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Google Play [Finally] Catches the App Engagement Wave

Shani Rosenfelder Mar 02, 2017

If you haven’t heard the news, Google just announced at GDC this week that the Google Play app store algorithm is now factoring the “stickiness” of gaming apps – specifically strong engagement, retention metrics and also a high star rating – to determine their rankings on top of the number of installs. This change rewards quality in gaming, and is a significant step forward for the industry.

We’ve been seeing the engagement trend picking up for the past two years. App marketers now understand that an install is only a stage in their funnel – an important one nonetheless – but only a stage. The real goal is monetization, especially for the vast majority of apps which are free and rely on in-app purchases and in-app advertising to make money. Without continued app usage, monetization becomes very very difficult, and that’s why smart marketers have been optimizing for engagement through a variety of tools – mainly retention and cohort reports.

Their efforts have certainly paid off. In our recent State of App Engagement report, we found that although retention continues to be a challenge (only 10-12% of users remain active seven days after installing an app, and a mere 4-5% are still active after 30 days), a year-over-year comparison shows that retention has improved across platforms – overall and among gaming apps in particular. Gaming marketers are usually savvier and more data-driven, which explains the impressive YoY increase they’re seeing in non-organic retention: +8% on Android and +21% on iOS.

It’s not entirely clear whether the changes Google Play announced affect Search, Top Charts or both. According to Todd Dunham, CTO and Co-Founder of ASO specialist firm The ASO Project, “Google didn’t explicitly mention Search when they announced these changes. So there can be the assumption that ratings/reviews metrics were included in Search, but the Top Charts were definitely more focused on overall download numbers – until now with the addition of engagement, retention and ratings/reviews factors.”

Google Play’s announcement also spells trouble for rewarded advertising (aka incentivized advertising). When the motivation of an app install is driven by a reward to install a game, retention suffers as most do not continue using the app or uninstall it altogether. The bonus of running incentivized (aka burst campaigns) – up until now – was the ability to rapidly gain a volume of users, thereby jumping up the charts and ultimately driving organic installs. So volume continues to be a factor in the Google Play algorithm but it carries a smaller weight, allowing games developed by smaller studios who don’t have the budget for massive UA campaigns the chance to shine.

So Google has finally caught the app engagement wave. It is not entirely clear to me why it took so long but I guess better late than never.

This begs the question what about Apple and its App Store? Well, although Apple did not officially state that retention/engagement metrics are included in their algorithm, it is assumed that they are. Dunham clarifies: “One of the major factors in the App Store is “heat” – the overall speed that your app is gaining downloads, reviews, etc… With our clients who have a strong network of dedicated users and high quality apps, releasing a major update is a huge bonus to their ASO efforts because they’re able to gain a lot of positive reviews in a short amount of time, thus improving rank. On the other hand, “black hat” apps can achieve a higher ranking pretty simply by gaining faux-downloads. The good news is that those apps never last, because at the end of the day the higher quality apps, with a strong organic presence will rise to the top.”

The bottom line is that app retention is now more important than ever. So how can you improve your game’s retention rate? We’ve got just what you need:

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