For a Small Fee

There’s been increasing talk about how unscrupulous developers have gamed the App Store in recent weeks. Typically, shady devs will submit apps to the store that have similar names and app icons to top ten titles and in the confusion (and perhaps the additional hype from all the attention) users download these “scam” apps and push them ever higher. For honest developers who play by the rules, it’s a serious problem, and one that Apple needs to do a better job addressing.

There’s another way to get your app into the App Store’s Top Ten list however. With enough money, and a faulty ethical compass, you too can be sitting pretty atop the mountain of App Store competition. This morning the Iconfactory’s webmaster account received the following email from an address in China. The person (or persons) purported the ability to get your app to the top, fast. We were just one address of perhaps 100 or more in the “To” field including lockerz.com, skout.com, tumblr.com, okcupid and many more. Why they didn’t bcc the list is beyond me, but at any rate for a mere $10,000 USD, using thousands of “legally” registered iTunes accounts, they will download your app and help boost it into the top ten. How long it stays there just depends on how much you’re willing to pay.

We have large quantity of USA ,UK,CA itunes accounts, registered legally, we can promote your free app in the US, UK, CA store.Don’t waste time in promoting,leave it to us! We are professional team for you and we are the most powerful team for app promotion in China.

10,000 downloads in one store, need 1000USD

If you want the ranking, here is the price list for weekday only,please check:
—————iPhone app———————
US top10 24 hours 10000USD
US top10 48 hours is 15000USD
US top10 3 days is 20000USD
Each additional day the need to increase $ 5,000, up to 5 days,only for weekday

UK top10 24hours 3000USD
UK top10 48hours 5500USD
UK top10 3days is 8000USD
Each additional day the need to increase $ 2,500, up to 5 days,only for weekday

CA top10 24hours 2500USD
CA top10 48hours 4500USD
CA top10 3days 6500USD

————–ipad app only for separate app———————
US top10 24 hours 4000USD
US top10 48 hours is 6000USD
US top10 3 days is 8000USD
Each additional day the need to increase $ 2,000, up to 5 days,only for weekday

UK top10 24hours 1200USD
UK top10 48hours 2200USD
UK top10 3days is 3200USD
Each additional day the need to increase $ 1,000, up to 5 days,only for weekday

CA top10 24hours 1000USD
CA top10 48hours 1800USD
CA top10 3days 2600USD

Weekend day, subject to 20%

The problem of scam apps seems like a relatively easy one to solve compared to this sort of App Store gaming. Apple should simply do a better job identifying and rejecting offending scam apps at the review level. But with enough legitimate iTunes accounts there’s no real way for Apple to identify “fake” downloads from real downloads and keep bogus apps from rising to the top. Perhaps if it happens often enough Apple can develop algorithms to help identify offending accounts and close them, but I’m skeptical.

It seems clear that a re-work of the entire top ten system is in order, and not just because of the recent rash of scamming. Some apps like Angry Birds can stay atop the Top Ten list for months on end making it harder for other awesome, smaller apps to see the light of day. Perhaps Apple’s recent purchase of Chomp will help solve the problem of discoverability, but until then unfortunately there will always be shady individuals willing to prey on people’s greed and desire to succeed.

UPDATE: Matt Ryan over on LockerGnome reports a possible explanation for how these app “promoters” can secure thousands of iTunes accounts to artificially inflate apps – they steal them. Both Ryan’s PayPal and iTunes accounts were hijacked and then used to download copies of an app called iMobster. It should come as no surprise that when the promoter says he uses thousands of “legally registered” iTunes accounts, he means it except they’re not his. So not only do devs fork over tens of thousands of dollars, they’re most likely doing so to criminals who hijack legitimate iTunes accounts and milk them dry until they are caught and shut off. Alarming to say the least.

Market Yourself An iParadigm

John Gruber over at Daring Fireball links to an intriguing piece by Paul Kafasis on the state of the App Store. The post compares Walmart’s strategy to sell disposable, cheap goods to those of App Store “ringtone” developers which are forcing down prices. My friend and business partner, Craig Hockenberry wrote about this very topic a few weeks ago in a piece that put him in the crosshairs of quite a few people.

After Craig’s piece was published, and indeed after reading the post by Kafasis, some are under the impression that more expensive “AAA” apps are doing just fine thank you very much. The theory goes that one only has to look at the App Store top 10 list to understand it’s not price that gets you into the top 10, but quality. This, plus marketing on the part of the developer are all that’s needed to boost your software into the top 10 of the App Store. Reading through the comment thread at Inside iPhone it all seems so simple. All a developer has to do is market their app and the rest will take care of itself! Why didn’t I think of that?

The part I love the most is that the people making the “just market your app!” comment have no real idea how much effective marketing costs. Oh sure, you can go far on viral and word-of-mouth marketing, but it all pales in comparison to even a small banner graphic in the App Store. The Iconfactory could spend tens of thousands of dollars buying up targeted advertising space to promote Frenzic, but it still wouldn’t be 1/10 as effective as the front page graphics that Dropship, Marley and Texas Hold’em are enjoying (for free) as I write this. Not only that, but I have no way to track metrics for advertising pointing at Frenzic in the App Store. I can’t gauge how effective a $75 blog ad versus a $2,600 DF sponsorship is because Apple doesn’t currently give me stats of people clicking through to my software. Anyone who says “Just market it!” doesn’t have a solid grasp on how the App Store works.

Another example is Rolando. People are holding this app up as the ultimate example of a quality, non ringtone app that is enjoying success in the store. It is true that Rolando is a fantastic game worthy of the top spot it once held. It is also true that Apple promoted Rolando from DAY ONE in the App Store with major graphics both in iTunes and on Apple.com. All that exposure helped to get Rolando into the top of the store when it launched. But its $9.99 price point is like an anchor. As I write this, Rolando sits at #30 in the top 100, and #10 in games. Let me repeat that. #10. In games.

So what is in the App Store top 10 right now? iFart Mobile is number one which is still riding high on a wave of PR thanks to being originally barred. Crash Bandicoot, which is featured in national Apple television spots is #2. Tetris, perhaps the most well-known video game in history, is #3. Three more ringtone apps come in as 4, 5 & 6 including the months old iBeer. Touchgrind, which also enjoyed prominent Apple billing, is #7. Bejeweled 2 is number 8, PocketGuitar ($.99) is #9 and SimCity rounds out the top 10. All of these apps either enjoyed uncommon press exposure, have a nationally known brand or are priced at $.99. Quality definitely plays a role in getting to the top, but price and “Apple love” play a larger part.

Does this all mean that developers like myself will abandon making quality iPhone applications like Twitterrific and Frenzic? Of course not. I just wish that people who think they know how the App Store works would admit that they really don’t. The App Store is still in flux and much is unknown. What I do know however is that there are key factors to getting to the top of the store, chief among them being price and exposure from Apple. No amount of 3rd party marketing, done on a small developer’s budget is going to change that simple fact. What’s worse (or better, depending on your point of view) is once you are in the top 10, even if you’re app is a “limited utility” ringtone app, because you’re in front of millions of eyeballs both on the device and in iTunes, you’re bound to stay there.

I don’t know exactly how to fix the App Store, but everyone I’ve spoken with agrees that it needs fixing. If not fixing, at least a change in how it favors certain apps while hindering others. The more we talk about this stuff, the better it will be for both developers and customers alike.