When Google Decides To Delete Your App — Android Developers Beware

By | April 9, 2014

Writing this post bums me out.

About 3 weeks ago, I woke up to an e-mail from a Vibe Vault user letting me know that he was unable to find the app on the Google Play store.  I checked the store on my way to work, and couldn’t find the app either.  When I got to my desk, I logged in to the Google Play Developer console to see what was up and saw that my app was listed as “Suspended.”  To give the reader some background, Vibe Vault1 is an app for playing, downloading, sharing, and searching for music in archive.org’s Live Music Archive.  Vibe Vault is free, open source, and doesn’t have any ads.

An (automated) e-mail from the Google Play store indicated that Vibe Vault had been “suspended” for, according to Google, “Violation of the spam provisions of the Content Policy.”  I have pasted the e-mail below:

This is a notification that your application, Vibe Vault, with package ID com.code.android.vibevault, has been removed from the Google Play Store.

REASON FOR REMOVAL: Violation of the spam provisions of the Content Policy. Please refer to the keyword spam policy help article for more information.

  • Do not use irrelevant, misleading, or excessive keywords in apps descriptions, titles, or metadata.

All violations are tracked. Serious or repeated violations of any nature will result in the termination of your developer account, and investigation and possible termination of related Google accounts. If your account is terminated, payments will cease and Google may recover the proceeds of any past sales and the cost of any associated fees (such as chargebacks and payment transaction fees) from you.

If your developer account is still in good standing, you may revise and upload a policy compliant version of your application as a new package name. Before uploading any new applications, please review the Developer Distribution Agreement and Content Policy.

If you feel we have made this determination in error, you can visit the GooglePlay Help Center article for additional information regarding this removal.

The Google Play Team

Unfortunately, when Google “suspends” your app, you lose all access to it; you can’t even check2 at to see what you (allegedly) did wrong!  Instead, you see this:

Suspended

Although I was unable to examine Vibe Vault’s Google Play Store page, having written the material on the page, I can recall its contents.  The page provided (1) information about Vibe Vault’s functionality (i.e., search/stream/download/browse); and (2) a sample of Vibe Vault’s most popular content (i.e., live music from archive.org’s Live Music Archive, featuring bands like the Grateful Dead, Lotus, Furthur, the Disco Biscuits…).  I can only guess that Google took issue with our sample list of popular artists.

If that’s the case, Google is/was incorrect: Vibe Vault’s use of “keywords” was not in violation of the Google Play Store Content Policy.  I’m an attorney, and I review contracts/policies/agreements/legalese every single day (yes, weekends too).  I am and was confident in my conclusion that Vibe Vault in no way violated Google’s Content Policy, certainly not the spam provisions relating to keywords.  Per Google’s “Content Policy,” Vibe Vault’s store listing did not “use irrelevant, misleading, or excessive keywords in apps descriptions, titles, or metadata.”  Let’s take it piece by piece:

  • Irrelevant:  The keywords were relevant.  They listed the artists that you could listen to on our app.  Listening to music is the purpose of the app; providing information about that music is relevant to this purpose.
  • Misleading:  The keywords were not misleading.  You could listen to every artist that we listed using Vibe Vault.
  • Excessive:  The keywords were not excessive.  Google caps how much you can write about your app on the Play Store.  Vibe Vault’s Google Play page fit within those caps.  We listed 1 or 2 dozen dozens3 of the most popular artists available through Vibe Vault so that users searching for their music could easily find the app on the Google Play store.

The “keyword spam policy help article” that Google referred us to in its rejection e-mail supports this conclusion.  It’s lengthy, so you can read it for yourself.

Fortunately (or not), Google provides an “appeal” process through a form buried deep within support.google.com.  I put “appeal” in scare quotes because the process is bullshit.

