Why Apple’s SMB App Purge Isn’t All Bad for Business Owners & Digital Marketers

By Itai Sadan

It’s never enjoyable to watch an entire part of the tech industry collapse, but it seems the rug has been ripped out from under small business apps and many of the SaaS platforms that build them.

As TechCrunch reported last week, Apple recently tightened its app store guidelines to help cut down on cloned apps and spam; however, even after clarifying its new rules, this cleanup has had the practical effect of wiping out template-based apps across the board, huge swathes of which are owned and maintained by SMBs.  

All this makes for an ostensibly sad story about SMBs losing access to a ready-made group of highly engaged consumers, namely, smartphone users. But this really isn’t the case, and the sudden death of SMB apps may indeed be a good thing that leads more business owners to invest resources where they belong — the competitive and open internet, and especially the mobile web. In the following article, I’ll explain why.

How We Got Here…

Over the last five or so years, small business owners by and large figured out they needed a way to engage with smartphone users if they were going to stay competitive in a new digital landscape. This left them with essentially two options: a website that works on desktop, tablet and mobile or an app that could be added to the Google Play Store or Apple App Store and downloaded as needed by customers.

In response, dozens of easy-to-use website and app building platforms sprang up across the globe to address this demand.

However, apps had a steep handicap from the start.

Let’s Talk About Local Search

When was the last time you pulled out your phone and thought to yourself, “Hey, I should look in my phone’s app store to find out where the nearest dentist is”? If you just thought to yourself,  “never,” you’re not alone.

This is the original sin of apps for small businesses; they’re marketing in the wrong place.

To effectively capitalize on the mobile revolution, SMBs need to consider the power of local web searches. Whether consumers prefer Google, Bing or any other search engine doesn’t really matter, as all a user is basically looking for is a website where they can find the relevant information that helps them make instantaneous buying decisions. The web (and specifically, the mobile web) is simply more adept at serving this need for information on demand.

In fact, LSA’s (Local Search Association) 2016 report titled “The Digital Consumer,” examined digital media use in 12 US cities, and determined websites were the second most-used media by consumers looking to engage with local businesses, just behind (you guessed it) search engines.

According to LSA’s conclusion to the study, “Perhaps the most surprising finding is that business websites are the second most widely used consumer resource in the path to purchase, despite the growth of social networks and Facebook in particular. This is probably a by-product of the popularity of search engine usage.”

Apps Have an Accessibility Problem, Websites Don’t

Traditionally both apps and websites had their pros and cons. Apps had more functionality but have to be downloaded before a user can engage with them. Websites are much easier for a customer to find and engage with as nothing needs to be downloaded before visiting a website, but the functionality on the mobile web was relatively limited compared to what could be achieved with an app. However, as apps have maintained their accessibility problem, SMB website technology improved by leaps and bounds, delivering users with more feature-rich and aesthetically pleasing experiences.

This essentially means every time website functionality improved, apps lost more of any advantage they previously had while retaining their aforementioned  “download” issue. And this consumer hangup never really went away. As the years passed, this paradigm only skewed more and more in favor of websites.

Gatekeepers Can Change the Rules at Any Time

“Who controls the pipeline?” may be one of the most important questions presented to the tech industry (and society in general) today. In fact, it’s a discussion we’re all watching play out live around the concept of net neutrality.

If you haven’t really kept up, net neutrality is what essentially keeps any one company from being able to throttle access to various parts of the internet. If you’re connected to the internet, you should be able to access all of the internet and engage with it however you like, or so the idea goes. You can choose which search engine you’d like to use, build your own websites, and take up and down content as you please.

App stores work in a similar way to the web, except there is no neutrality concept. The app store owner can determine what content can and can’t be made available and set strict guidelines on how apps have to be coded in order to be added to a store.

As pointed out in the beginning of this article, these conditions can be subject to change at any time, up to and including bringing an app, or entire category of apps, down. Obviously, this would result in a negative ROI for a small business owner, an inconvenience for any customers trying to interact with the app, and a catastrophic loss in revenue for any digital service provider that chose to offer apps to their clients.

Now just because there are no restrictions regarding how to build a website before you publish it on the web, doesn’t mean there are not certain technical guidelines for being found by a search engine; there, of course, are. But your site will never be taken off the web for not following a best practice from Google because they do not control the pipeline (except when it comes to their own app store).

As a general rule, small businesses and the agencies that serve them should favor marketing technologies and services that are not beholden to the whims of massive corporations, whenever possible.

The Constant Innovation of Websites

Up until now, we’ve focused on the deficiencies of apps created by small businesses; but, equally important in this conversation are the incredible innovations driven by website building platforms over the past few years.

The wholesale adoption of responsive web design as an industry standard has meant that website building platforms, whose previous chief concern revolved around creating websites that looked great on desktop, tablet and mobile, have been able to invest in new technologies such as real-time website personalization, push notifications, interactions with device hardware (camera, microphone, etc.), the ability to engage with a website while offline, and more.  

There really isn’t much an app can do that a website can’t on today’s web. And when this fact is combined with the web’s local search advantage, it’s easy to see how apps for small businesses have become an irrelevant relic from an experimental time in the history of the internet that met the same fate as laserdisc and the dodo bird.    

Lessons We Can All Learn Going Forward

As I said earlier, nobody is happy to see small businesses frustrated and solutions providers hit a brick wall at 80 mph. But there are crucial lessons here that everyone who works in digital marketing can take away from this:

  • A business should strive to have the least possible number of gatekeepers that control its ability to engage with potential and existing customers.
  • If you are reliant on a certain gatekeeper or platform (e.g. Facebook, Apple App Store) to reach your customers, make sure you have a fallback plan in case this channel cuts you off for any reason. By the way, a platform doesn’t have to actually cut service to block you and make it difficult to reach your customers, it could also simply raise prices to make it financially infeasible to reach your customers through them. For example, Facebook did this a couple of years ago when they minimized the organic reach of Pages, which meant businesses were required to use Facebook advertising to get the same amount of reach. Or when they decided to tweak the algorithm that controls what people see in their feed. These changes act like a shifting tide, raising some companies, while sinking others.
  • Discuss your digital marketing strategy with a marketer you trust. The digital marketing landscape is complex and constantly changing. There are a few large companies, such as Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon, that make up an oligopoly (although they’d probably debate that term) that effectively controls the majority of distribution channels available to SMBs for connecting with their end users. These companies have well-documented guidelines that adept marketers should be well aware of. For people who work in the space, it should come as no surprise that Apple is banning apps built by commercial app-builders. Apple has been saying for years that the app store is not the place for websites masquerading as apps.

I remember six years back when the hype of mobile apps was at an all-time high, we would have discussions at Duda board meetings about potentially expanding into the mobile app space. We were very firm about it back then and continue to believe strongly today, that the place that makes the most sense for small businesses to reach their customers is on the open web.

 

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About Itai Sadan

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