The Play Store has often been compared to the wild west; which may be good or bad, depending on your perspective. Unlike Apple's App Store and the Amazon AppStore, developers have long been free to publish their apps without going through a lengthy curation stage, and only those that contained malware or used restricted APIs were blocked. However, it appears Google may have quietly instigated a more involved review process that impacts every app and update.
Back in April, an Android Developers blog post mentioned that Google would be taking more time to examine apps from devs that hadn't established a track record with the Play Store. This was meant to block malware, copycat apps, resubmissions from banned developers, and other prohibited or questionable software. A few days ago, a blog post by Dan Fabulich of Choice of Games detailed a conversation with Google Play developer support that revealed the review process is no longer limited to just new and suspicious developers.
After the story received some attention on reddit and Hacker News, a member of the Google Developer Relations team stepped in to clarify some of the details. Between his comments and accounts from numerous commenters, these appear to be the facts:
- Google is now reviewing all apps and updates before they are published. (There was some confusion about whether updates are reviewed, but numerous developers confirmed they've seen their own updates delayed for multiple days.)
- All developers go through reviews, but established high-traffic developers will often get faster approvals. App updates are usually approved faster than new apps.
- There is no way to expedite (speed up) the review process.
- Updates can be scheduled, but scheduling the launch of new apps requires an awkward workaround.
- No notice was given to developers warning of a potential multi-day approval process until they attempt to publish.
Google's current knowledge base article still claims this only happens to "certain developer accounts" and goes on to recommend planning at least three days for apps to be approved. Comments from developers seem to indicate that they have seen turnaround in as little as a few hours or up to several days. Notably, there is no visible warning in the developer console about delays, it only appears after publishing.
Note: For certain developer accounts, we’ll take more time to thoroughly review your app(s) to help better protect users. You’ll receive a notification on your app's Dashboard about how long this should take. We recommend that you adjust your planning to include a buffer period of at least three days between submitting your app and going live.
One of the main criticisms that emerged from the Choice of Games post was centered around the inability to schedule a release of new apps. This is often important for planning marketing campaigns and promotions. A feature called Timed Publishing has historically made this possible, but since this review process went into effect, it only works with app updates. New apps ignore the scheduled time and are simply published as soon as they are approved. A workaround was detailed by the person from developer relations, but it's not an inherently obvious solution.
It's still unclear if the review process is carried out by real people or if most apps are only examined by an automated process. Google only claims that humans are involved in every "sensitive decision," which may mean people only examine apps that have been flagged or come from new developers.
All of this comes just three months after Google I/O 2019 where a commitment was made on stage to be more transparent about changes in Play Store policies and to give developers more information and sufficient time to adjust to changes. Perhaps those statements should have gone through a review process of their own.
We've reached out to Google for details and further insight into what the review process is focusing on, but no response has been provided at the time of this post.
Google denies claims
In a post by TechCrunch, Google is denying the claims that "all new apps" are going through a more extensive review process. This aspect of the story originally came from a chat log between a Choice of Games employee, Dan Fabulich, and a Google Play developer support agent. Google is taking the stance that this was a misunderstanding and the support agent misstated the current policies.
Google's responses appear to focus predominantly on the claim that all developers were facing a 3-day (or more) wait time for approvals on new apps. However, nothing was said about reports from some established developers that updates to existing apps have been substantially slower or concerns that there's insufficient warning. Perhaps the devil is in the details insomuch as Google could have ramped up the review process for a larger field of developers, but isn't actively scrutinizing major developers like Gameloft, Facebook, or Microsoft.
Google notes that review periods may exceed 7 days
Google has now updated the specific advice for developers to acknowledge that a review delay could go on longer than the 3-day window that was initially described. In the passage below, taken from the knowledgebase article about publishing, Google specifies that review periods could reach 7 days or longer.
Note: For certain developer accounts, we’ll take more time to thoroughly review your app(s) to help better protect users. This may result in review times of up to 7 days or longer in exceptional cases. You’ll receive a notification on your app's Dashboard about how long this should take.
It's possible this revised advice isn't necessarily associated with the general population of apps. A recent blog post gave a similar 7-day warning in relation to new apps and updates that are marked appropriate for young children. However, some developers of non-family apps have reported delays reaching close to a week. While the delay is fairly long, the phrasing is still specific that this is intended for "exceptional cases." This could also simply be careful language to cover Google in the event that a rush of new submissions hit at the same time or for special cases where a developer requires more thorough vetting before their apps can be cleared.
Google will surely release more details eventually, but in the meantime, it seems like the best advice for developers is to simply plan for a delay on publishing any new app or update.
- Ramit Suri