Apple App store's dirty little secret

As the App Store swells with apps, customers turn to Apple's ranking system and customer reviews to make buying decisions. What's the problem? It's that neither system can be fully trusted.


If you're an iPhone owner, you've probably got a virtual wardrobe full of deleted iPhone apps. Most cost you a dollar or more, others were downloaded for free, but nearly all of them let you down in some way.

But it's not your fault. Customers must sift through more than 150,000 apps, and are often forced to rely on trial and error to find apps that suit their needs and tastes. The tools they do rely on, like Apple's Top 25 lists and customer reviews, contain their share of flaws. That's the dirty little secret of Apple's App Store.

The awful truth is that app developers game customer reviews and even Top 25 lists to promote their apps and slam competitors, according to news reports, analysts and even developers themselves. Some developers claimed they've tapped their relationship with Apple to curry favour and land their app on Apple's Featured list.

All of this chicanery results in fewer successful customer-to-app hookups and a plethora of bad customer experiences.

"Apple needs to put the same attention into the [App] store experience they put into assuring the quality of their products and [Apple] stores," says analyst Rob Enderle of the Enderle Group. "Right now, their App Store quality is significantly lagging the rest of the company's efforts."

Something Fishy in the Ranking System

Given the volume of apps coupled with wide-ranging quality, it's no wonder iPhone owners rely on the App Store's ranking systems (namely, the Top 25 in each category and the Featured list) to help them select among the staggering number of apps. "The Top 25 list is the thing that drives distribution," says Krishna Subramanian, founder of Mobclix, which operates a mobile ad exchange marketplace.

At first glance, the Top 25 list for, say, paid or free apps seems legit. The more downloads an app scores, the higher the app rises on the list. So how can developers game this ranking system?

"For free games, the way you'd do it is downloads to bogus accounts," explains Enderle. "For apps with fees, you could do the same thing and either eat the Apple royalty as a marketing charge or buy and then immediately return the app, although this last [tactic] should trigger an alert at Apple if it happens too often."

Just because an app lands on the Top 25 list doesn't mean someone is engaged in foul play. A good number of apps rise on the list on their own merits, while others leverage the power of the developer's brand. Subramanian says he has seen developers break out of obscurity with a great app, allowing customers to become familiar with the developer's brand, and their next app rides the coattails to the Top 25 list.

Still, it's possible for others to leverage connections with Apple in order to gain favourable placement in the App Store. For example, Frog Design, a 40-year-old design firm, has had a long-standing relationship with Apple, which Mike Goos, director of product management at Frog Design, says came in handy after it launched a division for mobile app development last year.

Last fall, Frog Design created an app called Postcard Express. An Apple exec who worked with Frog Design on the Mac years ago brought Postcard Express to the attention of Apple employees in the App Store, according to Goos. Shortly after, the app became an Apple editorial staff pick.

As a featured app, Postcard Express quickly gained exposure and rose to the coveted number one spot on the Top 25 list in the travel category. "Downloads increased dramatically," says Goos. "It makes all the difference."

Beware of Misleading Customer Reviews

There's no question that Top 25 lists don't always reflect the best apps in a given category, rather the lists help to put apps on a potential customer's radar. A smart shopper, though, will do a little research on the app before tapping the "buy" button, which usually begins with a perusal of customer reviews.

Yet the App Store's customer reviews have been under attack over the last few months. Last summer, for instance, MobileCrunch accused Reverb Communications, a PR firm for game publishers and developers, of seedy tactics with customer reviews.

MobileCrunch wrote: "Among its various tactics? [Reverb] hires a team of interns to trawl iTunes and other community forums posing as real users, and has them write positive reviews for their client's applications." The goal is to get customer reviews for a client's app started in a positive way, in hopes of building momentum, according to MobileCrunch.

Reverb's rebuttal: "Our interns do not post reviews on iTunes. Our employees don't post fake reviews. It's common for Reverb team members to purchase the games and write a review in iTunes using their personal accounts AFTER they have played the game."

"Recommended For You"

Android apps make less money than iPhone, survey says Apple marketing tricks 'lock you in'