Have you ever wondered how app stores determine which apps to show you when you type something into the search bar of the app store on your phone? If so, you’re not alone – the European Commission (EC) has also been asking this question.

The EU’s Platform-to-Business (P2B) regulation aims at increasing transparency for business users of online intermediation services (i.e., platforms). Amongst other things, the P2B regulation (Article 5) requires platforms to list in their terms and conditions the main parameters that determine ranking and why they are more important than other criteria. This requirement targets platforms ranging from app stores to travel agencies or e-commerce marketplaces.

On December 12, 2019, the European Commission held a workshop to help platforms understand the requirements related to ranking transparency. Based on the contributions in the workshop, the Commission will develop implementation guidelines for the P2B regulation.

The App Association was proud to participate and to involve two of our members directly in this conversation. Our member Synesthesia from Italy submitted written comments, and one of our Belgian members, Barefoot&Co, participated in person. We very much appreciated the opportunity to have their voices included in this important discussion. We look forward to the implementation guidelines the Commission will publish.

App ranking is important to our members. The success of each app is closely tied to its ranking on app stores. That’s why our members benefit from fair competition and the unbiased use of ranking algorithms. When it comes to transparency, it’s important to strike the right balance: on one hand, transparency is important to increase developers’ understanding of ranking procedures. On the other hand, it is crucial to preserve the security of ranking algorithms to ensure that malicious actors can’t cheat the system. Only a balanced approach to this important issue can guarantee a merit-based system in the app stores that benefits virtuous app developers, consumers, the app economy overall.

The ideal ranking method would enable developers to let their apps rise in the ranks by making them better and more useful. This means improving their content and functionality, rather than “hacking” the system by exclusively focusing on specific ranking criteria.

Developers can help users find their apps through app store optimization (ASO). ASO measures are based on a search algorithm’s ranking parameters. The overall goal of ASO is to achieve higher placement of an app in relevant search results and increasing the number of downloads. “White hat” ASO refers to measures that are in compliance with app store guidelines and based on main ranking criteria (e.g., Apple’s or Google’s). Such measures include:

  • Identifying popular keywords related to an app’s functionality
  • Benchmarking the competition by tracking their downloads, ratings, and ranks
  • Using keywords in the app’s name and/or subtitle and description
  • Actively asking users to rate the app
  • Designing a clear icon
  • Using attention-drawing screenshots and short, to-the-point captions
  • Using videos to show how the app works
  • Monitoring performance to identify which measures work best

“Black hat” ASO on the other hand, uses unethical methods. This can include buying fake downloads, rewarding users for reviews and ratings, and overloading listings with keywords to be unfairly ranked for that set of keywords. Disclosing the detailed inner workings of ranking algorithms would give black hat hackers free rein at manipulating search results. Regulatory efforts to increase ranking transparency must incent white hat rather than black hat ASO to preserve the successful platform ecosystem and the app economy. ASO is an important but difficult task for app developers, especially as the line between white and black hat ASO is sometimes hard to walk. Several services can help with ASO, promotion and user engagement strategies, such as App Figures, App Annie, or Synesthesia’s GrowItApp.

For developers and the purpose of ASO, the EU’s effort to create ranking transparency guidelines presents a valuable opportunity. If the final guidelines help to improve developers’ understanding of ranking criteria and refrains from mandating the disclosure of ranking algorithms, those guidelines will be beneficial for the app ecosystem overall.