Does Apple Manipulate “Top Charts” in the App Store?

iPhone 6s silver

Source: Apple

In a move that should surprise few iPhone users, Apple seems to be using the App Store’s “Top Charts” section to showcase its own apps among the most popular and most downloaded titles in the store, perhaps at the expense of featuring popular apps from other developers.

Sarah Perez reports for TechCrunch that apps like iMovie and those that comprise Apple’s iWork suite appear in the Top 10 Free Apps on users’ iPhones. That would mean that these apps number among the most-downloaded titles in the App Store, and are even more popular than apps like Facebook or Instagram. But it’s unclear if Apple’s own apps are actually as popular as their appearance on the Top Charts would indicate.

Perez explains that it’s unclear whether Apple is using the Top Charts to market its apps, and in the process, “stealing the top ranks from deserving developers,” or whether Apple’s own apps are, in reality, the most popular apps in the App Store and Apple intentionally “pulls them out of the Top Charts as a means of suppressing this information, in order to give the spots to third-party developers?”

Regardless of what the situation is, it seems suspect that the apps would appear, and then disappear, from the Top Charts over the course of a day. That should call into question the legitimacy of Apple’s ranking system, especially considering the fact that this isn’t the first time something similar has happened.

App Store optimization firm Sensor Tower has noted that apps like Numbers, Pages, Keynote, and others were suddenly appearing in the Top 10 on the App Store’s charts of free apps. Perez writes that the fact that such apps have appeared in the charts again points not to a bug or a test, as originally expected, but to “a manipulation of the Top Chart ranking data.”

On a recent day, iMovie, Pages, Numbers, Keynote, and iTunes U appeared at spots four through eight on the chart of the top free apps, ranking higher than Facebook and Instagram. Only a day later, the apps had disappeared not only from the Top 10, but also from the top 144 free apps that Apple displays in the App Store, with the exception of iTunes U, which continued to rank highly. But it’s extremely unusual for an app to be ranked within the top 10 apps one day, and to fail to appear in the Top Charts at all the next. “Any other third-party app that demonstrated such a pattern would be accused of buying installs or somehow manipulating the rankings to its advantage,” Perez reports.

The behavior persists, with the apps coming in and out of the Top Charts, despite the fact that the apps don’t appear in some of the feeds that App Store analytics firms use to access ranking data. Perez writes that Apple’s apps are the only ones that sometimes appear in the Top Charts on users’ iPhones, even though they don’t appear in some of Apple’s Top Charts feeds.

The App Store, and the Top Charts, in particular, have always been a mystery to developers, who don’t know how Apple’s algorithms work. While the charts are known to take into account a combination of downloads and velocity, and for the Top Grossing apps, revenue, not much else is known. That means that Apple could be experimenting with changes to its algorithm, or even testing out changes with its own apps first.

This is far from the first time that Apple has been accused of using the App Store to promote its own apps and services. Recently, The Cheat Sheet reported that Apple has begun leveraging the App Store to show users of older iPhones an unusually invasive pop-up ad encouraging them to upgrade to the new iPhone 6s, annoying them with an ad that temporarily obscures the interface of the App Store.

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