How developers manipulate App Store rankings

By | March 24, 2014

If you want a new app to reach as many people as possible then it’s vital to hit the top charts of the app stores. Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store contain more than 1 million apps each. They both have a very limited store front that highlights a small subset of the apps on offer. If you can get your app into one of the charts then you’ll benefit from a positive feedback loop as more people see it and install it.

App store rankings

The importance of hitting those charts has led to some desperate moves. We don’t know exactly how app store rankings work, but there’s no doubt that the rate of downloads, number of installs, rating and number of reviews, how often users open the app, and probably the sales generated are all factored in. Getting a good rating boosts your chances of hitting the charts, it boosts your chances of being downloaded, and it even boosts your ranking in search results.

Here’s how developers have been manipulating app store rankings.

The dark side of app store rankings manipulation

A couple of years ago Apple warned developers that using services which guaranteed a high App Store ranking would result in a ban. At the time there were various services offering a top 25 place in return for a fee. The story blew up when Pocket Gamer  picked up on a forum discussion claiming that a company was offering a top 25 place in return for $5,000 and it was able to achieve it by bot-farming. It would use bots to download the app thousands of times and push it into the top chart by which time the positive feedback loop would kick in and the exposure would start delivering legitimate downloads.

A number of apps were banned in the aftermath of this, but as reasons are rarely given, we can only speculate about the use of bots and its detection as a method. Companies can also use real people and pay them to download apps, which is much harder to combat. As rankings started to draw more heavily on ratings to combat this, a bunch of services sprang up offering positive reviews in return for cash.

A grey area

There are lots of tricks that developers and publishers use to promote their apps and try to inflate their rankings. Offering some sort of benefit in return for downloading another app is very common, particularly with freemium games. Some developers will use push notifications to promote their other wares. It used to be quite common to offer a reward for a positive review, although this has been clamped down on. The promise that this annoying pop-up will go away if you take the time to rate the app can also work, but there’s a risk users will be irritated.

Digging deeper, some developers have resorted to dark patterns, which attempt to manipulate the user by changing an interface they are used to. For example, they might put a “Rate this app” button in at the end of a game in the same place that the “Play” button usually sits, banking on the idea that once it brings the review screen up you might just quickly rate it.

Now if you imagine these dirty tricks are the reserve of small developers struggling to make an impact you’d be wrong. Electronic Arts recently hit the headlines because it prompts users to rate the Dungeon Keeper game and if you pick five stars you get pushed through to the Play Store or App Store to leave a review, but if you select 1-4 stars you get redirected to an EA email form for feedback.

Level the playing field

Google and Apple need to do more to level the playing field and ensure the app stores maintain credibility. While both companies have been taking measures to ensure the fairness of their rankings, they are often corrective measures rather than proactive measures.

It’s tough for developers right now trying to compete without taking shortcuts or using any manipulation. Although some of them use questionable tactics to make it onto the app stores’ top charts, the applications that succeed are always well-designed applications that deliver on their promise, whether it be to entertain or provide value. The time where you could rank high with a fart noise app is gone.

Above all, developers need to think about how to deliver a truly amazing experience if they wish to be a part of Apple and Google’s top charts. This is the best way to attract the attention of the review team and increase the likelihood that your app will be showcased as a Featured app or Editor’s choice, which is a great way to kick off your presence in the app store.

Category: Mobile and video games trends

About Simon Hill

Simon is an experienced freelance technology journalist covering mobile technology, software, and videogames for a wide variety of clients in print and online. He regularly contributes to Digital Trends, Tech Radar, and Android Authority, and he ghostwrites for CEOs in the technology space. After completing a Masters in Scottish History at Edinburgh University, he began his career as a games tester, progressing to lead tester, game designer, and finally producer, before leaving the industry to write full time. He is passionate about the potential for good software and hardware to improve our lives, and strongly believes that thorough testing is a vital prerequisite for greatness.