Capture1

First, you get 1,000 characters to make your case.  Wikipedia calculates article length estimates using an average word length of 5 letters (add in a space character for 6).  Discounting any punctuation, this means that you get about 167 words to make your case.  167 words to explain why your app which has been downloaded by about 50,000 different users and has a 4.5 star rating isn’t spam.  167 words sounds even more ridiculous for developers who make a living through publishing apps.

Second, in Google’s words: “You will receive a response to the email address provided either accepting or denying your appeal. All appeal decisions are final, but you may upload a new, policy-compliant instance of your app if your account is still in good standing.”  Basically, you get a computer-generated e-mail response saying “yes” or “no.”  Mine came a few hours after I submitted the “appeal” (more on that later).

Third, Google won’t allow you to fix any perceived violation.  Again, in Google’s words: “Note that we will not provide guidance on the potential compliance of your future implementation, so submissions requesting advice will not receive an answer.”

Fourth, you don’t get any substantive response to your “appeal.”  Below is what Google e-mailed me in response to my appeal.

Hi,

Thank you for your note.

We have reviewed your appeal and will not be reinstating your app. This decision is final and we will not be responding to any additional emails regarding this removal.

If your account is still in good standing and the nature of your app allows for republishing you may consider releasing a new, policy compliant version of your app to Google Play under a new package name. We are unable to comment further on the specific policy basis for this removal or provide guidance on bringing future versions of your app into policy compliance. Instead, please reference the REASON FOR REMOVAL in the initial notification email from Google Play.

Please note that additional violations may result in a suspension of your Google Play Developer account.

 

Regards,
The Google Play Team

Based on the content of the e-mail, the (totally erroneous) reason for “suspending” Vibe Vault from the Google Play Store, and the very fast turnaround time on this “appeal,” I can guarantee you that no one ever really gave any consideration to our arguments.  Maybe if Vibe Vault wasn’t free or contained a bunch of advertisements (so that Google was making money off of it) things would have been different.

In the end, we re-posted our app to the store using a different package name.  We lost all of our statistics (e.g., the hundreds of 5-star ratings and the nearly 50,000 downloads).  Our users who don’t know what happened will no longer get updates to Vibe Vault unless they take a look manually on the Play Store (and subsequently uninstall the old Vibe Vault and reinstall the new one).  We don’t even have a way of e-mailing our users to let them know.

Anyway, if you’re an Android developer (or user), consider this a warning.  Google deletes apps from the Google Play Store, without good reason, and without a chance for any real appeal.  Unless you collect user information (we don’t), you won’t even be able to tell your users that you (and they) have been screwed over.  I suppose now that Android is a lot more popular than it was when we started developing Vibe Vault, it is no longer a priority for Google to treat the Android community with a modicum of care or respect.

  1. Vibe Vault is a free (really free — no ads either), open source program that I develop with my good friend Sanders.  We started it back in our senior year of college when I got my first smartphone (Android, obviously).  Since then, we’ve released dozens of updates, adding new features and keeping Vibe Vault up-to-date with Android’s newest functionality and design schemes.  Developing Vibe Vault has been an extremely rewarding hobby: we both love music and coding, and it feels great to share our creation with (tens of thousands of) people who enjoy what we’ve made.  Not to tout our collective horn, but Vibe Vault was around for over 3 years and had a rating of about 4.5/5 stars.  The overwhelming majority of our ratings were for 5 stars.  That’s pretty good.
  2. For example, in our case, we were unable to visit our Google Play Store page to examine the language that Google said violated its Content Policy.
  3. Since I can’t view my old store listing, I can’t confirm how many artists were listed.  That said, Google caps the length of characters that a developer can use for the description, and the list fit within that limit.  If Google thought that the list of artists accessible through our app was too long, they shouldn’t have provided the space, or they should have told us to trim it.

34 thoughts on “When Google Decides To Delete Your App — Android Developers Beware

    1. MAS1

      See here:

      http://forums.coronalabs.com/topic/48788-google-play-account-terminated/

      Bottom line – I asked Google if my AdMob a/c would be terminated. Response? Appeal rejected. I WAS NOT APPEALING!

