Are Apple’s App Store Rankings for Sale?

Trying to stop people from gaming the charts

Apple has made a concerted effort to ensure its App Store is a pure meritocracy. But that hasn’t stopped fringe vendors from promising to help developers buy their way to the top of the rankings.

Developers say it’s common to receive come-ons like this one from a fellow named Jevan from Nepal: “Hello! We can now make 100k + downloads of free apps in US store…also we can promote app to top 100/50/25 in overall free category in US iTunes store.”

And despite Apple cracking down on the practice of companies like Tapjoy selling paid app installs, San Francisco-based CyberZ still promises “personalized campaigns based on your desired number of installs,” as James Armfield, the company’s business development specialist, put it in a recent pitch.

Then there are companies like that offer “a large network of USA reviewers (several thousand) that can download and rate your apps favorably,” wrote sales manager Karan Khubchandani. Review prices start at 80 cents.

Considering there are a million apps in Apple’s App Store, getting into the top 20 rankings is seen as crucial to success. Apple, which declined comment, isn’t transparent about how its rankings work, but until recently they were believed to be driven primarily by download volume and speed. But according to TechCrunch, Apple tweaked its algorithm over the summer to take into account app ratings and other factors. That’s why there are numerous vendors making all sorts of app marketing promises.

“Apple is a super helpful company,” said Chris DeWolfe, CEO of the Social Gaming Network. “But its algorithm needs to change. It’s still a mystery. You’ll see two-star apps in the top 10, and you say, ‘Why?’ There are companies out there that will pay to download your app. And there are guys out there that are a complete sham.”

The sense that the App Store is unregulated at best and ripe for exploitation at worst has rankled some developers. “I can’t believe that Apple allows this,” a developer said. “It feels like a Ponzi scheme.”

But others see that point of view as alarmist. “I don’t see anybody selling chart position or people selling reviews,” said Walter Driver, founder of the mobile gaming network Scopely. “That’s mostly gone away, or it’s popping up on the margins.”

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Several mobile insiders praised Apple for helping push some of those practices to the margins, particularly since Apple cracked down on rougue developers offering gamers free lives or game currency in exchange for downloading apps. "Apple did a really nice job cleaning that up," said Craig Palli, chief strategy officer at the app marketing firm Fiksu.

“Last year was all about chart-boosting,” said Bill Clifford, chief revenue officer at the mobile ad firm SessionM, “Buying as many app installs as possible as short a timeframe as possible to get to the top of the charts.  Now there are fewer loopholes available to artificially inflate rankings, and legit companies won't spend their time with it.”

Charles Manning, CEO at the mobile metrics firm Kochava, suggested that to improve the democracy of its App Store, Apple could consider either finding better ways to track users’ engagement with apps and use that data to influence its app rankings. Or it could simply let apps buy their way to the top of rankings through ads, a la Google’s search ads.

The company Chartboost has emerged as a mobile app marketing alternative centered on old fashioned barter. It’s app developer customers can cross promote each other’s apps via Chartboost’s tech. Regarding allegations of App store chart gamesmanship, “This is not a huge problem,” said Michael Fyall, Chartboost’ head of marketing. “Apple’s intentions are consistent, it’s there policing that is inconsistent…Tapjoy was always on the edge."

Indeed, when it comes to policing, some wonder whether Tapjoy is still cutting some corners. The company provides free lives in games like Running Fred as long as players sit through ads from brands like Chevy Cruz.

But according to TapJoy CEO Steve Wadsworth, the company has evolved dramatically over the past few years. “Today our business is about driving app distribution," he said. "We reach high quality users through quality ad solutions. I don’t know if you can impact the charts in any way.”

Regardless, DeWolfe tends to think that attempts to manipulate Apple’s charts, however prevalent, will ultimately prove fruitless, as bought users just aren’t worth that much. “If you buy your way into the top 10, you’re going to be out of business.”

UPDATED: CyberZ's Armfield says his company doesn't make specific app download promises. "Guaranteeing app downloads is something that shouldn't be done, because with the nature of the market, nothing can guaranteed," he said. "We receive requests from our clients to achieve a certain amount of installs, and we will do our best through our various partners to reach the target goal, but it is not something that we guarantee."

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