Apple Froze App Store Rankings On Friday, And Odd Behavior Continues

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In the last three years, the only times Apple has ever frozen its App Store rankings has been over the holidays. So it’s interesting to note that the company actually froze rankings for a total of eight hours on Friday, and things still aren’t quite back to normal in terms of the store’s usual behavior and ranking results. The change to the App Store could possibly indicate either an intentional freeze on Apple’s part or even bandwidth concerns or other bugs and glitches.

The iOS App Store didn’t change between 10 a.m. and around 6 p.m. EST on Friday, essentially missing the expected update intervals at 12 and 3 p.m. EST. Meanwhile, the 5:50 p.m. ET change was minor, making it difficult to determine at the time whether it was the resumption of normal activity or just a temporary blip.

Though the store has now seen activity resume over the weekend and into Monday, the changes in app rankings now being observed are still unexpected, with historically highly ranked apps dropping 10 spots instead of one, while other previously ranked top 20 apps are unable to achieve ranks higher than 40, in other cases.

The changes, of course, come at a time when Apple has just released new devices with the iPhone 5s and 5c, whose launches also coincided with an update to Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS 7. With smartphone sales topping analyst expectations at 9 million devices sold through the launch weekend, it has not been smooth sailing for Apple with the debut of its new hardware and software. For example, Apple’s servers crumbled under launch-day strains last week, as users rushed to set up their new iPhones and download iOS 7. We’ve also heard reports of Apple engineers being called in over the weekend, forced to work non-stop for over 24 hours as issues arose.

But in addition to bandwidth concerns, there’s the possibility that Apple chose to freeze the App Store rankings out of caution to keep rankings from fluctuating during the big rush. Mobile app marketing startup Fiksu, which sent out an advisory message to clients after spotting the freeze and provided us with more details on these changes, speculates that Apple could have also been heading off an anticipated app marketing rush, similar to what happens around the holiday season. The speculation is that the company could have frozen rankings in order to prevent manipulation – or even the appearance of manipulation – of the App Store charts.

Alternately, it could have also been related to a push of new App Store algorithm testing or the finalization of other changes to its algorithms, which we reported on last month. The company then began to update app positions every three hours on the consumer-facing App Store, in efforts to prevent publishers from using automated means to game the charts, as the slowdown would give Apple time to identify and correct for short download bursts.

Still, Fiksu notes that even though overloaded servers have been common in previous Apple launch events, the high demand has not before affected app rankings in such a way. But the firm says that it’s just too early to tell if the changes are a temporary, volume-based incident or are the first steps involving a more systematic change on Apple’s part.

We’re keeping an eye on the situation with the App Store, and will update if we hear more, or if things ever go back to normal – or whatever the “new” normal of the iOS 7 App Store may be.

UPDATE: 9/27/13 mid-day: Fiksu reports today they believe this to be a glitch caused by the large volume of devices hitting Apple servers, which led Apple to turn off processes that were not mission critical, including app store updating processes. When they then turned these processes back on again, the glitch was introduced, causing the blips Fiksu saw after the freeze. This seems to have now corrected itself.