Google recently introduced an important new rule prohibiting deceptive promotion of apps on its Google Play store. It’s great that Google is clamping down on spammy advertising. However, the new requirement doesn’t really address a core, underlying cause for the practice: broken app discovery. With more than two-thirds of apps failing to break even, it’s no surprise that some indie devs desperately turn to sketchy ad practices or bot farms that manipulate rankings. Of course, Apple’s App Store struggles with the same woes as well, but given that Google’s core competency is content discovery, it’s fair for the market to expect much more from Play.
Fortunately for Google, it has a number of means to quickly gain the edge on discovery over Apple. In the process, the search giant can greatly help the independent developer community. (Which, after all, makes up the majority of app developers.)
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- Reform the ranking system: At the moment, Google Play’s “Top Apps” lists are too directly tied to ad spend. Most indie developers don’t have an advertising budget large enough to compete on this playing field, and consequently, none but the very most successful indies last long enough on the top ranks to receive notice. To make things even harder for indies, most Google Play consumers only download apps from these Top Apps lists. One solution is to create indie-only lists [see below]. Google should also tweak its general ranking algorithms to give more prominence to apps gaining traction without ad dollars.
- Address the 5-Star problem: Similar to the crippled ranking lists, many or most apps with consistent 5-star ratings got them not through organic acclaim but from working the system. (One common, if very dubious technique: An app prompt asks people if they like the app, but it only takes them to the app store to post a review if they answer “Yes.”) There are a number of ways Google could reform this system; here’s just two ideas: 1) Only allow app ratings after 15 total minutes of gameplay to curb unfair judging; and 2) Add a pop-up prompt automatically — directly from Google Play — so that players never have to leave the game. This is important to ensuring that this process captures true app ranking score. (The latter is important because most developers don’t typically send players who don’t like their game to the app store, so the majority of reviews are not a good representation of the broader gamer population.)
In any case, it will probably take months to fix star ratings and rankings and a lot of behind the scenes A/B testing to achieve the best balance. But Google Play can introduce other, simpler features right now to help level the playing field immediately:
- Create indie-only Top App Lists and Badges: Is it fair that it takes over $100,000 in advertising to achieve enough visibility to grow “organically”? For a company that claims to do no evil, it sure makes sense to address this contradiction. To do that, Google should consider duplicating Top App lists only featuring indie developers. That would attract heavy downloads for those with limited budgets. (There’s many ways Google can define what constitutes an “indie” developer, but the underlying goal is to highlight apps made by small teams on limited budgets.) For similar reasons, apps designated as indie should have a badge or other special icon that affirms that status. This will also give indie game an underdog appeal to consumers searching for something original to play.
- Indie developer profiles: Related to the above, I’d love to see Google Play add a profile feature that enables indie developers to literally put a face to their apps. Doing this will instantly add a human-interest element to Android’s app ecosystem and help create stronger ties to devs and the consumers who love their games. (Consider how important the personal element has been to the success of Kickstarter projects.)
- Integrate developers’ YouTube channel into their app pages: Game-footage videos are a key way gamers discover and decide to download games (especially from lesser known studios and publishers), and Google happens to own the largest video network of them all. Google should give developers the option of embedding their YouTube channel into every game that they own. This will also help level the playing field by giving indie developers the fastest, lowest budget, most honest way to promote their game — simply showing how it plays.
Beyond discovery: Better advertising solutions
App discovery isn’t the only problem facing game developers. Just as bad is developers’ inability to generate enough revenue to stay in business. According to most industry reports, two-thirds of game developers fail to break even. Many attempt to make money through advertising. Most do it wrong. Nearly all give up. However, advertising is the primary revenue generator for an increasing majority of game developers, especially as free-to-play overwhelmingly becomes the dominant model. At the same time, as Google’s new policies show, deceptive ad networks hurt Play. So Google should not only crack down on bad actors but also encourage white hat ad players and innovative ad content formats.
One way Google can shepherd developers beyond from spammy ad formats is to encourage native ad formats, which preserve games’ player experience. While advertising is never going to be the perfect or entire solution, native ads that incorporate high design standards move things closer to a pure gaming experience without having to charge gamers a premium to cover development expenses (and deals squarely with the reality that some 98 percent of gamers simply make no in-app payments). For some tips and tricks, I wrote this guideline of technaZiques for successfully integrating native ads in games.
To be sure, even if Google were to implement all these changes, it wouldn’t guarantee sunshine and roses for app developers. With such a large market to compete in, most indie games will still fail. But with the “bad guy” advertisers handcuffed, indie developers at least have much more peace of mind. For now, they can work with ad networks which monetize in a brand safe, transparent, user-friendly way. Google just needs to capitalize on this move by also helping devs at the discovery level. That way, well-deserving, low budget games — no matter how much their big budget competitors spend — have less incentive to turn to the next shady ad practice.
Robert Weber is the cofounder and senior vice president of business development at NativeX, the leading native advertising platform for mobile games. Weber became an entrepreneur at the age of 16 when he launched a multimillion dollar business in his basement. In 2006, he shared the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award with his twin brother, Ryan. Rob is a Board Member for NativeX and an angel investor to many startups. He enjoys sharing his passion for entrepreneurship with others by serving on the board of nonprofit Minne*, a 4,400-plus member community focused on strengthening the Minnesota tech startup ecosystem.