Let’s say you’ve built an iPhone app (and, hey, you may well have done); you’ll be wanting to get it to the top of the app charts as quickly as possible, right? Suddenly you get an email offering you just that for a one-off payment. You’re tempted. Welcome to the world of app scamming.

App scamming is nothing new. It’s been around for about as long as Apple’s App Store has, but recent figures and anecdotal evidence combined reveal that it’s now rife, growing in influence and does genuinely skew the top end of the charts – so much more than you’re probably aware.

Today, PhoneArena published a report featuring talks with a developer over their experience with such marketing ploys. The unnamed dev speaks of an offer for $5000 that would get his app straight into the top 25 of the App Store’s chart.

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According to the report, at the time of the offer eight of the top 25 apps in the App Store were apparently using this nefarious method. “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,” says the hapless dev.

“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, he said he had outsourced someone to build him a bot farm and the bots will automatically download his clients’ apps and drive up their rankings!!! He even told me that even though I might see my app climb up the app store, they aren’t “REAL” at first until it gets to the top and that’s when REAL HUMAN players will start seeing my app and play it.”

Whereas AdMob, a legit business built around mobile advertising, quoted him far more than the $5000 mentioned above for a mere set of ads and banners, the developer in question was suddenly being offered a one-off deal that promised success. It must have looked pretty tempting.

Using a farm of bots built to download the same apps over and over again using different user accounts wouldn’t exactly be morally sound, but it would offer him a route straight to the top of the chart, a position from which $5000 could be easily earned back.

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It obviously proved a tempting offer for several developers. If the report is to be believed, just that one scam in question accounted for eight of the top 25 apps. That’s almost a third. If you assume that that’s the case at any given moment in the app store, then the whole thing’s off kilter by a huge margin.

That’s just one company offering one such service. There are plenty. I published an app to the iOS App Store last year, and was beset by emails offering similar such schemes almost immediately after it went live. They ranged from offers for a sort of weird biased journalism/PR setup:

 

“My name is xxxxxxxxxxxx and I’m the owner of xxxxxxxxxx (app review service) and xxxxxxxxxxx. We would love to work with you on getting the word out about your app! 

You can send a press release to blogs and media agencies for as little as $18!! Please visit xxxxxxxxxxxxxx for more info. 

Here are this weeks offers:

1.Featured Listing/Review – $20 per app (normal $25)

2. Spotlight Listing/Review – $35 per app (normal $45)

3. Spotlight and Featured – $45 per app (normal $60)

Please let me know if you’re interested!”

 

To the full-on hard sell:

 

“Hello,

I’ve noticed that you’ve just released xxxxxxxxx app. 

Therefore, i would like to offer you guaranteed top 20 (U.S. Utilities Category) promotion. 

Recent case in utilities was: xxxxxxxxxxxx app, in 6 hours it jumped to Top 20 U.S. Sports.

Price for this promotion is 499$. (i guarantee minumum of 200 sales in first 48 hours, will mention it in paypal invoice so you can easily ask for a refund)

Promotion is done via Email marketing and cross promotion banner placements.

Please let me know if interested, i will gladly answer all your further questions.”

 

Now, one of these is automated and one seems to be from an actual person, but however they get to you they represent a growing sort of business model: one that’ll happily take your money for the promise of getting your app noticed.

You have to submit a contact email address when you submit an app and they get you that way, like a sort of clandestine black market. There seems to be three avenues to this: either you pay for a bot to download your app a million times, you pay someone to give your app good reviews online and for it to be plastered about, or you pay for a torrent of positive reviews within the App Store itself.

It’s obviously incredibly hard to get noticed these days when you launch an app into an ecosystem of hundreds of thousands, so I can see why such offers would be appealing.

If you can get into the higher echelons of the chart, you’ll likely gain traction and stay there long enough to recoup the initial costs; it’s an investment. But it’s wrong.

The whole point of having a chart is to let it be democratic and chosen by the people- that element is especially important in the world of apps, because a hell of a lot of developers are people like me: just blokes in their living rooms with a laptop.

