How A New Apple Developer Guideline Could Be Curtains For Apps That Promote Other Apps

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Apple has changed its iOS developer guidelines, adding a clause (on September 12, a source tells me) that reads: “Apps that display Apps other than your own for purchase or promotion in a manner similar to or confusing with the App Store will be rejected.” That’s a change that could have wide-reaching effects, especially on promotion models that offer developers a paid top slot on app recommendation offerings like FreeAppADay, Daily App Dream and more.

Developers routinely hand over large sums of money to promotional and marketing agencies to get their products more downloads, which helps propel them to the top of App Store rankings charts, which in turn promotes huge download numbers to help them recoup their initial spend and make money long-term. It’s easy to find agencies offering this kind of paid bump via simple Google search. Developers using these kinds of strategies aren’t necessarily pushing bad products; getting attention in the App Store is notoriously difficult, and any help counts.

Still, Apple’s vision of the App Store is clearly one of a meritocracy, where the apps that demonstrate the most quality are the ones that rise to the top, since that’s the approach that guarantees higher user satisfaction overall and helps maintain the App Store’s reputation against its competitors’ mobile software marketplaces. The changes to the App Store in iOS 6 appear to be geared towards offering more places where Apple can highlight quality apps, and even de-emphasizing top charts as opposed to other sources like Genius, and this is another one intended to keep quality discovery at the forefront.

I spoke with Jordan Satok, founder of AppHero, an app recommendation service that could potentially fall under a broad-based category of “Apps that display Apps other than your own for purchase or promotion,” and he said he doesn’t believe that what Apple is doing here is necessarily going to apply to any and all services highlighting other apps for download. He believes that what AppHero offers, since it isn’t favoring one app over another based on any kind of incoming payment from developers, is merely value-add for App Store consumers and therefore likely to be left alone by Apple.

“The whole point of the review guidelines is that Apple wants consumers to get the very best apps from the App Store, and they recognize that if it gets filled with garbage, discovery gets even worse, and that just hurts the platform,” Satok said in an interview. “I see all of these changes as just trying to help consumers find the very best stuff, and it’s trying to go after services that are just the blatant app promotion services. App Hero was created with the goal of helping consumers find the very best apps out there.”

Chiristian Henschel, founder of mobile ad and analytics firm adeven believes that Satok’s optimism may be misplaced. In an interview with him and co-founder/CTO Paul Müller, Henschel said that Apple usually implies an inclusive policy rather than looking at things case-by-case when it implements new rules, meaning it’s not likely going to be concerned about motivation or specific financial arrangements if it starts rejecting apps or app updates that violate the new rule.

“Making a clarification like that is a clear point saying, ‘We definitely don’t want those apps to be able to submit,'” Henschel told me. “Having an app whose sole purpose is to represent other apps for promotional purposes, it’s kind of clear that all those apps are being addressed here.”

Historically, Henschel notes that changes like this one don’t result in apps being taken down right away from the App Store. Instead, he says to expect updates to begin to be refused, resulting in gradual obsolescence as hardware and iOS versions continue to change and software is no longer compatible with new versions. But even without immediate action, the financial impact could be huge, since he says that these marketing strategies represent millions of dollars in revenue to companies like Tapjoy, for instance.

Of course, Apple isn’t consistent in terms of enforcing its own rules, so there’s also the chance these kinds of apps could skirt by without any ill effects. But Henschel says it looks like Apple is getting very serious about defending its download metrics, which he believes still represent the primary source of app rankings, despite some claims that engagement plays a bigger role. In fact, he says if anything this only proves that Apple wants to keep downloads as the primary means of measuring App Store success, since it seems to be gearing up to make another sweeping change to how the app marketing ecosystem works in order to avoid download numbers gaming.

In a March article, my colleague Kim-Mai Cutler detailed the steps Apple could take to make the App Store a better place. This change is a step in improving things for consumers, but depending on how serious Apple is about enforcing it, it could have significant ramifications for a lot of marketing companies, many of which likely have a lot of VC funding on the line.