      Conclusion: Google did not read my message asking if my AdMob a/c would be terminated. They just responded with a canned auto-generated appeal rejected message. Bar Stewards!

      Can you contact a human at Google? Good luck with that. Again – Bar Stewards!

      Reply
  1. nobody

    Why do you bother with Google Play? You are only enriching their platform by participating in it. I don’t even see your app listed on f-droid.org.

    Reply
  2. Jerry Hildenbrand

    I found a “mirror” of your previous listing, including this:

    Artists include: Grateful Dead, moe., Max Creek, Phil Lesh and Friends, Umphreys McGee, Disco Biscuits, Radiators, String Cheese Incident, Blues Traveler, 311, Jack Johnson, Smashing Pumpkins, Yonder Mountain String Band, Tea Leaf Green, Railroad Earth, Furthur, Ratdog, North Mississippi Allstars, Derek Trucks Band, Perpetual Groove, Drive-By Truckers, Mr. Blotto, Donna the Buffalo, Strangefolk, Brothers Past, Hot Buttered Rum, Jerry Joseph and the Jackmormons, Keller Williams, Sound Tribe Sector 9, Little Feat, Guster, Ween, The Breakfast, New Monsoon, Cornmeal, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, JJ Grey and MOFRO, Ryan Adams, The Bridge, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Dark Star Orchestra, Steve Wynn, Ryan Montbleau, Lotus, Greensky Bluegrass, The Dead, Zero, The Brew, Club d’Elf, Local H, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Of A Revolution, Jerry Joseph (solo & side projects), Infamous Stringdusters, Matisyahu, Camper Van Beethoven, Pat McGee Band, Garaj Mahal, Raq, Benevento/Russo, My Morning Jacket, Michael Franti and Spearhead, Cowboy Junkies, Animal Liberation Orchestra, Assembly of Dust, God Street Wine, Soulive, Dopapod, Steve Kimock Band, Moonalice, Mike Mizwinski, The Gourds, Steve Kimock, Charlie Hunter, Larry Keel, Acoustic Syndicate, Robert Randolph [and the Family Band], Dumpstaphunk, The New Deal, Toubab Krewe, Nate Wilson Group, Del McCoury Band, David Nelson Band, John Butler Trio, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, The Codetalkers, Matt Nathanson, New Mastersounds, JGB, Lazlo Hollyfeld, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, Mickey Hart Band, Zach Deputy, Mysterytrain, Spin Doctors, The McLovins, Band of Heathens, Particle, Rusted Root, John Mayer, Low, The Heavy Pets, Mogwai, David Gray, Robert Hunter, Sam Bush, Mountain Goats, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, Godspeed You Black Emperor!, G. Love and Special Sauce, Glen Phillips, Kung Fu, Trampled by Turtles, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, The Motet, Lettuce, Gomez Warren Zevon, Big Daddy Love, Bushwalla, Emmitt Nershi Band, Garcia Birthday Band, Marco Benevento, Rubblebucket, Carbon Leaf, Elliott Smith, Virginia Coalition, indobox, Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad, Explosions in the Sky, Papadosio, Tim Reynolds, Bob Weir, Future Rock, Moon Taxi, Toad The Wet Sprocket, EOTO, Buckethead, Dubconscious, Rhythm Devils, Addison Groove Project, BoomBox, Roots Of Creation, Billy Corgan, Death Cab for Cutie, Indecision, John Brown’s Body, The Pimps of Joytime, Donavon Frankenreiter Band, …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, Los Lonely Boys, Hank Williams III, DJ Logic, Zoogma, Alabama Shakes, Citizen Cope, Greyboy Allstars, Cosmic Dust Bunnies, Vertical Horizon, Telepath, The Verve Pipe, Pinback, The DJ Williams Projekt, Blind Melon, Gin Blossoms, Fugazi, 2 Skinnee Js, Tenacious D and many more.

    http://www.androidpit.com/en/android/market/apps/app/com.code.android.vibevault/Vibe-Vault

    I don’t think you will get much sympathy from anyone who had to view this on a mobile device.

