Recently Google quietly released a new feature in the Play Store which was quickly noticed and remarked-upon by many: the ability to sort app search results by rating. The first incarnation of this feature (and one must assume that future updates will allow sorting by specific Star levels) is extremely simple: 2 choices only, “All ratings” and “4+ Stars”. This Android Authority post was one of the first-breaking that we noticed pointing it out, and as they pointed out it is a modest step in the right direction but doesn’t solve for all the challenges, writing, “…this may not catch some new apps with just a handful of reviews, and, second, apps with tons of fake reviews will still go through.” It’s a relevant point that new and low-install apps could be unfairly penalized until they build up a sufficient quantity of ratings, while this BRG article notes that the feature could also unfairly reward new or low-install apps with a modest number of ratings that happen to skew positive or are being ‘gamed’ by biased ratings (as the stats folks say, until the number of ratings for a given app reaches statistical significance).
These are interesting initial considerations, but for the last couple days we’ve been thinking about the more strategic implications of this move for the Play Store and Android apps overall – now and in the near future. This is Google we’re talking about, after all. 2 years ago (almost to the day), Android Authority ran this post questioning the larger issue at play here: why it was taking so long for Google to apply its deep experience and expertise in information organization, discovery, and qualification to its burgeoning app marketplace. The post not only questioned when Google would start to enable a variety of quality, price, and other app characteristic sorting and filtering, but also wondered when the Play Store content would start to be more prominently featured in organic search results — and how.
We thought we’d take a few moments to comment on this development and build on the rich online conversation that’s been unfolding about the new feature over the past week. Here are a few of our initial considerations as Google starts the process of introducing more flexible options for mobile users to find the right apps in the Play Store for their needs – particularly for app developers, managers, and publishers.
1) Ratings and Reviews Now Matter More Then Ever – Across All Key Platforms
This may seem like an obvious point – but the fact that Google *didn’t* offer this feature until now meant that developers and publishers could effectively hold app user Ratings and Reviews in a lower regard for Android apps than they needed to for iOS apps. As the Google founders themselves showed the world 15 years ago, a search is quite simply the beginning – and therefore the action closest to any person’s process of information discovery – of a decision. Even though the Play Store was gathering and displaying Ratings and Reviews against apps post-search (at least in the Play Store, if not effectively in broader search results), that is not nearly as valuable as enabling this piece of information to qualify the discovery process during the search process. A capability – feature, or logic, or the combination of the two – that an individual user can apply “a priori” in their search experience is a great deal more valuable than a feature that must be applied “ex post”. This is a direct result of the fact that a capability that is applied earlier in any manual discovery process is more valuable than one that is applied later. There are two reasons for this: first, it is more efficient for the individual user; and second, it is more precise as a mechanism for organizing and presenting the inferred results that a given user desires.
In other words, by elevating the ratings sort capability during the search Google has made it both easier and faster for users to find what they really want. In so doing, Google has basically affirmed for mobile app developers that (a) ratings and reviews really matter – a lot, and, (b) they want to elevate the importance and weight they ascribe to this aspect of any given app on their platform. The implication here is not a small one for mobile app developers and publishers overall – and for Android app managers specifically: app quality, as judged by real app users, is now one of the most important meta-data characteristics of every single app in the Play Store. The downstream implication of this is that every Android app publisher now has an imperative to manage a strategy for ensuring that users consistently (a) see high value in each app they release for Android, and, (b) are encouraged to express their satisfaction with the app value in the form of public ratings and reviews in the Play Store. It’s as if Google has – in one feature-update stroke – said to Android developers and managers, “We now consider high ratings for apps in our marketplace to be a primary user download consideration, and you should too.”
2) Android Apps Are No Longer Allowed to be the “Also-Rans” of a Company’s Mobile Strategy
Whether or not they publicly acknowledge it, there has been an undercurrent of bias among corporate marketers and entertainment media publishers that iOS apps are the clear priority and biggest business opportunity… and that an Android app is either a ‘check the box’ gotta-have or a distant 2nd priority to their iPhone and iPad apps. We fully recognize that this is a gross generalization – there are many publishers who have lead the market with Android-first innovation, and many companies who for several years have looked at their mobile OS usage and business-benefit data and allocated development resources with equal (or proportionally-appropriate) priority for both platforms. However, we don’t think we’re being controversial in stating that Android as a app platform has for too long been considered an under-appreciated second child – never able to live up to the higher expectations and preferred first-born status of iOS. [As a father of three, I'm reminded of the Tikki Tikki Tembo story that I've read my daughters on many an evening.]
