In April 2021, Google announced some significant changes concerning “guidance to improve your app quality and discovery on Google Play” (Android Developers). In summary, there are new guidelines and policies effective on the Play Store from September 29, 2021. Read this blog to answer the “what”, “how” and “why” these changes have been made.
Table of Contents
Google Play’s Metadata Policy
The first part of the announcement related to a policy change that will affect app metadata:
- Up until September 29, 2021, app names on the Play Store could be up to 50 characters. However, with the new policy update, Google requires app titles to be shortened to only 30 characters (the same limit as for app titles on the App Store).
Additional changes include:
- The prohibition of keywords that suggest store performance (“top”, “best”, “#1”) from the title, icon, and developer name.
- The elimination of graphic elements that may mislead users (e.g. don’t use text to incentivize installs or promote deals) in the app icon and title.
- Developers must provide a clear and well-written app description that showcases the app’s features and functionality.
- No unattributed or anonymous user testimonials in the app description.
- No emojis, emoticons, or repeated special characters in the app icon, title, or developer name.
- Avoid writing in ALL CAPS unless it is part of your brand name.
With the updates effective on Google Play since September 29, “app title[s], icon[s] and developer name[s] that do not meet the upcoming policies will not be allowed on Google Play.” Several examples from Google show what elements should – and what should not – be incorporated in the app metadata. The keywords, “top”, “#1”, “best”, “free”, “no ads” or “ad free” are all terms that are no longer allowed in the app title, icon, or developer name.
In addition, further keywords that encourage users to take action, such as “update now” in the icon or “download now” in the app name, are frowned upon. Emojis/emoticons, repeated punctuation, or all caps are additional examples of don’ts that could lead to your app being rejected.
Google also announced new guidelines for feature graphics, screenshots, and videos. All the store listing preview assets need to showcase the app’s features and functionality so users can anticipate what the app or game experience will be like. Avoid adding any form of call-to-action, for example, “Download now,” “Install now,” “Play now,” or “Try now” and stay away from time-sensitive taglines or captions that can become outdated quickly.
Impact of Google Play policy changes on ASO
Regarding App Store Optimization, what do these policy changes mean for your apps or games? The two main areas that will affect ASO on the Play Store will be the title length and choice of keywords.
Starting with the title, the following impacts on ASO can be expected:
- While these changes do reduce the available space for you to use keywords, everyone is required to follow the same guidelines. This means that developers must choose the most relevant and valuable keywords for their app(s).
- Other future front-end or back-end changes may come into play, such as the increased use of Google Tags, new ways of featuring apps/games, etc.
- The title change particularly affects languages that require more space to convey messages, such as French, German or Arabic. On the other hand, it affects Japanese, Chinese, and Korean localization efforts slightly less.
The second area related to ASO is the prohibition of the use of specific keywords:
- Terms like “free”, “top”, “best”, and #1 are no longer accepted – this means that, ideally, all apps/games could be indexed for these keywords, and including them will not give an extra advantage. This might seem like an unfortunate change if you currently have these words in your metadata, but it encourages the use of more relevant keywords, rather than words meant to play the algorithm for better ranking.
What happened after Google Play’s metadata policy changes?
These changes have been implemented on Google Play from September 29, 2021. Before this date, it was unclear as to how Google would penalize apps that did not comply with the new rules.
While some app developers chose to respect the deadline and avoid risking any harm to their app, others have chosen to leave their title unchanged until they see a real threat. Although Google’s penalties for apps that did not respect this deadline remains unclear, if you have not updated your metadata yet, you should do it as soon as possible.
Among the app developers that kept their 50-character title, some saw their rankings drop for keywords appearing after the 30th character, while others saw their rankings remain stable.
Has Google penalized apps that have not updated their title?
We compared rankings for keywords in the titles of several Android apps before and after the policy change to determine whether Google has penalized non-compliant apps. From what we saw, some apps have lost visibility for keywords included in their title; however, we have not seen such behavior in a sufficient number of apps to make any definitive statements.
Here’s an example from CSR Racing 2, a game that updated its title 16 days after the metadata policy update (Google Play, UK).
CSR 2 keywords’ ranking history on the UK Play Store (2021).
It looks like some keywords included in the title decreased in rankings from September 24—that is, 4 days before the official enforcement of the new policy. It’s hard to say whether Google had actually started pushing down apps that had not yet shortened their title or if these keywords lost visibility due to other reasons (e.g., fierce competition, increase in poor rating scores, or drop in conversion rate and/or installs).
Harry Potter: Puzzles & Spells keywords’ ranking history on the US Play Store (2021).
From the data, we can assume Google’s metadata policy update did not have any negative impact on rankings for generic keywords included in Harry Potter: Puzzles & Spells’s title. Rankings started decreasing more severely around October 6, which makes sense as this followed the removal of “match 3 games” from the title. Therefore, we can not assume that apps that did not shorten their title to 30 characters lost visibility following Google’s metadata policy change on September 29.
