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Apple Goes Medieval on App Store Developer for Faking Reviews

By Erika Morphy MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Dec 8, 2009 11:59 AM PT

Apple has taken the extreme step of yanking all 1,000 apps produced by Molinker after it learned that the Chinese developer had faked glowing reviews of its apps to drive up ratings and increase its downloads.

Apple Goes Medieval on App Store Developer for Faking Reviews

The fraud was first reported by the iPhoneography blog late last month. It was brought to iPhoneography's attention by a reader, Patrick Timney, who spotted similarities in reviews -- many of which were apparently very poorly written -- all praising apps developed by Molinker.

"It was Patrick's detective work that uncovered the extent of what Molinker [was] involved in," Glyn Evans, publisher, editor and owner of iPhoneography, told MacNewsWorld.

iPhoneography and Timney contacted Philip W. Schiller, SVP of worldwide product marketing at Apple, with the allegations. A week later he responded, according to iPhoneography, with news that Molinker's apps and ratings had been removed.

Apple did not respond to to MacNewsWorld's request for comment in time for publication.

Molinker apparently is confused by the turn of events, according to blogger Appfreak, who said its domain owner, Ma Kun, told him the company had contacted Apple to find out what was wrong and was hoping for a quick response.

Pushed Its Luck

It's Timney's opinion that others commit ratings fraud at the App Store.

"I've seen comments by people discussing other developers they suspect are doing it," he told MacNewsWorld. "Some developers may be posting one-star reviews about their competitors to bump up their own ratings."

Molinker got caught, he said, because it got cocky.

Timney had never heard about Molinker before, despite his avid use of photography apps in his own work and as a beta tester. A screen shot for Molinker's latest apps, though, appealed to him and he pulled up its reviews.

Some 24 hours after the apps had been released there were 40 reviews, which is unheard of, he said.

Timney did eventually did download the app, even though by that point he was sure the ratings had been faked. In most respects it was a disappointment -- the resolution was very small -- but it did offer some interesting filters, he said.

Sudden Switch

This is the first instance of Apple taking such a drastic step over astroturfing at the App Store -- at least publicly, said Rob Walch, host of Today in iPhone.

"It's very possible Apple may have come across ratings or review fraud before on a limited or one-off basis and acted in a more discreet manner," he told MacNewsWorld.

Given the magnitude of the fraud and the fact that is was first called out on an outside blog, however, Apple had little choice but to yank everything, Walch said.

Indeed, the very scale of the deception almost guaranteed that it would be uncovered. Setting up a wide-scale -- and successful -- operation to seed reviews would require a lot of patient donkey work, Walch noted, with several email addresses, domain names and, of course, writing styles. "I don't think this is something that would be easy to pull off except on a limited basis."

Fear of Apple

Legitimate developers would not want to try it even on a one-off attempt, he said -- largely for fear that Apple would ban them for life from the App Store.

There have been several high-profile complaints about the App Store's opaque approval processes. At bottom, though, developers are happy with the App Store and with Apple, according to Walch, who himself has an app in the App Store.

"Sure, there is frustration with getting approval," he said, "but conversely, developers realize that it does keep out apps that are busted and malware apps. The reality is, you are less likely to get malware in iTunes then in Android, which has no oversight. Developers like the fact that people feel trust in what they buy from the App Store."

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