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Get Rid of the App Store’s “Top” Lists

At the bottom of my recent post on App Store pricing, I ended a three-paragraph footnote1 with this:

Abolishing the “top” lists from all App Store interfaces and exclusively showing editorially selected apps in browsing screens would do a hell of a lot more than trials to promote healthy app economics and the creation of high-quality software.

It was really a mental note to expand on that in a full article sometime, which I promptly forgot about. Fortunately, John August didn’t:

The App Store’s best-sellers lists hurt shoppers, developers and Apple. The charts create a vicious circle that encourages shitty business models and system-gaming. They’re a relic of a time when data was scarce. They should go away.

And Nick Dalton presented more alternatives.

The “top” list is a cop-out by Apple: it’s easy to implement and cheap to operate, and its results appear impartial and incontestible. I’m sure Apple thought this was a sweet solution.

But it has three major problems:

Since the “top” lists are featured so heavily in the App Store interfaces, many buyers appear to be buying from them as their primary store-browsing channel.3 These lists, and their mechanics, therefore deeply affect the entire app market in unsurprising ways.

The race to the bottom. Deceptive low-now, high-later pricing. Scam and clone apps. Shallow apps with little craftsmanship that succeed, but many high-quality apps unable to command a sustainable price. The “top” list encourages all of these — we’d still have them without the list, but to a substantially lesser degree.

Developers will optimize for whatever factor is being rewarded. The “top” list simply rewards developers for getting as many people as possible to buy or download the app once. There’s no reason to optimize for longer-term satisfaction or higher engagement after purchase.

It’s a lot like the Android market. Nobody — not Google, not the manufacturers, and certainly not the carriers — gives a shit if you hate your Android phone or put that cheap tablet in a drawer after a month. They’re optimizing for “top” lists, so they compete on price, flashiness, and huge retail incentives, usually at the expense of quality and long-term satisfaction.

Apple refuses to play that game in hardware. Why are they content to let it dominate their software ecosystem?

You can do better than “top” lists, Apple. Get rid of them and start rewarding great software.


  1. Because that’s how I roll. 

  2. Apple’s sub-par App Store iOS apps exacerbate this by often making it clunky or buggy to browse very deeply into the ranks. 

  3. This is all just speculation based on fuzzy data, since developers still don’t have another important metric: where buyers came from. It would be extremely helpful to even have a simple breakdown between three huge channels: browsing the App Store, searching the App Store, or following a direct link. (Of course, more specific data from each of those would be even better. But I’d happily take this elementary breakdown in the meantime.)

    Without this information, we have very little insight into why people buy our apps, which makes it harder to know where to invest our marketing efforts, how to price our app, or how to improve it. 

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