SEO Games with Games in the App Store

On January 2, 2012, Apple accidentally released an app called “Game Store” to the iOS App Store. I saw this early in the day, so thought I would check it out. Turned out it was only in the German App Store – and that it wasn’t really that exciting. In the end, it didn’t even show up in my search results. But what did show up in the search caught my eye. Take a look.

Apple Store search for the term Game Store

See all those “Maker” apps in there? For some reason, those struck me as odd. So I clicked one. I know that my kids have enjoyed playing with a few of apps where you can “make” a cupcake, etc by overlaying certain images on top of others – but most of those are free, and review well as a result. My kids also also like waffles – so I clicked  the “A Waffle Maker” app.

First of all, all of these apps were $.99. The quality of these apps is such that even $.99 is overcharging. It’s obvious that most or all of these images are ripped straight off of the Web. See the cast iron waffle iron in the second picture? Now go do a  Google search for the same waffle iron (a waffle iron that, amusingly, I own).

The rating (2.5 stars – pretty much all of these apps) and even the review on this app (actually, on all of them also) are pretty harsh. I don’t have a current copy of the App Store dev guidelines, but looking at an older copy, this pretty likely violates at least the spirit of 2.12 (Apps that are not very useful or do not provide any lasting entertainment value may be rejected). But something else smelled funny. Did you notice the name of the “Seller”? Yes, that’s right, it’s App Maker Flick Creator Booth Builder & Tap More LLC (links to App Store listing of all of their apps). That’s insane. Do you see it? It’s SEO keyword stuffing, but using the name of the company to do it. Almost all of those words occur in the name of several popular apps – and searching the App Store for those terms returns results where this company’s apps will almost always show up in the initial or “all apps” searches. Hence, my search for Game Store, or shockingly even just the term “store” turns up these lovely apps.

At this point, I’m trying to figure out, is this someone who is maliciously trying to game the App Store and trawl in customers who don’t know to read reviews to buy these (almost universally 1 star reviewed) apps and regret it later? So I found their support link on iTunes, and clicked it. Up came this little gem:

Now, you didn’t see it, but the initial domain that we traveled to before being redirected was actually www.appmakerflickcreator.info. But that quickly redirected to the (rather lame) placeholder site above, which was created in iWeb. Yes, that’s it. No actual support info, nothing about the apps that they provide, and only a lowly Gmail address to get support from.

I decided to check the .info domain name to see who had registered it, and where. At this point I would have placed a bet that it was an anonymously registered domain on GoDaddy (this combination is the primary MO of cybercriminals that I’ve observed).

Sure enough, it was registered last July, with a DomainsByProxy registration through GoDaddy, and a ping to the server hosting the site (www.connect3tv.com, registered in September of 2010) returned an IP of 184.168.218.243, which ARIN said belonged to GoDaddy as well. At this point, I still think there’s something fishy going on here.

I simply Googled “connected3tv.com”, and some quite interesting results turned up. Not one, not two, but what appeared to be 5 additional companies, all obtusely named, hosted on that same domain:

Surveying the App Store, there are over 132 apps, all $.99 exist across these 6 “companies”, most of which were released in 2011, quite a few of which were updated right before the holiday App Store lockdown. I didn’t look at every single one, but every one I did look at was universally panned.

During my search process, the person (yes, one person) principally responsible for this stack of apps also showed up in the search. Personally I’m a big fan of Hanlon’s Razor; and frankly, I really do like to err on the side of saying something someone did was probably ignorance or stupidity, not malice. But setting up 6 companies, keyword stuffing their names, and filling the App Store with over a hundred apps that are all poor quality, Flash-based, nearly identical “take a photo and move UI elements around on it”, using images that appear to be largely stolen off of the Web, and having the gall to sell them to impulse buying consumers for $.99? This person made me flip from believing it was ignorance to believing it was just plain old greed. I’m not naming their name here. You can Google it if you’d like.

But this wasn’t enough. No, they also performed the cardinal sin in the App Store – they submitted a glowing review of their own apps, when everyone else was giving it a 1 star, thumbs down. Look at this:

See that? The reviewer, “Sunlittiger” only has 5 reviews under their belt. Sure, one is Scrabble. You want to make yourself look somewhat legit, right? But the other 4 reviews? They’re split among two of the companies above, and they’re positively glowing.

Now, this person behind these 6 (or more?) “companies” isn’t alone, I ran across several other organizations using keyword stuffing in their name, and quite a few other $.99 app purveyors with almost universally panned apps. That’s incredibly disappointing, and not the kind of apps Apple should allow/keep in the store, but, that’s their call.

To make things worse, the person behind all these apps has also created ripoffs of Pocket Frogs, a popular (FREE) iPhone/iPod Touch game with their own iPhone version (Pocket Frog 2) which has already confused consumers (see the reviews of the ripoff) and an iPad version, Pocket Frog.

I can’t summarize the things that I think this person is doing that may be questionable, unethical, possibly against Apple’s developer terms of service – but I can tell you, I have a problem with apps like this in the App Store – it gives a horrible representation of the iOS platform, and disappoints/irritates new, non-technical users – and worst of all, often children who will impulse buy this junk, only to be disappointed (and out a dollar), as this person makes enough money to financially justify the chaotic “business strategy” above.

I’m really concerned that apps like all of these make it into the system in this kind of volume. Is there a different quality bar for Flash-based apps? Does just anything just make it in? If so, I can see why Apple wanted to scrap Flash apps – a lot of them are junk. But if these apps were missed, and the overarching pattern of abuse here was missed or ignored, I’m even more concerned. Is the screening process really strong enough to catch potential flaws (or apps with embedded trojan code) in native iOS applications?

I have provided a link to this post to the only Apple contact that I have. I’ll update it if I receive any comment.

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