Pay for play: Are marketers manipulating Apple’s App Store rankings?

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With over 500,000 apps available through Apple’s App Store, it can be daunting for developers to get their apps noticed — let alone downloaded. Enter a recent thread on app developer site Touch Arcade, in which a poster who was recently shopping around for ways to get his app more exposure was contacted by a “marketing” company that promised it could break apps into the top 25 rankings in exchange for a lump sum payment — in this case $5,000. The company in question went on to present a list of client apps that are currently sitting pretty on the list of 20 most popular free iPhone apps (8 out of 20 to be exact). That’s rarified air even for big-name developers. According to the poster, the company achieves its ends by utilizing outsourced bot farms to automatically download client apps (something the company freely admitted), thus moving them quickly up the rankings, at which point “human” users notice them and really get the numbers up.

It should come as no surprise to readers that Apple’s oft-vaunted App Store is really big business — it was estimated in December that the App Store alone, based on Apple’s market cap, was worth more than Blackberry maker Research in Motion. The entire company. Rovio, the mega-successful app developer behind the Angry Birds franchise, raked in over $100 million in revenue for 2011. And new research has revealed that mobile app ecosystems have added almost half a million jobs to the US economy — in the middle of a recession.

The more bizarre twist, however, is that Apple is apparently aware of the ranking manipulation, which seems to be corroborated by a post on its developer site. Pay-for-play schemes have existed since the dawn of business, but it is disheartening that a marketplace which has developed into such a tremendous force — both in the mobile world and the economy at large — could be so easily gamed, if indeed these assertions turn out to be true. It also raises a tricky moral conundrum for independent app developers: Play by the rules and watch some competitors climb the ranks using shady tactics, or use those same tactics and further de-democratize the marketplace you labor for?

Image Credit: Touch Arcade

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