Google Play Store silently extends app review to all submissions, fails to inform developers

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.

Google Play Console help article

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.

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