Confessions of an App Store Manipulator

Mobile applications have a discoverability problem. It’s no longer a case of “build it and they will come,” marketers and developers hoping to generate audiences for their creations must now be prepared to invest thousands in media, PR and social efforts to drive downloads, particularly for apps distributed through Apple’s marketplace.

That’s given rise to a new breed of agency that specializes specifically in mobile app marketing, but it’s also spawned some shady tactics and practices. With that in mind Digiday spoke with an anonymous source at one of these outfits to get the lowdown on the shady world of app store manipulation, fraudulent, bot-generated downloads, and the fact that Apple can’t do anything about it.

I hear it’s now essential to get your app in Apple’s top 25 chart to have any chance of generating a significant audience. Is that true?
Yes, it’s something you have to do. It’s got to the point that so many people are out there trying to manipulate the charts that the only way to compete is to do it yourself. The point is to get as near to the top of the charts as possible and then let the viral effect take over. Those spots are essentially ads, and the only way to get any visibility is to force your way in.

How do you do that?
There are the mobile display ad networks that you can use to promote downloads, of course, but then there are a bunch of companies out there that will guarantee you a top 25 position for a set price, such as Appmagenta and GTekna.

How can those vendors guarantee a position in the charts?
They use bots. They say they don’t, but they do. There’s no mathematical way they can generate the volume of traffic they do for the amounts that we’ve paid them and switch it on and off so quickly. They’ll even go as far as to buy display ads on a few iPhone sites for show and then say they can’t disclose the rest of their activity. Thanks to in-app analytics tools, it’s clear what’s going on though. Apple tells us how many downloads a certain app has received, but the analytics show us how many people actually open it. When we’ve used those companies we see a sudden influx of downloads, but nobody’s actually opening the apps until you get into that top 25 bracket. Another alarm bell is that they only work with free applications, which explains how they can do this over and over again without incurring costs.

On what basis are these campaigns sold?
They usually sell a guaranteed top 25 ranking for a set amount. If they don’t deliver, they say they’ll give you your money back. Appmagenta charges around $4,000 a buy, GTekna around $8,000. During the holiday period, I’ve heard they charged as much as $17,000. Even at that price it’s still a good deal, which is why these companies are so popular. With a network like AdMob, you’d probably have to spend around $50,000 to get onto the charts, and even then you might not make it. Because of that these companies are usually booked out six months ahead of time.

Apple recently said it would take action against people manipulating the rankings in that way. Will that put an end to these types of practices?
Probably not. After the announcement, most of these companies took any mention of a guaranteed top 25 placements from their websites, but I think they’re still selling the services under the radar and not calling it top 25. The reality is, Apple doesn’t really have a way to stop it. They can threaten to shut people down but from a technical perspective it would be extremely hard for them to identify. Apple doesn’t have, or at least would never openly admit to having, access to data coming from within an application. All they track is whether or not they’ve delivered the software. Maybe there’s a way they could look at download patterns: investigate apps that go through huge bursts and then trace downloads of them back to specific accounts. I think it’s going to be very hard for Apple to shut this down.

If these tactics work, why do you want to draw attention to them?
Because I would rather these companies all went away. Every time you buy from them, you get a dirty taste in your mouth, and they make it hard for the people that want to do things right. Part of why I have no qualms talking about this is because everybody does it. They have to compete. But we’re not using bot networks anymore. We can’t risk our clients and apps being pulled from the App Store, and I can’t risk Apple being pissed with me.

https://digiday.com/?p=8278
Digiday Top Stories
  • Coalition for Better Ads experiences European growing pains

    The Coalition for Better Ads is putting more people on the ground in Europe to combat communication and resource issues.

  • The state of UK mobile ad spend in 5 charts

    People are spending more time on mobile, so advertisers are following. In the first half of 2016, the U.K. saw mobile ad spend rocket to £1.7 billion ($2.1 billion), more than double the same total for 2015. According to the stats, search and video formats are behind the boom. But while desktop is on the way out, TV has a firmer grip on advertiser purse strings.

  • China’s Cheetah Mobile eyes U.S. for growth

    App developer Cheetah Mobile is a global company with Chinese roots. It is focused on the global market because Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu are winning the speed-scale battle in China and copycat startups pop up overnight. The company started shifting its focus to the global mobile market with a focus on utility apps four years ago, and this year, it’s transitioning from utility to content apps.

  • Opinion: Ad blocking + telecoms = a match made at the bank

    The battle for free, high-quality Internet content just got heated. Mobile operator Three has declared itself the second wireless service provider to integrate ad blocking at a network level, courtesy of ad blocking company Shine. It's being waged under the banner of “a better consumer experience,” on mobile devices, but I believe the debate is less about the consumer and much more about the money. Specifically, who’s going to make more of it.

  • Why Telefónica is getting brands to pay for its customers’ data plans

    Spanish telecom giant Telefónica is betting on sponsored-data ad models as a key future revenue stream. The company, which is in the process of selling U.K. operator O2 to Hutchison Whaompa for £10.2 billion, has been testing several variations of sponsored-data packages for the last year and is now poised for a more widespread rollout, and it wants more advertiser partners. Telefónica's global ad director Dan Rosen spoke to Digiday about the benefits.