Google Play Sponsored Ads: Wrong Solution To Right Problem

Adding sponsored search results to Google Play may be more of an effort to save Google's developer community than about money.

David Wagner, Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

March 1, 2015

4 Min Read
<p align="left">(Image: <a href="" target="_blank">Android Police</a> via Google)</p>

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7 Android Apps We Love For Work

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Google is adding sponsored search to its Google Play store, and it is easy to think of it as just a money play. In reality, it probably isn't. The truth is that finding apps on the Google Play Store or Apple's iTunes is pretty terrible.

It isn't anyone's fault.

Both stores have roughly 1.2 million apps, and cataloging them for subtle differences in what they do, not to mention in their target audience, language, and intended use is difficult. With all that static it is hard to figure out how a good app even surfaces. Sponsored search would clearly help.

Let's give Google the total benefit of the doubt for a second. It is entirely in their best interest to surface new apps on the Play Store. If developers don't think they can make any money developing for Android, then they will stop, and iOS or other operating systems with more robust app environments would be stronger. Android developers could lose marketshare very quickly. You can see that this is a major concern of Google in their post announcing the plan.

Google points out that they’ve paid out $7 billion dollars to developers already.

The problem for developers is that no one is actually downloading stuff. Almost two thirds of mobile users download an average of zero new apps per month. Less than 10% of mobile users download five apps or more. The number of apps on mobile phones has risen from 23 to only 26 in four years. This is despite the fact that people are spending more time (over half of their time on their phones) using apps.

[ Read how Google's AI machine can beat Atari. ]

Basically the problem is that we're all using the same basic apps for social media, email, and other lifestyle activities -- no one is trying anything new or finding anything they want.

We feel basically covered. Outside of the mobile game category, which is usually a flavor-of-the-month sort of industry, we just don't see a reason to try more apps. One of the reasons for that is how crappy the search is. We have to know what we want in order to find something, or we have to rely on a million other people finding it first so it gets on a top list somewhere.

Sponsored search is one way for a new app to make some serious noise and get some actual visibility in this space. It is certainly a real solution to the problem, and it's probably a better one than advertising your app during Super Bowl coverage.

But it is the wrong solution because it exacerbates the problem.

The app space right now is a "rich-get-richer" environment. Whether it is a game like Candy Crush or a utility like Evernote, everyone chases the same app that goes with the same solution because it is hard to surface real alternatives. Sponsored app search would allow something new to be surfaced only if the company in question had the money to pay to promote its app. The rich still get richer.

The advantage of boasting 1.2 million apps in your app store is supposed to be the wisdom of the crowd. Out there somewhere are millions of developers toiling on great apps for us. If the best apps surface, then everybody wins. If the same apps keep coming up, the developer community goes away.

Sure, Google will make some money in the short term on this. But if they don't find a better long-term solution to letting the best apps to be found, they’re going to have long-term troubles. The only thing saving them is that no one else is any better at it right now.

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About the Author(s)

David Wagner

Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, leadership, and innovation. He has also been a freelance writer for many top consulting firms and academics in the business and technology sectors. Born in Silver Spring, Md., he grew up doodling on the back of used punch cards from the data center his father ran for over 25 years. In his spare time, he loses golf balls (and occasionally puts one in a hole), posts too often on Facebook, and teaches his two kids to take the zombie apocalypse just a little too seriously. 

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