    Reply
    1. Andrew Post author

      This list fit within the character limit provided by Google. If the concern is that lists can be too long, a developer shouldn’t be able to write that much. Search for particular artists is the #1 way that users found our app, and we never received any complaints about it…. For over 3 years.

      Reply
      1. Pete

        Actually, this makes me understand *why* they have a process like that.

        There don’t seem to be any not a disputes of clear facts (such as max.length of that field) or a dispute about the rules (are excessive keywords prohibited) – you both seem to agree on it.

        However, there’s a dispute about the subjective opinion about the terms ‘excessive’. Your response indicates that you don’t think that the keywords are excessive. To me (and likely Google) those keywords do seem excessive. As for any opinion-based question, where both parties are interested (and thus likely biased) to have opposite opinions, extra discussion won’t bring any benefits.

        Assuming that Google isn’t particularly interested to convince you just for argument’s sake (in fact, it’s quite likely interested in not wasting any effort at all in unproductive arguing), the current process seems optimal. There were opinion differences about what is excessive. At the point of appeal, you showed that there *still* are opinion differences about what is excessive – i.e., that you didn’t want to drastically change your keywords, but wanted to negotiate some way of keeping them. At that point saying “come back when you’ve thought it over” is an appropriate answer – one that I’d give myself.

        Reply
        1. Andrew Post author

          Google does not allow you to change your description to comply with their “difference of opinion.” In fact, Google indicates in the instructions for the “appeal” that it will not respond to comments directed to the “potential compliance of your future implementation.” We would have been (and still are) happy to modify our play store description, but were never asked to do so.

          Reply
          1. Pete

            That is a very valid complaint – many app-related problems and mischief need to be solving by pushing a different version of the app; but yes, problems with the *description* should be fixable right then and there.

            However it’s possible that they have a problem that there’s a large enough number of malicious app-vendors, so that a forgiving policy would simply cause them to implement all kinds of clearly shady practices for *every single* app they publish (though a ‘fresh’ account each time), with the expectation to remove them only when noticed, and keeping the ill-gotten ratings. If there’s a profit motive, then malicious actors are unbelievably more active than the honest population, and they can bring a lot of resources to do their crapon scale. I’ve seen how such ‘policy-enforcement-policies’ get created from the moderator’s side – in the end, such a policy isn’t fair to honest users, but it’s quite possible that the lenient approach is simply unworkable.

    2. Dany

      I think the above poster is right. Here are some policies you might have broken:

      “Do not use irrelevant, misleading, or excessive keywords in apps descriptions, titles, or metadata. ”

      At this page https://support.google.com/googleplay/android-developer/answer/2985717 it says:

      “Your app description should avoid excessive detail and references to your other apps or products. For example, you should not list all of the details of content included in the app or its various components, as shown in the example below.”

      Reply
      1. Andrew Post author

        I believe that this policy is addressed specifically in my post. As for the “excessiveness” of the list, I refer you to my other comments here: “This list fit within the character limit provided by Google. If the concern is that lists can be too long, a developer shouldn’t be able to write that much. Search[ing] for particular artists is the #1 way that users found our app, and we never received any complaints about it…. For over 3 years.”

        Reply
    3. sam

      Yeah, that list was 4 thumb scrolls in chrome on an s4..

      It does actually seem a little excessive. 10 most popular artists sure. My theme listings do list Evey launcher they work on, bit that’s a list of 6 most popular plus should work on others. Sure Google gives you the space to list it, but that was a bit much..,

      Reply
      1. Andrew Post author

        Thanks for your comment, Sam. I think the main point here is that although reasonable minds may differ as to the correct or incorrect way to use the space allotted in the Play Store app description fields, (1) Google’s “appeal” process isn’t meaningful and (2) it’s silly to outright ban apps in all situations without allowing developers to modify problematic app descriptions.

