March 3, 2015 Last Updated 4:23 pm

Does Apple promote the ‘best’ apps? TNM takes a look at News apps for the iPhone

Apple’s “Best New Apps” in the News category contains few apps that are actually very new, though most are rated positively by their users

The question many developers (and publishers) have is ‘are things on a level playing field in the App Store?’ It is a tough thing to sort out for a number of reason, the first being that Apple’s App Store team remains behind a very solid wall – one that even developer support managers tell me is hard to breach (one of the reason why the Newsstand remains in disrepair).

Many developers believe that Apple favors some developers over others, and some media companies, as well. Marco Arment, who has plenty of experience launching apps into the App Store, disagrees at least as far as he is concerned, recently commented here, denying that he receives any favors from Cupertino.

CBSNews-iPhone“I know you probably won’t believe me, but I really don’t get “star treatment” from Apple,” he wrote.  “It’s a very big company, and in my (few) interactions with people there, almost nobody has ever even seemed like they might have recognized my name.”

Nonetheless, many of the same apps do seem to appear on the front page of App Store categories regularly, for reasons that are very much a mystery.

So, I looked at just one category, and just one promotional area, and created a spreadsheet (yes, Apple, I used Numbers). Since apps can be promoted for a variety of reasons, I chose the “Best New Apps” area of the News category for the iPhone – just one promotional area, of one subcategory, of one device – hardly a scientific study.

But “Best” and “New” are important modifiers. “Best” is a judgement call by the App Store staff, and “New” should mean just that, that the app has only recently been released.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that “New” is meaningless. The CBS News app, for instance, was first released in October of 2009 (seen above). Most apps are well over a year old, many over three or four. The App Store, after all, has been live since 2008 when Apple began allowing third party apps to be installed onto the iPhone with the release of iOS 2.

MSN-iPhone-lgOf all the apps, only Microsoft’s news app, MSN News is still on version 1.0 (seen at left).

“Best” is a judgement call and only Apple’s team could tell anyone if they use a criteria for determining what is best. Luckily, users have a mechanism for expressing their opinions and that is the ratings system.

User ratings are not a good reliable measurement, either, as users overwhelmingly rate apps either with 5 stars, or 1 star. Of the 31 apps listed under “Best New Apps” in the News category, only the app from Digg, which is another older app (though frequently updated), has many 2, 3 and 4-star reviews.

When looking at 5-star versus 1-star reviews one sees that when one adds up the user reviews in iTunes, the 31 “Best” apps actually have a negative rating, with 43 percent more 1-star reviews than 5-star reviews. But this is a bit deceiving as only five of the 31 apps have negative ratings from users, skewing the results somewhat.

Among the most popular apps, as rated by users, are Feedly, an RSS reader, The Guardian and News360, a news reader. The LA Times, NBC Nightly News and The Huffington Post are among the most poorly rated of the apps.

Because of the wide gap between 5-star rated apps and 1-star rated apps, many of the 31 news apps find themselves somewhere in the middle, yet are still receiving overwhelmingly positive reviews – the news app from BuzzFeed, which has 70 percent more 5-star reviews than 1-star, is an example.

Another factor that should be taken into account is app bugs. Publishers are well aware that an app that goes bad, often after Apple releases a new version of iOS, can cause a flood of negative reviews and the sometimes the loss of digital subscriptions.

When one looks are recently updated apps one finds that the app for CBS News, which has an overall negative user rating, has been receiving more positive ratings with its latest update, one that redesigns the app and adds new features. Version 3.0 of the app has received over 60 percent more 5-star reviews than negative ones.

  • Sara 2 years ago

    So… you have any advice for “hacking” the system to get promoted?

    • D.B. Hebbard 2 years ago

      I wish I did.

      But, based on the results some publishers have recorded lately, I’m not sure getting promoted necessarily results in sales, or retaining sales. For me, the big issue is “discovery” – is the store set up in such a way that a reader can find what they want (even when searching for it by name) and easily discover new apps? This remains the beauty of the well-run, brick and mortar retail store.

      But your company probably has advice it can give TNM readers. We’d love to hear what you have to say on this subject.

    • Sean McKenna 2 years ago

      The most concerning part of the question posed by Sara is that it assumes that there is a system in place to hack. As D.B. has mentioned the biggest challenge with the App store or Newsstand is getting new eyes on brand. Seems like the majority of successful Apps are marketed and promoted externally and the store or newsstand is just the pick-up window.