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While annoying, the tactic of offering your app for free for a limited time prior to making people pay for it at least has the nice benefit of allowing a number of customers to actually get the software without paying for it. App Store manipulation hit a new low, recently when someone went a step further: paying people for high review scores.
Yes, in a frightening new low for Apple’s iPhone software distribution system, Wired is reporting that the developer of Santa Live, a Christmas-themed application aimed at children, seems to have been offering $4 in exchange for every 5-star review posted by people who download the $1.99 app. Since the Santa Live folks would be losing money in the deal, the obvious goal is to fix the ratings to encourage unwitting downloaders to fork over real, non-reimbursed cash.
The offer was listed on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, and has since been taken down. Luckily, a TUAW reader snagged the screenshot above to preserve evidence of the shady move. The Turk listing even describes a sneaky secret code system by which plant reviewers can identify themselves without drawing undue attention, by including an extended, five-period ellipsis (…..) somewhere in their review. Six of the 22 reviews for the app at the time of this writing contain the code.
Developer CEO Adam Majewski is listed by name in the ad pictured in the screenshot, but denies direct involvement or knowledge of the deal, claiming instead that marketing initiatives are not all routed through him.
That said, he conspicuously doesn’t condemn the attempt at review-fixing. Even if not specifically against App Store rules, the pay-for-stars scheme is incredibly unethical. The App Store is an ecosystem where success depends largely on user reviews, since sheer volume and the general lack of trial downloads or demos often prevent users and even professional reviewers from rating software without paying for it first. In such an environment, manipulating review scores could give an app a significant unfair advantage over other similar software, and could also influence end-users into paying money for something under false pretenses.
This case is a particularly visible one, but others have been using similar tactics in less obvious ways. If the problem is allowed to escalate to the point where it becomes widespread, it could fundamentally undermine the spirit of the App Store, resulting in a jaded customer base losing faith in the model.
How can we stop this sort of thing from happening in the future? Should a highly-visible, customer-facing code of ethics be developed, or is it sufficient to make examples of those caught red-handed?