Google Tightens Up App Policy, Gets Stricter On Naming/Icon, Payments, Privacy, Ads And Spam Rules [Developer Letter]

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Looks like Google Play is growing up, combing its hair and trying to move away from its Wild West image: Android’s app store team has sent out a letter to its tens of thousands of developers informing them that it is making several changes to tighten its developer app policies. Areas that are covered include naming apps, app icons, payments, privacy, spam and advertising — effectively, a set of changes that sweep across many of the areas that have been a source of controversy and frustration for developers, and users of their apps.

Developers of new apps will be required to meet the new policy changes from now; apps that are seen to violate these rules, Google says, will have 30 days to comply with them, or risk app store ejection. However, that might be very messy to implement retroactively in some cases, for example in the naming conventions. In others, by explicity naming what are now no-nos, it could make it easier for Google to simply eject apps that do not comply.

The full letter detailing the changes is copied below, and Google notes that the new policy is now also posted online, but here are the main changes:

Payment policy: Google has made it clear that all transactions related to Google Play apps, either downloads or in-app purchases, must use Google’s own payment system, unless the purchase is for goods or content being consumed outside of the app and physical goods (incidentally that includes subscriptions if it also includes a hard copy of a magazine or newspaper). Google also notes that developers “must not mislead users” about apps, services and functionality… that is a bit grey however, and seems like it could be a very subjective thing to enforce.

On subscriptions, Google says users will not receive refunds if cancelling in the middle of a billing period, but that developers can actually offer a more flexible policy if they wish (although it looks like Google will hold firm on refunds anyway).

Naming/Icons: This one looks like it could be a nightmare to implement retroactively. Basically this is a move to try to reduce copycat apps.

“Don’t pretend to be someone else, and don’t represent that your app is authorized by or produced by another company or organization if that is not the case,” Google writes in its terms. Going a bit further: an app cannot have a name or icon that appears “confusingly similar” to existing products, or those supplied with the device. So that will include Camera, Gallery and Messaging, Google says.

This will be easy enough to apply to new apps, but how will Google decide which app gets to keep a similar sounding name over another? And whose decision will it be to decide how similar an icon or name is? It may boil down to whoever claimed a name first will get to keep it, and some subjective judgment on Google’s part.

Privacy/personal information. This might sound like obvious stuff, but it might be the first time Google has spelled out its policy on “dangerous products” like viruses as clearly as this. It specifies: “Don’t transmit viruses, worms, defects, Trojan horses, malware, or any other items that may introduce security vulnerabilities to or harm user devices, applications, or personal data.” Will naming it make a difference to the issue? The amount of Android viruses has been a major issue for a while now and only seems to be growing.

Spam. Again this is something we all know and hate well already, but Google is spelling out what is considered to be spammy behavior. Yes, it’s obvious, but doing this will make it easier for Google to subsequently eject or reject apps that violate its rules (although again, you have to wonder if any of these can get abused by Google itself). Spam now includes:

  • Repetitive content.
  • Product descriptions that are misleading or “loaded with keywords in an attempt to manipulate ranking or relevancy in the Store’s search results.”
  • “Gamed” ratings: those that have been rated multiple times; ratings that have been acquired by “offering incentives to users.”
  • Apps created by an automated tool or wizard still need to be submitted by the developer, not the operator of that automation tool.
  • Apps that drive affiliate traffic to a website or that provide links to a website that is not the developer’s own.
  • Apps that send automated SMS or email messages without confirming first with users.

Advertising. Google’s bread and butter now has its own new section in its developer policy. The main idea here is that mobile ads are considered part of the whole app experience by Google, and will now be treated as such. In other words, developers are responsible for how ads and third party libraries behave in the app, as much as they are for the app itself. So all of the above rules for app content apply to ads as well. Those ads that violate the rules could see the whole app getting rejected from Google Play.

The other rules that Google outlines are a testament to how sophisticated mobile ads have actually become. Play’s admin team note that ads “must not make changes to the functioning of the user’s device outside the ad by doing things such as installing shortcuts, bookmarks or icons or changing default settings without the user’s knowledge and consent.” Ads must not simulate or impersonate system notifications or warnings.” Ads must not force the users to submit personal information for advertising purposes to access the app. Ads must not “interfere with any ads on a third-party application.”

All in all, this is a pretty strong list of ways that Google can now use to better control what kind of apps appear in the store, and perhaps attempt to raise the quality in the process.

The full developer email is copied here.

 

Hello Google Play Developer,

We are constantly striving to make Google Play a great community for developers and consumers. This requires us to update our policies when we launch new features, like subscription billing, and also when we see unhealthy behavior, like deceptive app names and spammy notifications. This email is to notify you that we’ve made some changes to our policies which are highlighted below.

- We’ve added clearer details to the payment policy, and guidelines on how we will handle cancellations in our new subscription billing feature

- We are restricting the use of names or icons confusingly similar to existing system apps in order to reduce user confusion

- We are providing more detail on the kinds of dangerous products that are not allowed on Google Play. For example, apps that disclose personal information without authorization are not allowed.

- We are giving more examples of practices that violate the spam policy.

Additionally, we are adding a new section that addresses ad behavior in apps. First, we make it clear that ads in your app must follow the same rules as the app itself. Also, it is important to us that ads don’t negatively affect the experience by deceiving consumers or using disruptive behavior such as obstructing access to apps and interfering with other ads.

Please take a look at the Google Play Developer Program Policy at http://play.google.com/about/developer-content-policy.html to see all the changes and make sure your app complies with our updated policies.

Any new apps or app updates published after this notification will be immediately subject to the latest version of the Program Policy.  If you find any existing apps in your catalog that don’t comply, we ask you to fix and republish the application within 30 calendar days of receiving this email.  After this period, existing applications discovered to be in violation may be subject to warning or removal from Google Play.

Regards,

Google Play Team