Google Play’s changes in metrics and what it means to you – part 1

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Over the past year, Google Play has started work on changing the two most important metrics on Play Store: App downloads and app rating. In this first part I will discuss the first.

Goodbye total downloads, hello active installs

Earlier this year (or maybe it was at the end of last. It is not like I write down every time Google decides to change something) Google replaced the downloads metric in Google Play console with Active installs instead. Googles definition of active installs being “Installs on Active Devices (devices online in the past 30 days with this app installed)”.

This major change was barely announced and seemed to cause a lot of anger, to put it mildly, in the Android developer community. Total downloads had been the first shown and most important metric on Play Store and just like that it was gone.

There are of course some ways to find this golden number through the Play Store console or even directly on play store.

Why was the community angry? It is pretty simple. Total downloads had been the most central metric on play console and become quite a status symbol in the developer community.

An apps success was measured by total installs instead of meaningful things such as income, active users, etc. I must admit I did this myself. Back in the beginning of 2015, when I released my first app, my answer to how my app was doing was “it got to 20.000 downloads within 3 months”.

The problem with total downloads, is that it can reflect many things. It can mean that you have made an amazing app that covers a real need in the market in an area with few to no competitors. But it can also mean that you are very good at optimizing the description to appear on top of searches, or even worse, that you are burning a lot of cash on ads to appear as the #1 item in a search (*gasp sound*). Or maybe you just have many friends. Thousands of them.

In their defence…

I will now have a moment of complete honesty and risk being excommunicated by the Android developer community. I will explain the reasoning behind Google Plays decision and why I agree with it.

Google is changing to focus more on user retention rather than downloads. User retention is a better metric of a quality app than downloads. As I mentioned above, total downloads say nothing about an app being good or bad. You can easily pay your way to downloads. Not you of course. You are a good person. Some other dev.

Meanwhile, active installs is a much better metric of an apps quality. It shows if the user decided to keep the app. If they felt it was something worthy of remaining in their phone. Active installs has also opened the way for other useful metrics such as retention rates. Maybe 50% of your users uninstall the app after a week. Or after 3 days. Why is that? Suddenly you are optimizing your apps in order to ensure having a lifetime user rather than tricking people to press that downloads button.

Now I will prove to you with an example that this is true. You will get an exclusive peak into my metrics so I can make my point. Just me, you, and the 4 billion people with internet access (or the 3 people that will read this blog post).

Back in 2017, I decided to remake an app I made in 2016 using a different technology stack. This means that I have two apps that from the users perspective have the same functionality, but behind the scenes are really different.

The app that I released in 2016 has over 6300 total installs by unique users. This is pretty low. And it is due to the fact that there are literally thousands of apps for the same on play store. Now I know what you are thinking. Why would you make another one of the same then?

In my defence, I made it in order to test out a different technology stack. I have a day job. I don’t make apps for the money. I make them for fun and for the challenge.

Anywaaaaaay… Back to the subject.

The app released in 2017 has around 4900 total installs by unique users.

A smart person like yourself would say: “Hah! Then the first app was more successful than the second.

A smart person (you) would be wrong. To my surprise, the second app has over double the amount of Active installs.

Figure 1: Top one is the second and bottom one is the first, to make things complicated

Even though they have a low amount of downloads, they have kept quite a high retention rate over the years. Not that it matters, because one has no monetization and the other has a small ad banner hidden in a settings menu that is rarely opened.

We have struck gold here. Why does the first app have less active installs, yet more downloads?

The answer is not very relevant to this article, but I will shortly explain some of the reasons:

  • The old app has a lookup system using a floating action button. It seems that this wasn’t obvious enough to many users. They thought it had just one book and uninstalled. The second app has a dropdown. Everyone understands drop downs.
  • The first app is higher in the search list on play store (still very far down). This means it gets more downloads.
  • The second app stands out from the top 100 apps in that it has zero ads or monetization. Without getting too theological, lets just say that users appreciate when their faith is not used for financial gains.

This goes to show the high value of user retention metrics.

This is gold and I am sure the developer community will soon understand.

I hope my extreme example of A/B testing made this clear.

What this means for you

With the change to Play Store console, I predict it is just a matter of time before it is also reflected towards users.

This change is good news for the users. Developers will have to focus on making an app that users wish to continue using over longer time, rather than tricking them to press that download app button.

It also forces developers to continuously improve and develop their apps in order to ensure high retention.

There are too many apps that worked well at release that are now broken and you don’t find out until you install it. This, and the change I will discuss in the next post, is a good thing for us as users.

As a developer, it is not only a useful tool in understanding my users, but also puts new apps in a more even playing field with older apps. Total installs tend to be a measure of seniority rather than quality. It is time for it to retire.

Shameless plug

Next post will be about the new rating system.

Normally I would say “go download my apps”, but it seems that now I need to say “go download my apps, and please don’t uninstall them”.