We shall see in the upcoming month whether Google continues to tolerate apps with titles longer than 30 characters or whether Google starts applying more severe measures.
Has Google penalized apps for forbidden keywords in metadata?
Some members of the ASO Stack Slack community shared warnings received from Google for having keywords like “first”, “hot”, “best”, “bonus” or “new” in their app name and/or short description, no matter the context.
Warning message seen by apps for having banned keywords in their title on the Play store (2021).
Though Google had initially only communicated about these keywords being banned from app titles, it looks like they are also extending keyword restrictions to the short description. On Google Play Console Help, here’s what we read about the short description:
“Do not use language that is not related to the function or purpose of your app, including:
- Language that reflects or suggests Google Play performance, ranking, accolades or awards, user testimonials, or price and promotional information, for example, “Best,” “#1,” “Top,” “New,” “Discount,” “Sale,” or “Million Downloads.”
- Call-to-actions, for example, “download now,” “install now,” “play now,” or “try now.”
We asked ourselves whether Google had actually taken a step further by pushing down apps that incorporated banned keywords in their metadata. Let’s take a look at Hill Climb Racing 2 (Google Play, UK).
Though its app name was already only 30 characters long, its short description included the keyword “best” for some time after the policy launch. They removed “best” on October 15 but added “top” instead, which is also said to be a prohibited keyword. Around 10 days later, the only change the app made to its short description was to remove “top”. We would assume that Google probably warned the app for using this term.
Hill Climb Racing 2 metadata updates on the UK Play Store seen on AppTweak’s Timeline (2021).
Hill Climb Racing 2 keywords’ ranking history on the UK Play Store (2021).
Among keywords included in its metadata, we have observed ranking decreases for the keywords “race”, “driving game”, and “racing” from September 8. It doesn’t look like Google’s metadata policy update had any impact: rankings have been pretty irregular for some time.
We had a look at other markets, especially Japan where many apps explicitly show download numbers to encourage users to install the app. As an example, the Japanese app クラッシュフィーバー (Crash Fever) still shows banned keywords in its short description and icon but we have not observed any drop in its visibility.
クラッシュフィーバー (Crash Fever) short description update on the Japan Play Store seen on AppTweak’s Timeline (2021).
Has Google penalized apps for forbidden graphics in icons?
According to Google’s new policy, apps should also no longer show graphic elements that indicate rankings or misleading elements on their icon.
The Japanese app エバーマージキングダム：マージ3パズル (Evermerge Kingdom) is a good example of this as it displays the number of downloads on its icon.
エバーマージキングダム (Evermerge Kingdom) keywords’ ranking history on the Japan Play Store (2021).
However, the visibility history of keywords included in the app’s metadata doesn’t show any clear correlation with the policy change.
エバーマージキングダム Evermerge Kingdom) Featuring History on the Japan Play Store (2021).
We investigated a bit further and checked on AppTweak’s Explore section whether Evermerge Kingdom has lost visibility in Google featurings. The results don’t show any significant drop; the number of featurings remain quite irregular.
Why has Google changed its policies?
Lately, both the App Store and the Play Store have received much attention and scrutiny for a number of practices, including fee collection or scam apps with high subscription costs. Google’s latest move likely reflects its intention to clean up the Play Store and allow higher-quality apps and games to shine. These new guidelines will make the Play Store more similar to the App Store, now with the same title length and similar positions on misleading keywords.
There are many dark patterns being utilized by apps that want to play the “gray area” in between the rule, with tactics such as including 5-stars in screenshots when the app rating is lower, false advertising, and targeting of irrelevant keywords. As a result, Google may be attempting to restrict the frequency of such practices.
Another theory relates to the fact that Google is currently working on Android 12. With the leaks of Google’s new “Whitechapel” chip, it’s possible that these Play Store changes could accompany a whole new look for the Play Store and Android in general.
Effective from September 29, 2021, Google’s policy changes for Play Store metadata include:
- Various prohibited keywords, such as “free”, “best” and “#1” that imply store performance, promotion in the icon, title, short description and developer name.
- Guidance for app icons and screenshots regarding misleading images and formatting.
- Shortened title space limit to 30-characters from the current 50-character field.
For now, we have not seen clear measures enforced by Google to punish non-compliant app developers. While some app developers with titles longer than 30 characters have seen decreases in their visibility, other “bad student” apps have not necessarily lost rankings. As for banned keywords/graphics in titles, short descriptions and icons—although apps have received warning messages on the Google Play Console—most ranking history graphs don’t show any decreases that we could link to the policy. Let’s see whether these warnings actually turn into concrete penalties in the coming months.
Even though we can not reach any conclusion as to whether is penalizing non-compliant apps or not, we still recommend apps that have not updated their metadata yet to do so as soon as possible.