China bot operators target Apple's App Store rankings

Increasing competition among bot operators touting the ability to "promote" an app up Apple's free download list results in Apple "locking down" the chart last Friday.

Apple's App Store is being targeted by Chinese bot operators touting the ability to push an app developer's software to the top of its free download list.

According to a NetEase report Monday, things came to a head last Friday when the Top 50 free download list on Apple's App Store began to fluctuate greatly and apps from companies such as Gameloft, Disney and Zynga started to rocket up the list. It resulted in the app chart being "locked down" that evening, it noted.

Citing unnamed industry insiders, the report said the competition among local bot operators has been brewing for more than a month as they slashed prices to attract customers, and the rivalry spilled over last Friday resulting in Apple's intervention.

The manipulation of Apple's App Store rankings in China is not new and continues to exist despite Cupertino's various efforts at tweaking its algorithm to prevent people from manipulating app download rankings.

Pick your app ranking

There is a trend to identify apps that are being "promoted" by bot operators, NetEase revealed. According to statistics by Appfigures, most of these apps are usually positioned around 300th or 400th position on the chart but, once it hits 4 p.m., these apps will jump to the top rankings within an hour.

These promoted apps will only appear at the top of the chart for two or three days though, before being replaced by other lesser-known applications. This is the result of competition between bot operators, it stated. 

A NetEase reporter also went undercover and pretended to be an app developer when contacting one such app promotion company in China. The promoter claimed to be able to manipulate the ranking to the customer's wishes and boasted that customers can pick and choose their app rankings.

The report also cited Renren as an example of a company which gamed Apple's app ranking system and, as a result, had several of its games removed from the App Store. The company reportedly spent over 3 million yuan (US$486,000) every month just to achieve higher rankings for its mobile software on Apple's app distribution platform.