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.

[ Check out six iPhone apps flying under the radar, reports CIO.com. | At Macworld, the next wave of iPhone apps emerges. ]

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Are iPhone developers getting a fair shake in the 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 favor 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 favorable 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."

Nevertheless, several app developers told CIO.com that the practice of gaming customer reviews is common—and not just positive reviews, either.

"People will game systems," Enderle says. "We've certainly seen that with Google rankings, vendor approval ratings in eBay and even Twitter friends. I've had a lot of complaints on the Apple system, everything from how you get approval to how folks game rankings."

The Legitimate Rise of an iPhone App

Last November, iSwing, an app that analyzes video of your golf swing, made its debut in the App Store. It quickly rose to the top spot in the sports category list, as Apple also featured the app.

Charlie Keum, CEO of Keuminotti, which developed iSwing, says he didn't partake in any sneaky tactics nor engage in politicking within Apple to capture the top spot, yet he's fully aware such behavior exists in the App Store ecosystem. How did iSwing rise so quickly? "I don't want to tell all my secrets," Keum says.

Here's some of them: For starters, iSwing was unique among golf apps—a popular category previously dominated by GPS rangefinder apps like Golfshot. (Check out CIO.com's review of Golfshot.) The app's uniqueness, not necessarily the app's actual benefit to golfers, caught Apple's eye, leading to iSwing being featured in the App Store.

Keum also bet marketing dollars on social networks like Facebook and Twitter to promote iSwing. He says social networks created a lot of buzz and led to many downloads of the app. Part of the reason is that golfers tend to socialize with other golfers through social media, and thus word about iSwing spread among them. Today, competitors have followed iSwing with video golf swing analysis apps.

Keum's social networking experience sheds light on a possible fix of the App Store's marketing problem: Drowning in a sea of apps, customers need better lifesavers than simply Apple's ranking system and customer reviews to help them find apps and make better buying decisions.

Social networks are a good place to market apps, but Keum wants even more marketing venues. He wants to know who is buying his apps so that he can reach similar customers and increase the odds of a good match between app and customer. Unfortunately for Keum, Apple doesn't release customer data to developers.

But it might behoove Apple to do so. Bad customer experiences hurt everyone, especially Apple, says Enderle. "Competition is increasing, and if people lose faith in the stores, they're not only likely to stop buying, they are more likely to switch phones," he says.

Tom Kaneshige is a senior writer for CIO.com in Silicon Valley. Send him an email at tkaneshige@cio.com. Or follow him on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline.

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