App Store bug boosts paid apps over subscriptions in the top charts

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A number of smaller, paid applications scored a spot on the App Store’s Top Grossing chart over the weekend in what may have been either the test of a new App Store algorithm or a fairly significant bug. The issue began on Friday, and only seemed to affect the Top Grossing apps, but not the other charts, like Top Free or Top Paid apps.

However, the Top Grossing Charts were affected across all App Store categories, not just the main Top Grossing chart for the whole App Store.

As one developer noted, their app had dropped from the No. 2 position in their category to the No. 35 position. This is what first alerted them to the problem, as they had just finished a very strong day and were having what may be their best month to date.

Throughout the weekend, apps that typically ranked well on the Top Grossing charts fell, while other, less popular apps took their place. It appeared as if the algorithm was now favoring paid apps over those that monetized using in-app purchases.

For example, the algorithm shift benefited some emoji apps, like Steph Curry’s StephMoji. But while it’s somewhat plausible that a handful of emoji apps had seen some sort of sudden popularity, others hitting the charts seemed out-of-place, like the more niche Construction Manager Pro or a $15 text translator app. (See below).

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Image Credit: Sensor Tower

One theory put forth by software maker Equinux is that Apple was experimenting with a new algorithm that would put less weight on things like recurring subscription revenue, and more on paid apps.

This would make sense, given how stagnant the Top Grossing charts have become.

Today, the App Store’s Top Grossing charts are often dominated by evergreen games, like Supercell’s Clash Royale, Candy Crush or Pokémon GO, for instance, along with top streaming services such as Netflix, Pandora, Spotify and others.

Though Apple more recently opened subscriptions to a wider variety of app businesses, the popularity of subscriptions has led to Top Grossing charts that consistently feature the same apps. This makes it harder for new apps to break in, and makes the charts less interesting to browse.

Following the change, paid apps were competing on equal terms with subscription-based apps, as the new algorithm appeared to only include new and first-time subscriptions, not renewals.

For indie apps, the change was welcome, as they finally got a chance at ranking in this section alongside the big names.

Unfortunately, it was not meant to be. Things returned to normal around 12 AM Monday morning.

Of course, this could mean that Apple is at least considering a change to how this part of its App Store works. But whether it matters all that much in terms of app discovery is another question. While some percentage of users may turn to the Top Charts to see what’s trending, they often now just search the App Store by keyword, or browse through the editorially curated sections. That said, the Top Grossing charts are due for a shake up, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Apple continue to experiment in this area.

That said, given the brief appearance of the change and quick rollback, it’s just as likely that this was a bug and nothing more. 

Update – Some additional data from Sensor Tower:

Six out of yesterday’s top 10 Grossing iPhone apps were paid apps. However, it doesn’t appear that the paid game that made it into the top 10 benefitted from the additional exposure, in terms of new downloads.