My, What a Long Tail You Have

How the Android Market Behaves Like Other Online Markets

Recently, Androlib.com has made available statistics they have culled from the Android Market. Their data highlights how the Android Market is not that dissimilar from other markets, and so Android developers can use lessons learned elsewhere to help them understand how the Android Market behaves.

One of their charts, cross-posted many places this week, shows a pie chart of the number of downloads for various buckets of apps:One reaction was astonishment that about 25% of the apps have had fewer than 50 downloads apiece. This really should not be that surprising.Let's redraw that chart in another form, showing sales rank on the horizontal axis and downloads on the vertical axis. Since I am working solely off the Androlib.com pie chart, not their underlying data, this chart becomes a bit chunky, as I am averaging the high and low download numbers for each pie segment:

Androlib chart, redrawn

Assuming the underlying data smooths this chart out as expected, this appears to be a power-law distribution, or what has become popularly known as a “long tail” distribution. Chris Anderson's best-selling book on this subject demonstrated that many online markets, from Amazon to Netflix, exhibit similar behavior: a handful of hits at the top, and a whole lot of products in the tail. Since the Android Market is an online market like Amazon and Netflix, it should not be a shock that it too exhibits “long tail” phenomenon.Simply uploading an app to the Market, like simply publishing a book and getting it listed on Amazon, is a guarantee of some minor success. By sheer happenstance, some people will find and download your app, or find and buy your book. If you want to move up the tail towards the head, though, you are going to need to do more than simply be in the catalog — you are going to have to market, or encourage “word of mouth” marketing, or something to let the world know you exist, have value, and can be found in the catalog.The nature of the market itself will have an impact on the curve. For example, 10x more Android devices sold will tend to raise the curve for all participants (“a rising tide lifts all boats that weren't inappropriately anchored”). An improved search mechanism, or Amazon-style “related items” cross-references, will lower the head and raise the tail, as more people find out about things of interest past the top sellers. We shall see how the announced changes in the Android Market affect this curve in the coming months.Savvy application developers will read up on “long tail” markets and learn from those markets how best to rise out of the far-flung tail towards the bend in the curve, or perhaps even to the head.

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