Hey Apple, Thanks for Cracking the Whip on App Cheaters
If you've noticed that the apps found in the Top Charts in the Apple App Store lately appear to be a little less jaw-droppingly stupid than they were in weeks and months past, you're not alone. It seems as though a few automated chart-manipulating outfits had been trying to sell their services to developers. Luckily, Apple has issued a reminder that using these kinds of services is verboten.
Over the last couple of months, I've been struggling with the Apple App Store, both via iTunes and my iPhone and iPad. While I find the overall quality of apps to be vastly superior to what I generally find via Amazon on my Kindle Fire, I've noticed a disconcerting number of crappy apps. And I don't use that term lightly -- crappy is crass and right on.
Whenever I browsed through the Top Charts to see what was cool and trending, I came away more and more disappointed. I would see apps for things like smooching cats, fluffy pets, pink cartoon girls, and virtual slot machine Vegas-style games.
I was coming to the conclusion that the crazy success of iPhone and iPad sales, along with a growing number of teenage users, was just the dumbing down of the world at large. But maybe there's a more heartening answer: App developers had been gaming the system.
What a Relief
The news seems to have started by a developer posting as "walterkaman" on the Toucharcade.com forums when he ran across a marketing service that boasted it could get his app into the Top 25 free apps area for just US$5,000. And then claimed to have eight of the top 25 free iPhone apps as clients. Basically, it appears as if the marketing company outsourced someone else to build a bot farm to have the bots automatically download the client's apps to game the system and drive up the rankings. Of course, at some point, humans had to notice the apps and download them too to keep them up in the top charts lists.
What's worse, apparently Apple knew this sort of thing was going on, which is why the marketing bot service was offering the service for just $5,000 in an effort to drum up business before Apple somehow shut it down.
"It's really disheartening to know that Apple is aware of this issue, but yet, they still allow these eight apps on the App Store to use bots. For all [this] time that I've been working hard at developing my app, I am very disappointed to know that these eight other apps are getting insane exposure on the App Store by paying a mere $5,000," walterkaman noted.
The developer who posted this was outraged -- thanks, man, we're all glad you didn't just buy the service and enjoy the rewards -- and the resulting publicity of the post seems to have prompted Apple to act by posting its own note to its developer community called "Adhering to Guidelines on Third-Party Marketing Services":
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. Get helpful tips and resources on marketing your apps the right way from the App Store Resource Center.
Now, while I'm all for Apple kicking out the offending developers, it's not clear that Apple has done any real severing yet. Of the eight apps listed in the forum post, they all appeared to have left the Top 25 rankings (but some were still available for download if you searched directly for them).
Quality, Marketing Effort and Luck
One of the issues that I've heard and seen is the naive expectation that once you create a great app and get it into the Apple App Store, all your problems are solved. Great apps will always attract users, right? Wrong. Very, very wrong.
Creating apps is a lot like writing a best-selling novel. Hundreds, if not thousands, of truly great novels are written every year, and most of them don't even find publishers. Of those that do get published, only a small few manage to become breakout hits. Some of this is marketing, some of it is quality finding a path, and some of it is luck. Fortunately, marketing and quality can get you pretty far -- at least heading toward a place where you're more likely to find success than digging randomly for gold.
As for the rest of us millions upon millions of iOS users, I'm quite pleased that the collective social cloud that our app activities represent might not be as freakin' dumb as the Top Chart lists sometimes imply.