Jun 21st, 2012

News that flowed in over the weekend announced new features for developers in the Google Play Store. The feature is very simple, but it could perhaps be one of the most powerful: some developers were given the ability to respond to user comments in the Google Play Store.

While this feature will be great for troubleshooting and identifying bugs to be worked on for a future release, it will also protect developers from a very nasty practice: fake comment and rating attacks from competing apps. We’ve seen it in the past, and another case of the fakesies seems to have turned up against YouMail, one of the premier visual voicemail providers in the Play Store.

Passionate YouMail CEO Alex Quilici has been noticing some strange things going on with the ratings of their app in the Google Play Store, among various other places.

A series of one-star reviews raised a red flag for them. It’s not just that these reviews got one-stars: they take all feedback seriously, and are willing to work with users to fix issues that would otherwise let them enjoy the app. It’s that these reviews were very non-specific as to what users had an issue with, and that’s something they say is uncommon.

“It’s the first time we’ve noticed it, and we noticed it because it was so blatant and because bad reviews usually have real detail in them to be considered helpful,” states Quilici.

“[They] appear to have done the same thing at Amazon, and for our iPhone app, and this release of the app was getting tons of positive feedback from our users in other places (FB), with the negative feedback being very specific (wanting us to improve something in how we handled contacts, and a confusing login process on some slower phones). ”

As we looked to see who could be performing these actions (which go against Google’s terms) we came across an app whose reviews directly corroborated what YouMail had seen. It appears PhoneFusion’s Visual Voicemail Plus app had positive 5-star, yet vague reviews from the very same people who’d left negative, yet vague reviews for YouMail.

We can’t confirm that they’re responsible – it could be anyone, or could be someone purposefully framing them – but it certainly does look a bit fishy. Google’s Play Store has a commenting policy in an attempt to derail any organized negative/positive attacks:

Spam and Placement in the Store
Developers are important partners in maintaining a great user experience in Android Market.

  • Do not post repetitive content.
  • Product descriptions should not be misleading or loaded with keywords in an attempt to manipulate ranking or relevancy in the store’s search results.
  • Developers also should not attempt to change the placement of any Product in the Store by rating an application multiple times, or by offering incentives to users to rate an application with higher or lower ratings.
  • Do not post an app where the primary functionality is to link to the website or the webview of a website not owned by you (unless you have permission from the website owner to do so).

Quilici also came up with an interesting idea of showing how long a user had the app before they reviewed it. If a review only came about in a matter of seconds, it’d go a long way in determining whether or not a review is legit.

These practices really do hurt developers. YouMail is hurt directly with a dip in sales from all of the negative feedback legit users see. Quilici said they noticed a 20-25% hit in downloads due to the reviews, and saw a 30-35% climb when more legit reviews began pushing the fake out of the way.

Other developers are also hurt even if the intent is to hurt one competitor. By manufacturing five star reviews for your own app, you’re taking away the chance for legit “hot apps” to make their way to the featured section in the Google Play Store.

Everything about this practice is a complete 180-degree turn from what we believe the mobile ecosystem is all about: it stifles competition and it makes an otherwise-nice system kind of hard to trust. But where there is money, spammers and tricksters will flock, and the app eco-system is becoming pretty darn profitable.

If you believe you see this behavior happening, be sure to not only report the ratings in each app’s listing, but report the developer responsible.

Google has their own internal process to make a final decision on developers violating their policy so do what you can to leave it up to them and hope that the perpetrators are handled accordingly. Head to YouMail’s blog for the full read.

Noticed any apps or games with similarly fishy reviews/ratings? Let us know in the comments! Any ideas to help prevent this besides a sick algo? Leave your ideas below.