        Reply
  3. Faisal Abid

    Hey Andrew, thanks for this post. Last night at 3am google decided to take my app down.

    The best part is, my app was not even live!!

    It was in draft mode. My description and screenshot were not final, and were semi-complete placeholders. Before publishing the app I would have obviously made sure it complied with everything.

    Google found issue with that and took down my app. Now I’ve been running around trying to get a hold of someone to look into this.

    Reply
  4. Earl Grey

    really? you had that list of keywords and you cry foul. lesson is dont spam and in the future collect emails so you can contact users when you get caught spamming.

    Reply
    1. Andrew Post author

      Thanks for the comment. I’ll refer you to my response above (quoting it here):
      “This list fit within the character limit provided by Google. If the concern is that lists can be too long, a developer shouldn’t be able to write that much. Search[ing] for particular artists is the #1 way that users found our app, and we never received any complaints about it…. For over 3 years.”

      Reply
      1. Mike

        This is the third time you’ve requoted yourself, in response to four different commenters that have similar opinions regarding the excessive number of items in the description. You can continue to repeat your point, stressing the character limit of the field (which is irrelevant), or just realize that not everyone shares your opinion, including those at Google.

        Reply
        1. Andrew Post author

          I think you might be missing the point about the lack of transparency in the “appeal” process, and the fact that Google doesn’t allow for any dialogue with respect to this process. I also think it’s important to note that, given that reasonable minds clearly differ on whether or not this list was “spam,” it makes a lot more sense to allow developers to edit app descriptions than to simply ban apps, penalizing both users (who won’t get updates) and developers.

          Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts (and thanks for the permission to repeat myself).

          Reply
  5. Dallas

    The concern of excessiveness has nothing to do with character length, it has to do with what is known as keyword stuffing (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keyword_stuffing). This is considered an unethical tactic to gain more attention and higher ranking by using the brand or name of other — often more popular — entities.

    This seems like the right move on Google’s part. Granted, yes, it would be nice (for you) if they allowed you to move into compliance, but this would then incentivize others to go the unethical route until Google found out, and then fix it when they complained, making the problem even worse.

    Reply
  6. Joel Dare

    It doesn’t matter that it “fit within the character limit”. You could have better defined your application instead of keyword stuffing that space. It’s also the spirit of the rule that was broken and maybe not the letter. You listed a bunch of popular terms so that users would find you. I would argue that your use of keywords was excessive. Google tells you not to do that and you did.

    Reply
  7. AppVenger

    The argument that it was okay to keyword spam the store because the character limit allowed for it is ridiculous on its best day. Just because your car can hit 80mph doesn’t mean you should. Your app was keyword spamming 200+ random artists, plain and simple.

    This next one is a freebie, which is a bit odd provided you’re a lawyer. Look up inducement of copyright infringement. Hope Google doesn’t notice that next, cause the app will probably not be allowed back after that one…

    Reply
    1. Andrew Post author

      Inducing people to exercise their rights under the license that the artist has provided to them through archive.org? Maybe you aren’t familiar with the Live Music Archive…

      “This audio archive is an online public library of live recordings available for royalty-free, no-cost public downloads. We only host material by trade-friendly artists: those who like the idea of noncommercial distribution of some or all of their live material. Live recordings are a part of our culture and might be lost in 100 years if they’re not archived. We think music matters and want to preserve it for future generations. ”
      [https://archive.org/about/faqs.php#Live_Music_Archive]

      Reply
  8. Kim Bruning

    If the mirror of the listing above is true, then yes, you were keyword stuffing. I understand you’re highly invested in this project yourself and might not see it that way; so listen to a stranger. :-)

    Post the app again, and don’t mention more than a couple of artists (where “a couple” does not mean 200, does not mean 100, but actually more like 4 or 5 ;) . If you do that, I’m 99.9% sure your app will stay up this time!

