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App Store Anomaly: Investigating Apple Apps Behavior on the Top Free Charts

Why are Apple's apps randomly appearing in the top free apps when already downloaded on iOS devices? We investigate.

iOS App Store (iPhone) Top Charts - Free

As you can imagine, the Sensor Tower team spends what most would consider a hefty chunk of our waking hours looking at the Apple App Store. So when something doesn’t seem quite right, we tend to notice it pretty quickly.

Case in point: several Apple apps suddenly showing up in the App Store’s top charts for free apps when viewed on an iOS device—and when the apps are already purchased or downloaded by the user.

We recently noticed just that, and decided to see if we could find a pattern behind the apparent randomness, and give App Store publishers a heads up on the befuddling behavior.

What We Noticed

It's something you probably do multiple times a day (we certainly do): opening the App Store app on your iPhone and checking the charts. Late last week, we noticed something odd when performing this ritual.

Despite not appearing in the Top Charts for free apps within our Top Charts & Leaders product, several Apple offerings, including Pages, Numbers, and Keynote were in the top 10 free apps within the App Store app itself.

They appeared on devices where they were not currently installed, with either "download" or "get" actions available depending if they had previously been installed, and showed up grouped in the top 10 free apps as high as fourth place. You can see what we encountered in the image above, versus our Top Charts & Leaders from the same day below:

iOS App Store (iPhone) Top Charts - Free

It's worth noting that we encountered this issue on three iPhones we tested running the latest version of iOS as of this writing (9.1). We were able to check an older device running iOS 8.3 that had these apps installed and they didn't appear on the free chart, but we weren't able to test it with the apps uninstalled.

What We Tried

To ensure this wasn't a fluke, we force closed the App Store app and relaunched it. Rather than eliminate the problem, it persisted. However, it also changed; the three productivity apps changed position within the top 10 free apps, seemingly at random.

Next up, we installed one of the apps—Numbers—to see if it would disappear from the list once downloaded. It didn't initially, but did after force closing the App Store app to to three times.

We then tried installing all Apple Apps appearing in the top 10 free apps that weren't already on our devices (GarageBand, iTunes U, Keynote, Numbers, and Pages).

iOS App Store (iPhone) Top Charts - Free

After a couple more relaunches of the App Store app, we were left with what you see above—all but GarageBand, iTunes U, and Pages remained, which was partially correct (only Garageband and iTunes U should still have been there since they were actually in the top 10 free apps on iPhone as of this blog post).

What We Concluded

It goes without saying that there's something odd happening in the App Store app for iPhone that is causing these apps to appear in the free apps charts at random positions, and when already installed, at least on devices running iOS 9.1. We hesitate to call this a bug, because it may very well be intentional on Apple's part.

Could Apple be testing something on its end, or using its "most favored nation" status to cause its apps to appear atop the charts at will? Without a magical crowbar capable of prying open its black box, we can't say for sure.

What We Recommend

We brought this behavior to the attention of our blog readers because we found it interesting, and because we know that many of our customers check their app rankings on Apple's official charts in addition to those provided by Sensor Tower.

That being said, we recommend simply ignoring Keynote, Numbers, and Pages if they appear in the top free charts on your iOS device—they aren't actually affecting the "true" ranking of other free, non-Apple apps.

As for our products, Sensor Tower is correctly handling them, so they will not appear when looking at the free apps section of our Top Charts & Leaders.

Have you noticed this unusual behavior on your own device? Comment below or tweet @SensorTower to let us know.

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Randy Nelson

Written by: Randy Nelson, Head of Mobile Insights

Date: November 2015