And for a while, this was probably a defensible point of view. Research consistently showed that iPhone users were early-tech-adopters and indexed higher than other mobile OS platforms for income and digital media content consumption — all statistics that made mobile marketers salivate, and gave easy-to-repeat statistics that allowed them to defend their iOS-first priorities and justify their disproportionate investment of money and effort towards the Sunnyvale giant’s products and platform.
However, the last several years have forced objective mobile business managers to revisit their biases and revise their marketing and development priorities. The run-away growth of Android in recent years which has made it the definitively dominant mobile OS platform globally, according to IDC (linked), Gartner (chart at right), and others. Increased competition in the U.S. market among both wireless carriers and their smartphone hardware partners has made mobile OS platform switching more commonplace. A good deal is a good deal, and Apple and Google now are in the software *and* hardware game – and Google’s willingness to take a break-even or loss-making deal on their hardware and software in favor of winning their way into consumers pockets has harvested a lot of early-iPhone-adopters. [Some killer hardware innovation by Samsung, HTC, and now Google's previous Motorola hardware unit has earned a lot of new and OS-switching U.S. and European customers also.]
Simply put, Android apps are now vitally important for any global media or brand enterprise – now more so than ever, in light of the platform’s pervasiveness. Maintaining a lower-quality, or feature-poor, Android version of an app that is better on the iOS platform can no longer be explained away with glib stats about difference segment profiles with iPhone users or ignored because Apple developer expertise was earlier to market. App marketers and publishers better have financial and usage data to back up their development investment priorities – and it better align proportionally. Google hasn’t elected to belabor this point by using “the stick” – instead, we view this new ratings-sort feature in the Play Store as an important signal that they intend to provide more “carrots” to motivate app managers to focus on what their diverse, increasingly-global mobile customer base really wants and values. In our view, this is one small example of a much larger key strategic shift in Google’s ability to signal how they intend to help – and reward – app publishers who prioritize app quality in their Android-specific app development and innovation efforts.
3) Mobile Customer Needs Come First – Ignore Them At Your Peril
Finally, Google’s ratings-sort feature acknowledges (at long last) that their Play Store app discovery capabilities have under-delivered to their growing customer base for too long – and they intend to change that. Our prediction is that this is just the first step. We will continue to pay attention to the new tools – and improved quality of Play Store + organic search results – that elevating the importance of app customer evaluations motivates them to create. So here’s the final strategic question we’ll leave you with: “If the most efficient company in the history of the world at organizing and presenting useful information to Internet users is signalling that they intend to raise their emphasis on effective discovery of quality applications, what do YOU intend to do to ensure that your Android app(s) perform at their best for customers?”
If you are running a business that is dependent upon mobile customer experiences and commerce – and really, who *isn’t* these days – are you paying enough attention to driving app quality on all of the key mobile platforms? Are you using all of the data at your disposal – both public data like app store ratings, reviews, and meta-data, as well as private data like user mobile OS share and ARPU – to ensure your development and marketing efforts are appropriate? Are you letting historical bias (or just your own personal mobile OS platform preferences) guide an under-emphasis on Android app improvement, quality, and customer regard? Most of all, are you listening to – and engaging with – your mobile app customers with equivalent empathy and focus, regardless of which mobile platform app they are using of yours? In our view, these are some of the important strategic questions that this seemingly small Play Store experience improvement provoke.
As always, we welcome your comments and views on the topic. We know where we stand on the matter: every mobile customer is unique, valued, and valuable – and every customer deserves to receive the highest-quality experience that your resources and developers can deliver. But don’t believe us – just look at Google. They just raised the bar on expectations for app quality and customer evaluations of same. Our bet is that they intend to raise it further still as the mobile marketplace continues to grow and mature.