    Reply
  9. Jamie Hutber

    For some reason Andrew you’re getting a little hammered here. I understand that they don’t like this “keyword spamming”. For me this regardless, if it is against heir policy why on earth does your app get suspended, with the only option to get it back an appeal, that even when unsuccessful.

    Everybody makes mistakes, we are human. Why the hell can’t you rectify your mistakes rather then removing the entire app and all its history?

    We really need to get them to listen and as the other user said, sign the dam petition:
    Sign this petition: http://goo.gl/ixfBFl

    Reply
  10. nurettin

    You tried to pull a rapgenius.
    Google hate-blocked rapgenious.
    They hate-blocked you.

    Google hate-blocks because it is made of hate and ad revenues.

    Reply
  11. Kyle Fischer

    Google is in the process of purging the play store of junk. 99% of apps in the play store are junk. I’ve personally written 6 myself. If I am looking for a “Grateful Dead” app and your app comes up first on the search, I will think “Google Play’s search is broken”. You were rigging the search with your bogus keywords. Google did the correct thing to remove your app because your download numbers and ranking were also tainted.

    Reply
    1. Andrew Post author

      Thanks for your (somewhat incoherent) comment. A few things that I don’t quite understand:

      1.) If you searched for the Grateful Dead on the Google Play Store, and found the most popular Android app for streaming live Grateful Dead shows, why would you think that “Google Play’s search is broken”? This doesn’t make sense.

      2.) If we were “rigging the search with [our] bogus keywords,” how is it that our “ranking” was tainted? I assume you are referring to “rating,” but wouldn’t an app that users find because of spam have a bad one? We had 4.5 stars, and hundreds of 5-star reviews.

      3.) “Google is in the process of purging the play store of junk. 99% of apps in the play store are junk. I’ve personally written 6 myself.” What point are you trying to make here? Are you saying that you’ve written 6 junk apps? Or are you just trying to establish your authority on all things related to the Google Play Store?

      Have a nice day.

      Reply
    1. Andrew Post author

      Hi Torsten. To be honest, I’ve never actually checked out F-Droid. How does pushing updates to users work? Who manages/authenticates developer keys?

      Reply
  12. Ralph

    I can’t believe Google took this app down because of keywords. You would think that they might also consider whether the app itself is worthwhile, and in this case it clearly is It’s ridiculous that they did no

    This is one of my favorite apps of all time

    As someone who probably did find it by searching ‘grateful dead’ I can’t agree with what some others here have said about the keywords being misleading. This was exactly what was hoping to find.

    Reply
  13. Ralph

    Ugh, that previous post was premature. I am writing this on a tablet and I guess my hand slipped and hit the post comment button.

    What I was trying to say is:

    I can’t believe Google took this app down for keywords. It is disappointing that they apparently don’t care at all whether the app itself is worthwhile. In this case it clearly is in my view. It is/was a fantastic app, one of the most useful I ever downloaded on any platform. I found a lot of new music using Vibe Vault.

    And as someone who probably found it searching for ‘grateful dead,’ it was exactly what I was hoping to find. What are the people searching for all those other band names on the list looking for? Do you think they might be looking for a way to listen to these artists? If the answer is yes then I think a strong case can be made that they do not violate the terms shown above, even if many band names are listed.

    Reply
  14. android keywords too strict

    I dont think Google is playing fair here.. it was obvious the Author of this article did not have the INTENT to break any of the rules.. he was merely listing what he knew his app contained, and which FACTUALLY contained those songs…

    I have personal experience in this.. when i listed what kind of products my app offered..

    Google should REALLY look into this.. LAUNCH a bigger appeal, or blog post, anyone?

    Reply

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