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The Man Who Passes the Sentence…

Indies love to fall on their sword and die with dignity. I love Ned Stark[1] as much as the next guy, but in the end Varys is right: Ned died because he sucked at playing the game. Worse, he had an opportunity to help the realm, but instead his pride got in the way, and Westeros ended up with Joffrey.

The latest controversy in the indie community is over Apple’s new App Store ad system. Is it or is it not ethical to bid on keywords that are your competitor’s app name?

Why is this a question? Of course it’s ethical.

I have a timer app called Fin. If some other timer app developer bids on fin as a keyword, they may show up ahead of me in an ad placed just above mine when a user searches for “fin.”[2]

The Ned Stark argument goes that since the customer was searching for my app by name, I deserve that sale. I did whatever work I did to get my name out there enough for someone to search for me, so that customer is mine by right.

Sorry. Doesn’t work that way.

The ad placed above me is a competing app. One of three things will happen when potential customers see it:

  • They will ignore the ad, as many people have been trained to do.
  • They will look at the ad, investigate the other app, then find that they want my app after all, because that’s the one they heard was best.
  • They will look at the competing app, decide it’s better, and buy it instead of mine.

In two out of three of these cases, I get the sale I was going to get, anyway. In the third case, I lost the sale because my app doesn’t suit the customer as well as my competitor’s does. In the end, you know who wins? The customer.

Aren’t we supposed to be all about what’s best for the customer?

Now, if Apple’s ads allowed us to spread lies about our competitor’s apps, that would be a different story. If I named my app something confusingly similar to my competition in order to fool someone into thinking they were buying the other product, that’s completely unethical. But these ads are simply giving customers more information. Customers deserve to make the most informed decision possible. They deserve to know your app exists, and that it might actually be better for them.

If I were opening a hamburger restaurant in my town, you’d better believe I’d be placing billboards in the vicinity of every McDonald’s, letting those potential customers know there are better burgers a few blocks away. If not, I’m passing on a prime opportunity to reach my target audience.

If you know where your audience is gathering, and you aren’t willing to meet them there to pitch your product, you don’t belong in business.

Stop playing the game with one hand tied behind your back. Stop thinking that you can somehow make the world a better place by playing by different rules than your competitors. You aren’t making the world better. You’re leaving us in the hands of Joffrey.

  1. Full credit goes to Jared Sinclair for this perfect comparison, via Twitter.  ↩
  2. Never mind that an actual search for “fin” gets you a thousand games before my app comes up. Consider this a hypothetical example where Apple’s search actually works, okay?  ↩