How often should you update your app? There seems to be no particularly clear answer, and how could there be. Each developer, app, and market are completely different from one another. So how can there be a magic number that applies to an app like Facebook as well as an up-and-coming indie game? The answer will always be: It depends.
This guide walks you through the nuances of app release cadences. After reading this guide, you will have a better understanding of why it's crucial to update your app, why the frequency has changed in recent years, the different types of updates, and some insight into how often you'll want to update your app.
We dove into the App Store charts to see how often the best and most successful apps release updates. We compiled the listing data of the top 100 free, paid, and grossing apps in August 2019, including version update history.
This guide will cover free apps, because we noticed a meaningful difference between free and paid app updates. We'll cover trends in paid app updates in another post. One interesting thing we noticed was that 99 out of the 100 top grossing apps are free, and there was only one paid app (Minecraft). So in this post we'll be looking at data from the top 100 free apps as well as data from the top 100 grossing apps.
Alright, now that the introduction is out of the way, let's get into the meat of it.
App update types
Not all updates are created equal and therefore not every update will follow the same update pattern. In order to know when an app should be updated, we need to first cover the different types of updates. Differences in update types are shown in an app's version number. The common convention is as follows:
This is, however, not a rule. Some apps such as Pandora have their own variation:
The idea remains the same regardless of version numbering conventions. There are major updates, minor updates, and revisions. Major updates are usually huge revamps or include substantial features added to an app. Minor updates usually include smaller new features or improvements. And revisions are usually minor updates such as bug fixes and performance enhancements.
Obviously, no one rolls out out major updates every week. The frequency of updates depends on revisions first, minor updates second, and lastly, major updates.
Why app updates are important
In the top 100 grossing apps, the longest an app has gone since last being updated is 120 days. The second highest is 64 days. The median for apps that have last been updated in just nine days.
Updating an app doesn't guarantee its success. But the data shows that it's important for apps to be updated frequently. Frequent updates help apps address user needs quicker. If there are common problems that have been reported by users, a quick update to fix those issues will prevent unhappy users. Users could also demand new features or changes that would improve the user experience, boosting their engagement and encouraging conversions.
Recent app rating changes
It's critical to have a high app rating. Among the top 100 free apps, the median app rating was 4.7, and only nine apps had a rating lower than 4.0. Among the top 100 grossing apps, the lowest app rating was 3.9, and only six apps had a rating below 4.2.
As of this year, older app reviews are no longer counted equally to newer reviews on both the App Store and Google Play. This means app ratings now better reflect an app's current quality. It also means that apps have an incentive to update more frequently, because they have better chances of increasing their app rating with new updates.
Another reason app updates have become more frequent is automatic updates. Apps auto updating in the background has become the norm. Now, users don't need to stress about missing new features and they rarely check for updates manually. For apps, this means that they don't have to worry about annoying users with frequent updates.
How often do free apps update?
So let’s take a look at the data and see how often the top free and grossing apps are updating their apps. The first graph compares the median days between app updates among the top 100 free apps vs. their app ranking.
The data does show that the vast majority of apps are updating their apps in under two weeks. The median number of days between updates for the entire data set is 8.75 days, and the most common difference in days (update schedule) is 7 days. This tells us that most free apps push to get updates out every week.
Looking at the top 100 grossing apps tells a different story.
The graph shows that there is a definite increase in the median days between app updates. The median of the entire data set is 13.5 days and the most common difference is 14 days. This tells us that while the top free apps prefer a weekly schedule, the top grossing apps tend to release biweekly.
This makes sense, since the top free apps are based on popularity and usually include relatively new apps that are still trying to make an impact. For newer apps, constant updates and new features will encourage users to stick with them and encourage engagement.
The top grossing apps, on the other hand, are more established. These more established top grossing apps can rely on less frequent, more substantial updates instead of getting them out of the door as fast as they can.
Update frequency and app rank
In addition to app update cadence, we also wanted to know how frequency of app updates affects an app's rank. We looked at the average days between app updates to see if frequency might have an impact on app ranking. The best fit line for both top free and top grossing apps shows that higher ranking apps tend to update more frequently than lower ranking apps.
Both graphs of the top free and grossing apps show that the higher the average days between updates are, the lower the app ranking tends to be. While each have different baselines, the upward trend is the same.
Another interesting graph to look at is the minimum time between updates for the last few updates.
As shown in the graph it's very common that apps follow an update with another one in no time. This is probably the, "Oh no! We blew everything up!" panic fix. The most common minimum day difference for an app in recent times is 3 days. This shows that it’s very common for even the top apps to release errors into production.
An unforeseen issue happens to everyone, even huge established companies with dedicated QA and testing teams like Netflix. And it's important to catch and patch the issue ASAP before negative reviews come rolling in.
App category and update frequency
As discussed earlier, one of the clearest factors that impacts update frequency is how established an app is. Another important factor to look into is the app’s category. First, let's look at the distribution of the different categories in the top 100 free apps.
Unsurprisingly, games are the most popular apps out there and the percentage is much larger in the top grossing charts at 74% for games.
When we look at the six largest categories, there aren't very substantial differences. Entertainment and social networking apps are much more established entities, so it makes sense that they update less frequently, similar to the top 100 grossing apps.
All in all, free apps look to be targeting a regular 1-2 week cycle of updates, with follow up fixes as necessary. If there’s a critical issue with an update it will probably need a priority fix right away. Also, a major update that has been worked on for months might not need to fit in the regular release schedule, but can be released when ready. For release trends among paid apps, see our post on how often you should update your paid mobile app.
How Instabug can help
Updating your app regularly is a good idea in theory, but it’s also very demanding. Apps need dedicated teams to detect problems, solve them, and push out solutions in a small window of time. Also, big and small development teams will always hit unforeseen errors that could be very costly.
This is where Instabug comes in, the comprehensive platform for Real-Time Contextual Insights throughout the entire app life cycle. Instabug helps apps:
- Monitor release stability with Crash Reporting
- Find, debug, and fix issues faster with Bug Reporting
- Collect valuable user input through In-App Feedback forms and In-App Surveys
- Drive more five-star reviews with App Rating surveys
- Alert users to new features with What's New broadcasts
- Encourage users to update through Version Update prompts