. Should Google determine an app is in violation of its new policy, the app will be removed from the top charts (at best) or removed from the Store entirely (at worst).
Bottom line? It’s important for developers to understand Google’s definition of an “incentivized action” so that you can avoid these actions and stay on Google Play’s good side.
That being said, Google is being careful to differentiate between incentivized reviews and incentivized downloads. Google recognizes that incentivized installs aren’t just a tactic for manipulating Play Store rankings; they can also be a legitimate user acquisition strategy. In order to allow for this, the company won’t automatically remove apps that utilize incentivized installs—but it will closely monitor those apps for any infractions.
Also important to know? Any other attempts to inflate customer reviews will not be well received.
While Google is predominantly concerned with limiting the use of incentivized actions within its Play Store, it’s also casting a wider net when it comes to cracking down on the manipulation of customer reviews—and it’s holding developers accountable. The company’s recent announcement states:
“Developers must not attempt to manipulate the placement of any apps in the Store. This includes, but is not limited to, inflating product ratings, reviews, or install counts by illegitimate means, such as fraudulent or incentivized installs, reviews and ratings.”
The key words here? “Not limited to.” Google is aware that some developers will attempt to get around the latest rules with other perhaps-not-so-ethical tricks for driving up their apps’ positive reviews, and the company is making it clear that these future efforts will face equal scrutiny.
This is a bit tricky for developers looking to obey the rules while giving their apps the best chance of success, because Google isn’t getting into specifics regarding what “illegitimate means” might look like. We’re guessing Google will continue to amend its policy to meet shifting approaches to customer reviews.
Here’s the bottom line: Google only wants an app to rise to the top of its charts if it has truly earned its place there. These new rules suggest developers should focus on what they do best: developing high-quality apps that people truly want to use.
If you’re ready to get a slice of the pie, check out these job opportunities for Android developers.