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If the trend extends much further we’ll be in trouble. Small-time developers without $5000 in cash lying around will be unable to compete with the big guns who do use such scams. The chart will become completely null and void and it’ll batter all the lower-end and lesser-funded competition.

Imagine the app chart as a row of shops and you’re almost looking at a classic mafia protection racket: if you can’t afford to pay for an app scheme, your app will be smashed out of the app chart street.

iPhone barnstormer Tiny Wings was coded by a then completely broke Andreas Illiger. If the app scamming, robo-downloading problem worsens, such genuinely-earned successes might never get a look-in.

So what’s to be done? That’s exactly what Apple’s trying to work out at the moment. It knows there’s a serious problem, and it needs to stamp it out before the App Store loses all of its validity.

To that end, it’s just added this to the Apple Developer website:

“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.”

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The wheels are in motion to try and stop the virus spreading, but whether such empty threats will be enough remains to be seen. One thing’s certain: the thing that makes app markets so great is the fact that anyone can come in, have a go and maybe make themselves rich or successful in the process.

If you remove that factor, you remove innovation and interest, and you’ll end up bringing the whole thing down from the inside.

  • Blackwooddevstudio

    Very worrying stuff, we are a small dev team (like you say working from home)  starting to launch iPhone Apps. We have found that marketing an App on a next to nothing budget is very hard these days let alone with people pulling stunts like these! I hope Apple can find a way to stamp this out.

    As independent devs i think we need to club togeather and start helping each other out. We are going to start offering YouTube video reviews for other small iPhone dev for free. The amount of money i have been asked to pay for a “review” is staggering !

    @blackwooddev:disqus

    • Raxass

      you are right !!! I’m a developer like you and apple should take care of this, because they should mix success apps and normal apps , other way we will see the same apps always, and every one lose, the market developers clients
      If this doesn’t change I’ll start on android selling my apps in internet or amazon

      because to promote my apps by my self why I should pay 30% to apple?

      why? what for? why a revision if the market appstore is like a mafia and is fake

  • Blackwooddevstudio

    Very worrying stuff, we are a small dev team (like you say working from home)  starting to launch iPhone Apps. We have found that marketing an App on a next to nothing budget is very hard these days let alone with people pulling stunts like these! I hope Apple can find a way to stamp this out.

    As independent devs i think we need to club togeather and start helping each other out. We are going to start offering YouTube video reviews for other small iPhone dev for free. The amount of money i have been asked to pay for a “review” is staggering !

    @blackwooddev:disqus

  • Anonymous

    This problem is far bigger than this, I have no clue how Apple will solve this problem, apparently this model business is already in the next level, they are not using bots any longer, they use real people writing reviews/ratings from real devices. (Make money with your iPhone working from home), people are being paid $2 for buying a $0.99 app and giving a 5 star review. Apparently each registered person of these organisations can write between 50-100 apps per day (yes, they are paid around $3K monthly). Publishers are paying around $5K for around 2K pure-real-reviews. Nice model business.

    I have published recently a game called “Traffic Wonder”, so far the game has been well accepted and got some good reviews from different places, but I have to confess that when I stop advertising (sales dropped drastically), All game reviews are real (although they are not many), I have done everything sensibly about marketing but I have to confess I did receive emails from these people offering dodgy services, this is affecting us a lot (small indie developers), I can’t stop thinking how to fight against this, not sure what to do…

  • User

    You cite another blog’s post of an anonymous third party’s account of a prior exchange with an anonymous marketer. At some point the derivative work loses value, in this case, I don’t think there was much to lose. And your analysis, don’t you question the validity of these claims? These “million” download bots, how does one build such a system and efficiently use it within the app store without being detected? Shill downloading and astroturfing are huge problems in ecommerce but I do not think your post has added much value to the discussion. I say this respectfully. I once worked with a network of power users on Digg to promote content to the front page for a fee and also with a group that built an army of facebook profiles to seed apps. I recommend cross referencing and verifying with trusted sources (if possible) when it comes to ecommerce.

Hot chat, right here!


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