Apple to Developers: App Store Placement Scams May Get You Expelled

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Be honest, developers: Have you ever thought about finagling your Apple App Store rankings? Hiring someone who promises to get your app into the top 10 or 20 view spots for a “fee”?

The temptation’s (almost) understandable: Apple’s App Store can turn backwater developers into mega-multimillionaires overnight. Rovio, the Finnish company that developed Angry Birds and launched the bird-flinging, pig-pummeling game in December 2009, made $10 million in 2010, but it’s revenue for 2011 surged to around $100 million. In late December 2011, mobile analytics company Distimo released the results of a study that found the top 200 grossing apps in the iPhone App Store generated four times as much revenue as the top 200 grossing apps in the Android app market.

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But like most scams, the ones that sound too good to be true either are, or they’ll land you in hot water. Take the case of Walter Kaman, an App Store developer who just blew the whistle on an ad network that promised big time magic:

So yesterday I was looking at different ways to promote my new app (I’ve tried AdMob, but it turned out to be too expensive before) and I came across this ad network which guaranteed to get my app into the Top 25 in the app store at a relatively cheap price ($5000). This sounded very different from other ad networks, so I asked how he was promoting it and if has has done the same promotion for other developers.

Kaman says the ad network rep “pointed [him] to the US App Store,” then named eight iPhone apps in the “top free” view it claimed were clients. “I was totally SHOCKED when I heard that there were 8 apps on the Top 25 Free App store that were all promoted by them,” writes Kaman.

At this point, I was pretty curious on how he’s able to do that (I was told by an AdMob sales person before that it takes a lot of money and traffic to promote an app to the Top 10). That’s when he let loose the BIGGEST FRAUD ever…

The fraud, explains Kaman, involved this ad network outsourcing someone else to build a “bot farm,” where the bots “automatically download his clients’ apps and drive up their rankings.” Kaman says the developer explained that, though he (Kaman) might notice his app climbing the app store ladder, the results wouldn’t be “real” initially, and that only once the app “gets to the top” would “real human players” see it and “start playing with it.”

What’s more, the ad network rep told Kaman, Apple already knew of the scam, thus the “low” $5,000 fee (the rep told Kaman he was “trying to get as many clients as possible before Apple stop the booting”).

Apple’s response? Do it, and we might take away your developer privileges.

Once you build a great app, you want everyone to know about it. However, when you promote your app, you should avoid using services that advertise or guarantee top placement in App Store charts. Even if you are not personally engaged in manipulating App Store chart rankings or user reviews, employing services that do so on your behalf may result in the loss of your Apple Developer Program membership.

You can read that as “might,” but knowing Apple — this is the company that bans games that make fun of it, remember — I’d say “might” is just a euphemism for “bet your you-know-what we will.” Let’s hope that’s the case anyway, and that companies like Apple are maintaining safeguards to detect and stamp out rankings fraud, else there’s little reason to trust the results we get if we’re evaluating potential downloads based on their popularity.

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