Apple‘s (NASDAQ:AAPL) App Store has begun rejecting apps that offer users rewards for watching video or posting about the app via social media. TechCrunch reported the changes following the App Store overhaul that Apple announced at the Worldwide Developers Conference last week. It said that the company has sent developers rejection notices for apps that provide free in-game credits after users watch a video ad, encourage users to download other apps not created by the same developer, or offer incentives to users who post about the app on social media, primarily Facebook (NASDAQ:FB).
Underlying Apple’s concern about incentives for users and the promotion of other apps is the company’s worry that apps are using these methods to manipulate their app’s rank in the App Store. A developer posting on an iPhoneDevSDK forum shared the regulation that Apple cited in its rejections of two of his apps: “3.10: Developers who attempt to manipulate or cheat the user reviews or chart ranking in the App Store with fake or paid reviews, or any other inappropriate methods will be removed from the iOS Developer Program. We found that your app, or its metadata, includes features or content that can have an excessive influence in the listing order or ranking on the App Store, which is not in compliance with the App Store Review Guidelines.”
As the developer points out later in his post, asking users to post about an app on a social network — Facebook, for example — is “one of the oldest tricks in the book and even Candy Crush uses it.” The comment highlights one of the biggest players in the social incentivization game. One of the first apps that comes to mind when most people talk about app-centric Facebook notifications is one of the most ubiquitous mobile games ever: King’s (NYSE:KING) Candy Crush Saga.
Incentivized sharing is a major tool for developers like King, whose Candy Crush notifications are pervasive on Facebook. Almost anyone who’s a member of the social network has received messages that a friend has “invited you to play” Candy Crush, or has “sent you a request” for help in the game. By sending those notifications, users either directly receive rewards such as additional lives, or can be given them by a friend who also plays the game.
That integration with Facebook has been a smart move for King, and a huge driver of Candy Crush’s massive growth, which has skyrocketed since the game launched on Facebook in in April 2012 and then expanded to an iOS app in November 2012. The game is free to download and play, but users pay for add-on features and extra lives — or post on Facebook to ask friends for help.
So is Candy Crush in danger? TechCrunch quotes a notice received by a developer that hints at the possibility of retroactive removal of apps that Apple considers to be in violation of the rules. But since it seems that many of the chart-topping iOS games aren’t in compliance with the new rules, it would be a questionable move by Apple to remove them. Removing a game like Candy Crush would leave the App Store without some of its most popular titles.
However, it’s possible that the move could bring an end to the pervasive Facebook notifications that Candy Crush encourages users to send. In that case, King would need to retool the strategy that sent Candy Crush to the top of App Store charts to make sure that the next games that it develops comply with Apple’s new regulations. For a gaming company that has recently had the budget to advertise Candy Crush on television, a new marketing strategy may not be a problem from a financial perspective. But depending on how far-reaching Apple’s restrictions ultimately go, King may find it harder to produce another game as wildly successful as Candy Crush.
Another important piece of Apple’s new, though vaguely-defined, policy is its implications for Facebook. Some of Apple’s rejection notices target apps that the company believes promote and distribute apps in a manner that competes with the App Store. One of the regulations that Apple has cited in its rejection notices to developers reads:
“2.25: Apps that display Apps other than your own for purchase or promotion in a manner similar to or confusing with the App Store will be rejected.” One of the biggest players whose practices the rule calls into question is Facebook. As BusinessInsider reported a month ago, Facebook gave developers the ability to deep-link between apps. That allows users to click a link within one app, and go seamlessly to a specific page in another app, allowing seamless integration and the easy discovery of new apps.
However, Apple’s rule changes could take aim at Facebook’s discovery and distribution strategy. BusinessInsider interprets the rules to mean that Facebook won’t be able to advertise its own App Center on its iOS app, which would prevent it from competing with Apple’s App Store for downloads and app discovery. Facebook’s discovery strategy was originally hailed as the strategy that could finally take advantage of the secrecy that surrounds App Store rankings, leveraging the Facebook user base to offer affordable advertising to drive downloads for developers.
The strategy came about because it’s so far been largely impossible to figure out exactly what drives rankings in the App Store. By offering another way for developers to promote their apps, Facebook has positioned itself to become a great tool for app discovery. If Apple enforces its new regulations against Facebook, that may indicate that Apple considers Facebook its competition and wants the app discovery business to itself — but considering the large number of potential downloads that Facebook could drive to the App Store, that doesn’t sound like the brightest idea.
The lack of transparency in the way the App Store works is unlikely to change anytime soon. The new rules will have a huge effect on the way that developers can promote and drive downloads of their apps, and the short term will see developers large and small taking a hard look at the new rules and how they affect the mysterious business of getting an app to appear on App Store charts and in search results.