Yesterday, we brought you news that at least one company is allegedly utilising bots that will download an iOS developer's app over and over again until it has broken into the top 25 free chart and gained the necessary visibility to become a hit.
Apple has since issued an official warning, telling developers: "When you promote your app, you should avoid using services that advertise or guarantee top placement in App Store charts."
"Even if you are not personally engaged in manipulating App Store chart rankings or user reviews, employing services that do so on your behalf may result in the loss of your Apple Developer Program membership."
Don't be evil
So that's the end of that, then, right?
Well, no, not quite. Since bringing this news to the public's attention, Pocket Gamer has received a number of tip-offs about specific companies that are allegedly in on this act.
These schemes make it incredibly difficult for above-board, scrupulous iOS developers to make a living. In essence, this dubious practice is tantamount to cheating your way to the top.
One developer, who wished to remain anonymous for obvious reasons, told us that he / she has used one of these services in question - and the results were questionable.
Our tipster said it uses the service supplied by TopDealApps.com, a website which offers App Store games for free.
The idea is that lots of people will buy a game having seen it featured on TopDealApps, therefore pushing the game up the top free App Store chart.
Nothing wrong there - there are numerous similar online services out there for developers to try out to achieve the same desired effect. However, our tipster became suspicious that everything was not as it seemed after the results appeared rather odd.
"We knew something was wrong but the deal was simple - top 50 free in the US guaranteed. We've asked questions regarding our concerns, but they skillfully replied to them. We had an agreement and didn't want to have legal troubles over them," our source explained.
The tipster's app received over 30,000 downloads during its time being promoted on TopDealApps. Yet, the results appeared skewed - all the downloads were from the US, with no noticeable jump in sales in other regions.
As our tipster points out, this is strange, for visitors to the TopDealApps website would be from all regions. Why did only the US traffic jump?
Our source also divulged other details - the promoted apps received a grand total of zero reviews or ratings from these 30,000 downloads, while the company's database recorded very few new users logging into the game.
It turns out that nearly every 'person' who downloaded the game didn't even open it.
The final twist to this story is the rate at which the tipster's app received traffic.
Rather than a steady increase in downloads over time, the game saw no downloads for a period of time, our source says. It then suddenly attracted a huge jump in traffic for a short period, then once again nothing for a while - a pattern which was repeated.
This doesn't sound like organic traffic from real humans.
As our tipster notes, there were plenty of alarm bells ringing at this point.
Even if users were downloading apps simply because they were free or part of an incentivisation scheme, surely at least a small percentage of them would boot the app up and, therefore, be registered on the company's database?
Our source also made another claim, telling us that TopDealApps requires users to hand over their iTunes login details. This is so that TopDealApps can log in to their accounts and check that they did indeed download the promoted apps.
Sounds ridiculous, right? Who would provide a random company on the internet with his username and password for iTunes? And why exactly does TopDealApps need to do this in the first place?
Your iTunes account or your life!
At this point, Pocket Gamer decided to get in touch with TopDealApps.
We asked how the company was able to guarantee exposure in the top 25 charts on the App Store.
The company's marketing manager Wang Tilan told us: "We now have over 200,000 users in the US. All of them own certain iOS devices and valid iTunes accounts. Each time we take a new case from an app developer, our users will be notified to download the certain app during the required time period. After the verification, the users will get money for this download."
But, hang on: what precisely does this "verification" include?
"Our users share their iTunes account with us, so we can log into their accounts to check if they have done the correct download during the campaign. This is how we record and confirm the total download number," Tilan says.
So, there we have it: confirmation that TopDealApps does indeed require users to give away their usernames and passwords for their iTunes accounts.
We then questioned why someone would give his iTunes details to this random company, and were told: "It's simple to explain. No pay, no gain. If the user wants to get reward money, he has to share his account with us."
When asked how the company goes about checking all of those 200,000 accounts in such a small space of time, Tilan responded: "We have our way to check and we can't share more information with you. This is why we can do this kind of stuffs and provide promo services."
Finally, we outright asked whether the company uses bot farming to achieve this goal, to which we were told: "Nope. I have told you how we promote."
There is no way to prove whether a company is using bot farming to fix the top 25 charts on the App Store, because - let's face it - no one is going to freely admit it lest he / she is exposed.
However, it is clear that there are plenty of dark and devious goings-on in the App Store, and Pocket Gamer will continue to delve deeper into this matter.
If you are a developer who has used any of these services, or you know of a company that is using bot farming for this purpose, please get in contact with us.