Looking for a business travel app for your tablet? A good place to start is the Apple App Store, the Google Play Store, or any number of app outlets where you will see the top-selling apps along with various customer ratings. In fact, a few clicks will deliver a wealth of information. There's only one problem: it's possible that some of the information you sorted through was tarnished.
The tremendous success of mobile app stores has created an unwelcome side effect. “A cottage industry has emerged where third parties use questionable methods to bump up app store ratings,” said Stephen Arnold, managing partner at ArnoldIt.com, a technology and financial analysis firm.
Looking for an Edge
The reason for the new industry is clear: $$$. With more than 600,000 apps available and passing the 25 billion download mark in early March, the Apple App Store has become the most recognized in a series of very successful businesses. Because of the widespread popularity, all developers want their apps to gain traction in the mobile stores.
But with so many apps available, that process can be daunting. “Vendors find it difficult to get their mobile apps noticed,” stated Jack E. Gold, principal analyst at J. Gold Associates, LLC, an IT consulting firm.
As a result, some illegitimate companies have moved in to “help”. They promise to move an app into a store’s Top 25 (or even Top 10) rankings for a fee — typically starting at $1,000 and going up.
These underground enterprises work their magic in a few ways. In some cases, they have individuals who download the applications time and time again during the day. Also, clever hackers have developed programs that automate the downloading process. In other cases, the businesses have found flaws in app rating systems and jerry-rigged results, so it seems like an app is being downloaded more than it actually is.
Because such work is done in a clandestine manner, it is difficult to determine how widespread the practices are. “Unethical techniques to boost app ratings have been in use since the first day that app stores opened,” stated Jack E. Gold, principal analyst at J. Gold Associates, LLC, an IT consulting firm. Estimates on the low end are that a few of the top apps have taken the tainted route, but on the high end, half of the most popular apps use the questionable techniques.
What are the Vendors Doing?
It is also unclear what steps store owners have taken to limit the practice. “Vendors constantly tweak their rating mechanisms in order to provide better results,” said ArnoldIt.com’s Arnold. However, the store owners view these functions as competitive differentiators. Consequently, the algorithms and metrics they use are not known. Rather than create negative publicity, they have also largely refused to outline any steps taken to limit fraud, so, consumers have largely been in the dark about this issue.
However, underscoring the severity of the problem in February, Apple acknowledged that its ratings system is not perfect. In a message on its developer page, the company said, “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.”
In addition, Apple reportedly has taken a few apps offline and blacklisted ratings boosts coming from some hackers. However, it has not publically acknowledged those steps or identified the tainted third parties, so consumers have no way of knowing whether a rating they used was legit or illegitimate.
In fact, the stores and the hackers have been involved in a cyber game of cat-and-mouse. The outsiders find a hole and exploit it; the vendors realize there is a gap and fill it. Then, the process begins all over again.
In essence, the game has become an investment war - which side will spend enough money trying to outfox the other? For the hackers, rating rigging is their primary business, so they are fully invested in it. But the store owners are diverted by other business considerations. “App store vendors are probably more interested in, for instance, improving their order entry system than in policing their rating systems,” stated J. Gold Associates’ Gold. As a result, the problem is not going away.
So what should users do? Education is a first step. When looking for a new app, they need to recognize that what is being presented in a store may not be accurate. They may want to check a couple of stores to see if one rating seems odd. Also, third party references from information sites that are not affiliated with a store may provide more beneficial information than those in app stores. Finally, they may want to simply ask their friends – at least, they will know that the information is legit.
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