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.

Mon, February 22, 2010

CIO — 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 (AAPL).

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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."

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