I had a chance to discuss Google Play rankings and app store optimization with games industry veteran and nativeX Games Producer, Nate Dykstra. Nate’s mobile expertise runs deep, knowing the Apple App Store and Google Play ecosystems front to back as he’s seen them mature from their inception to where they are today. Nate is also an expert in the complex realm of free-to-play mobile game production and design, where he has excelled at working with data to validate game design optimization for nativeX’s partners.
Google Play Rankings
Ythan: Google and Apple are both very shy about explaining how their app stores work but at least with Apple’s App Store, you can uncover valid arguments and tested theories with a simple “Google search.” Google Play is a different monster, one that few have been able to reverse engineer or theorize how it truly works. As someone that has produced many games that have ranked on Google Play, what can you tell me about Google Play and how their ranking algorithm varies from Apple’s?
Nate: The key in Google Play is quality. They took a lot of heat early for having apps that were lacking in quality but with the launch of Google Play, they have taken ownership of quality and they’re holding developers accountable. Google Play’s ranking algorithm seems to be very calculated, taking into account variables that date all the way back to the app’s initial launch date. Apple on the other hand is believed to calculate their rankings in real-time, only measuring a few days back, so a one-time media buy can have immediate influence. On Google Play, you need to consistently acquire new users. Secondly, to fight the “plague of bad reviews” that cripples many great apps, Google started requiring a Google+ account to write app reviews on Google Play. As we know, App Store reviews require an Apple account which is not directly tied to a social network.
Ythan: We know the App Store’s chart rankings are country specific but I’ve heard, Google Play rankings might be global. Do you have any insight on this?
Nate: Though unconfirmed, in my experience, I am aware of many developers experimenting with buying traffic around the world. I would also assume, there is more complexity to this as Google wants developers to localize. Again buying traffic in a country that isn’t relevant to your game could also hurt you because of the negative reviews and uninstalls that may come with it.
Ythan: So Google actually accounts for uninstalls when calculating your app’s rank, interesting. I understand on Apple’s App Store, it’s common to submit your app just to get Apple’s stamp of approval, and then iterate based on what the market demands – i.e. negative reviews and uninstalls. Does Google’s quality control method of counting uninstalls against you, change the mindset of developers when they are preparing to submit apps?
Nate: Yes, absolutely. It’s safe for developers to assume that if users aren’t deleting your app, they probably like it. With that said, if they are uninstalling your app in massive quantities, it’s going to hurt. That’s why Google makes it easy for developers to update their apps in a matter of hours, instead of putting them through a lengthy review process. This is great because Google is giving developers the opportunity to iterate their apps and respond to complaints very quickly while still maintaining their quality score for charting. The lesson is your app is not going to be perfect when you submit it but don’t submit a bad app. Once the app is sound – submit, and then listen closely to the market. If your app isn’t ready, your window for getting featured in the top “Top New Free” apps will shrink significantly.
Ythan: Google Play offers many discoverability channels including top charts lists; Top Paid, Top Free, Top Grossing, Top New Paid, Top New Free, Staff Picks, Recommended For You, Trending Apps, and Best Selling Games. Charts have long been a way of rewarding positive behavior, in this case, following development best practices and the Android design guidelines. They are also being used for quality control. Developers that comply are rewarded with organic installs because they created a quality app and users have a better Android experience because they are presented the best quality apps first, creating a winning situation for everyone, including Google. For game developers dreaming about ranking, we know your best bet early on is to land in the “Top New Free” charts but what does it really take to get there and how long are apps eligible?
Nate: Apps are eligible to be listed in the “Top New Free” charts for the first 30 days after they launch on Google Play. That’s why it’s critical to release a sound app and maximize velocity during the first 30 days. When you launch, you should be prepared to measure and influence retention. Have a marketing plan ready and do everything in your power to prevent users from deleting your app. The best practice for doing this is to include push notifications to increase engagement. Just remember, being overly aggressive and pestering users to return to your game too often will have an adverse effect which will lead to uninstalls and ultimately hurt your chances of ranking in the “Top Free” charts.
Ythan: If chart rankings are based on more than just the quantity of installs, can we assume that users will pay for quality apps? Does it make sense to aim for the “Top New Paid” chart instead?
Nate: It’s really going to depend on what your app is and how much money you want to make. If your app is a game, use the freemium model because that’s what the market is demanding. It’s also worth noting that right now 9 out of 10 apps and 42 out of the top 50 grossing apps on Google Play are free-to-play.
Ythan: You mentioned another discoverability channel for “Trending Apps.” How is the trending list different from the “Top Paid” and “Top Free” charts?
Nate: The Trending Apps list includes a blend of paid, free, and local apps, as well as other apps listed in the top new charts.
App Store Optimization
Ythan: Google’s roots are in Search and many of their decisions as a company seem to be motivated by the desire to re-purpose that organizational knowledge. How is Google translating their wealth of knowledge about Search into the Google Play Store and what implications does this have for developers thinking about app store optimization (ASO)?
Nate: Similar to SEO, keywords and keyphrases are very important for Google Play ASO. Use them tactfully throughout your title, descriptions, title tags, app name, and even in the file names of your screen shots. Basic optimizations like including your most important keyword somewhere in the title will pay dividends, even when people search for your app in search engines outside of Google Play.
Zynga using keyword “poker” in the name, URL, and description.
I also recommend using Google’s Keyword tool and the auto-response search suggestions that appear in Google Play to gauge popularity.
A poker game would include keywords; poker games, poker deluxe, poker king, etc.[/caption]
Additionally, once you are able to get users to visit your app’s page, welcome them with a sharp icon and flashy screen shots from your game. However, try not to oversell your app with the screen shots because, like we discussed earlier, uninstalls hurt you. If the app doesn’t live up to expectations, most people will uninstall it, hurting your chances of getting featured.
Google Play is a different beast than the Apple App Store so think of them differently when planning your marketing strategy. Both stores value quality but they have different methods for policing and rewarding their developers. Quality installs will help you more on Google Play than on the App Store (right now) because rank does not degrade as quickly as it does on the App Store. Also, on Google Play you will continue to see incremental organic installs long after your ad campaign has been completed. One final takeaway, engagement and retention not only matter for charting on Google Play, they also impact search rankings.
This is where Google Play stands today but as we know, this stuff can change overnight. It sounds cliché but the best thing you can do as a game developer is make really good games. Hiring the best developers, designers, and producers will give you an edge and letting them do what they do best is the only way you are going to sustain your rank in the charts when Google Play changes. Remember, in the last ten years we saw drastic changes in the way Google Search works and if history repeats itself, we will see major changes in Google Play.