How Apple Could Fight The Bots, Scams And Other App Store Junk

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No platform is perfect. Not even Apple’s. Over the last few weeks, there has been a flood of news about malfeasance in the app store from download bots to credit card scams to address-book sharing. Last month, I broke a few stories about app-related credit card fraud originating from Taobao, the eBay of China, and automated bots that download apps thousands of times to drive them up the charts. Then The New York Times and BusinessWeek came in with their own takes this week.

This puts the heat on Apple to further regulate the store, which is long overdue. Though to be fair, I still think that the iOS platform is more egalitarian than Facebook, which lends itself to a winner-take-all dynamic. iOS is also more lucrative per user than Android or Facebook, according to data from analytics provider Flurry and top-tier developers like EA Popcap.

Anyway, here are a few solutions:

1) Change the app store ranking algorithm so it doesn’t rely so much on raw download rates. A ranking algorithm that simple is just begging to be gamed. Developers have been doing it for years in ways that range from legitimate to totally unscrupulous. When the ecosystem was less mature, developers used to do burst advertising campaigns, where they would pay for a load of display ads right at launch. That became pretty expensive very quickly. Then in late 2010, developers started using offer walls, which would give players of other games rewards like virtual currency if they downloaded apps.

Then Apple cracked down on this practice last April. Ironically, an even less savory practice benefited as developers stepped up spending on marketing agencies that used bots to download their apps thousands of times. While none of the top tier developers admitted to intentionally doing this, it was a widely-known practice. Marketing companies like Charles River Ventures-backed Fiksu ran a test with one of these services, and saw thousands of downloads. But mysteriously, none of these users ever actually opened the app, so the company knew something was awry.

There is actually a really easy fix to this Whack-a-Mole problem. Just change the ranking algorithm. Factor in more than download rates. If Apple does that, then it will be more challenging for developers to game the system beyond creating just genuinely good apps.

Google Android doesn’t reveal its secret sauce but it is widely understood that the store’s ranking algorithm considers user ratings and the “long install” rate, or whether consumers keep the apps they have downloaded. The downside of Google’s approach is that it makes the charts less volatile, so it can be harder for newer apps to break through. But Google compensated for this last May by changing the design of the store and adding more categories like Top New Free and Top New Paid.

2) Give data on app store referral traffic to developers. Developers are basically flying blind when it comes to understanding how people find their iPhone and iPad apps. They do not definitively know how people end up on their landing pages in the app store. Did they get there by search? By their ranking in the top charts? By Facebook? By a link shared by a friend? They have no clue! In fact, there is a whole cottage industry of services like AppFigures which turns iTunes download data into something more usable.

If developers don’t have proof that other marketing channels work, that just makes it tempting to keep gaming rankings. Even Android’s app store (now called Google Play) gives developers statistics in a more Google Analytics-like format and provides tools for basic referral tracking.

3) Yes, you can shut down the bots. Apple has so far given a written warning to developers, urging them to stopping using services that guarantee top placement. But it’s not clear how actively they’re enforcing it. Many developers have shied away from touching any of these services in recent weeks out of pure fear. But that doesn’t mean they’re gone forever. Even BusinessWeek said that GTekna, a suspected bot marketing company, is still signing up new clientele.

Apple should have the ability to know when a burst of downloads doesn’t create a commensurate burst in usage. It’s just a question of whether they want it known that they can track app usage. Facebook routinely clamps down on applications that grow in highly suspicious ways through a mix of human reviews and algorithms that flag apps with anomalous growth patterns.

4) Apple’s deal to acquire Chomp is a step in the right direction, and suggests that search engine optimization or SEO for the app store will start mattering more. With Apple’s deal to buy app search engine Chomp, there are signs that an overhaul of the app store is coming. With more than 550,000 apps, the store is getting too crowded for a directory-based approach to work anymore. It’s going to require a better search engine and viral channels for applications. The Chomp deal should lay the groundwork and it looks like the Twitter-iOS integration and Facebook’s new mobile platform are starting to help with the second part.