Apple has changed the AppStore algorithm AGAIN — May 2017

Update — May 17th. Things apparently have gone back to normal now. Seems like it was just a bug or error that Apple’s engineers solved. Anyway, as James Tang mentioned in the comments to this post it should have been seen as a wake up call for developers. Even though your app might be highly ranked and is being favored by Apple, you should not underestimate the risks of relying completely on the AppStore to promote and sell your product. There are many other channels app marketeers can invest in and ASO testing and iterations should be conducted on regular basis.

Apple has recently been experimenting with their AppStore search ranking algorithm which resulted in a huge dropoff for many apps in the keyword search rankings. It is not clarified whether or not it is a bug and there has not yet been an official statement, but they seem to have made changes to their algorithm again and this time it affects the iPad top charts. More specifically we can observe a punishment of universal apps (the ones that are available for both iPad and iPhone), which suddenly rank a lot lower in the top charts than apps that are iPad only.

Screenshot from the German AppStore Ranking

As we can see in the screenshot above, the top charts are dominated by iPad only apps. GoodNotes (the app I’m working for) used to be #1 in the overall paid iPad charts in Germany for quite a long time and also one of our main competitors Notability has been sticking around in the top 10. Both apps, however, are universal apps and thus can also be found on the iPhone (where the UI is obviously adapted to smartphone user’s needs). Right now we can see that other competitors that were far behind in the charts like Noteshelf or Notepad+ are gaining momentum. Looking at the data from App Annie, you can see how severely universal apps are affected in the iPad charts:

iPad top chart trends of GoodNotes 4 in US and German AppStore
iPad top chart trends of Notability in US and German AppStore

We can observe a huge drop in the ranking of the daily top charts for both apps since May 11th.

Why does it hurt so much?

Both app’s primary use cases are note taking and PDF annotation as well as document management, which are way more effective on the iPad. The iPhone version is rather a companion app that should enable people to quickly look up important information while they are on the go. Naturally, most of the sales actually come from iPad users. This way, Apple takes away one of the most important way of how apps can be discovered by the users.

Why does it make sense for Apple?

Apple recently introduced a great new update to their analytics suite on iTunes Connect and developers are now able to see if purchases or product page views came from people that randomly browsed the AppStore or where searching for a specific keyword. Our data reveals that most product page views come from people that browse the AppStore, but then over 70% of the actual purchases come from people that found GoodNotes through search. This clearly shows how important search is and why developers should spend a lot of time on ASO. Recently, Apple’s newest revenue driver SearchAds have been rolled out to new storefronts and can now be used not only in the US, but also in other English speaking countries, namely the UK, New Zealand and Australia. Putting the pieces together, it almost seems like Apple wants to move away from the importance of app discovery through the top charts and wants developers to invest more time (and money) into alternative ways of how their apps can be discovered like searching and SearchAds.

The bottom line

It definitely makes sense for Apple to force developers to spend time on doing ASO and invest in SearchAds if they want to keep improving the latter one and roll it out to more storefronts in the future. Also, moving away from universal apps might be a good idea because the human-device-interaction is not even close to being similar on iPad and iPhone. Both of those devices have completely different use cases and therefore should be designed accordingly. Nevertheless, it is definitely not the right way to punish apps that can be used on multiple devices. Further, the quality of the AppStore charts gets diluted: If we look at the top grossing apps in the screenshot below, we can suddenly see super high priced apps occupying the top spots. I’m sure that this is not what Apple aimed to achieve through this algorithm change because the AppStore still mainly targets individual casual users and not those that look for costly enterprise software.

iPad top charts on the German AppStore, including Top Grossing apps