It took one allegation of download bots on a message board, very little in the way of actual confessions, and a whole lot of murmurs, but Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) is showing that it will respond swiftly if anyone starts messing with its App Store. But further investigation into the practices reveals that it may be hard to pin down who, exactly, is to blame for the practice when it does take place.
It all started with a report from last weekend, penned by a developer on the Touch Arcade forums, alleged that that some app publishers are using download bots to boost their rankings.
The services, it said, are being offered by third parties who will give your app the download bot treatment for as little as $5,000, and that many apps in the top rankings are using them already — pictured here. Some were also offering services to place favorable reviews on apps.
While Apple yesterday at first issued a “no comment” to paidContent when asked about it yesterday, overnight the company changed its tune and posted the following on its developer site, cautioning developers against manipulating rankings on its charts.
Notably, it doesn’t mention download bots specifically, but what it does do is suggest that the practice of using them, and any other services that inflate an app’s standing, will get that app the boot:
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.
The question is, however, how hard it will be to substantiate who, exactly, uses these kinds of services, and who is ultimately culpable for how marketing is implemented.
One of the bigger app developers named in the original report, CrowdStar, spoke up in the Touch Arcade forum comments twice. With the name of the company offering the service redacted in the original report, the company never firmly denied (or confirmed) whether they used that marketing company’s services, but it did deny creating or using “farms or bots for downloads or reviews.”
Later, co-founder and CEO Peter Relan later told paidContent in an email that his company allocates “significant six- and seven-figure budgets on advertising through channels such as iAds, Flurry, Chartboost and many others, and also do direct developer cross-promotion partnerships.”
But he also admitted that some of this is slightly out of its control (the italics are mine): “Ad networks keep their ad partner information confidential, but we hope that none of the partners ever use farms or bots. If there are policy issues identified by the mobile platform, ad networks should adapt… We ask all our ad partners to uphold platform policies and stay abreast of changes.”
He also said that CrowdStar has had to resort to terminating relationships with marketers who cross the line only once before. “We found that an ad partner could not satisfy our queries about bots and we stopped using the partner,” he wrote.
It remains to be seen whether Apple will actually start to take down apps that it deems to have used these tools — and how, exactly, it will be able to track that the practice.
It’s also worth wondering how and if Apple will go after the numerous companies offering these services.
One that I contacted (as a would-be potential customer), says that his services to add reviews and ratings to apps range in price from $99 to $499; he also offers 100 iTunes accounts for $499 to be used for “data entry” and potentially other services, like downloads. He’s just one of many, a developer told me.
The discovery issue is a thorny one for the world of apps, and with the total number of apps now standing at over 1 million, that problem’s only growing. App stores like Apple’s are becoming increasingly harder to navigate and for users to discover apps, and some developers will be looking for any opportunity they can to game that situation.
There have been some examples of other practices that result in boosting downloads — namely Tapjoy offering users free credits in a game in exchange for downloading another, which Apple also forbade — although this was a much more open system, never hiding what it was doing, and was arguably was also good for app discovery and advertising revenues.