When I wrote about this almost 2 years ago, I had very little clue that black hat could even be considered a term in the app industry. Hey! Nobody even knew about ASO, let alone about black hat tactics.
So what is black hat ASO? Black hat is the art/science/scheme of manipulating search algorithm results by bending the rules.
In the politically correct, paranoid society in which we live, as soon as you mention “black hat”, the industry tends to attack you.
Oh… Black hat!!! How dare you!!!!
But the reality is that it is our duty to test the algorithm…
Any algorithm exists to be tested by the users.
It has always been the same and it always will be.
If something allows us to rank, we will test it and try to manipulate it.
So let’s understand what type of ASO black hat techniques I have seen so far and before we move to real “nasty stuff” let’s try to clarify some concepts that are not black hat per se, although that may sometimes be considered that way…
Understanding why “black hat” works
First, we need to understand what types of actions are effective in increasing ranking.
A burst of short term downloads can get the algorithm to notice your app and get an influx of initial downloads. This growth spike gives the product a kick-start – like a book launch. So a significant amount of energy and resources should be applied to the launch of the app within the first weeks (both before and after the actual app has been published) with the goal of getting masses of downloads.
This sounds logical and easy right?
Easier said than done. It is not difficult to understand that downloads = traffic, and that downloads + traffic = popularity and ranking. But if getting traffic was easy and affordable we wouldn’t need this book.
The idea of a strong launch is now a mainstream strategy in the app community. In fact, the launch is so heavily depended upon now-a-days that app companies generally turn to ad networks and pay per download systems during that initial launch.
They use ads to attract users and the developer pays when they install it – better known as the “cost-per-install” method or (CPI). The goal is to play with the fact that the algorithm identifies those downloads as a sign that “this app must be doing something right”.
What attracts developers to this method is the fact that they only pay when the app is downloaded. Payment is made and a result is achieved: the download. Then those increased downloads benefit ranking status.
More downloads = more installs and a higher ranking.
Sounds easy but like many things this method is more complex than meets the eye.
To start, it is not a strategy for everyone and more and more companies have moved from CPI to other strategies like solid ASO or social media strategies.
Paid downloads (CPI) are used by almost every single app company on the planet and there is really nothing wrong with that.
It’s part of the game, everyone uses it.
CPI takes advantage of what can be considered a “weakness” in terms of the app store algorithm. The app ranking algorithm is highly dependent on downloads. A high dependence on any one thing puts any business at risk and, in this case, the app stores are at risk of manipulation because they put so much weight on downloads.
This may not sound like a weakness to you. You may be thinking, great – that’s my way in!
The reality is that the cost of an effective CPI campaign is much more than the average developer can afford. That is why it’s a strategy for the big boys and that is why it’s a weakness for the average developer – it’s hard to compete in that environment.
Obviously the app stores don’t like when you use 3rd parties to manipulate them either and that’s why the algorithm is always being tweaked to prevent a nuke of downloads to catapult you into the top charts.
Easy: choose a dodgy Chinese company that you find in Google… buy a specific package of 10,000- 20,000 downloads for a specific obscure app store category, pay with PayPal and pray to god that it works.
As simple as that….
Seriously: the process is as plain as I just described it.
But, nuking the app store with downloads is as safe and secure of an investment as buying property in the moon. It may work eventually but there is no guarantee of it being a “safe” business move…
On your end the CPI companies seem the same – pay for installs. But it’s how they get the installs that makes the companies differ – and this “how” is what you need to know to choose the right company.
The question is – do they use incentivized downloads? If yes, you should think twice and we’ll see why…
Of the different methods of getting installs they may use email lists, app sites, app discovery tools, websites and targeted ads, etc. These are the non-incentivized ones.
Before I get bombarded with emails from paid traffic companies telling me about my mistakes in describing CPI (cost per install), I need to clarify that not all CPI campaigns are wrong nor should they all be defined as black hat.
CPI is not always the same and in the CPI world we can find incentivized vs. non incentivized strategies. Oddly enough, the app stores seem to have a “beef” against incentivized and I do describe the disadvantages below, but in reality I believe there is a higher level of originality with incentivized downloads compared to non-incentivized.
With non-incentivized you only need to hand over your credit card details to the traffic company…. With incentivized you have to find a way to “inspire” your users (or mmm… bribe them?)
What is an incentivized app download?
Users are given something in exchange for your app. They may be playing another game and to obtain a virtual reward without paying in that game they can download your app for free. It’s an exchange for something they want.
Here’s an example…
A free app, created by an incentivized app download company, allows users to play for free but they must pay for additional purchases of virtual goods or extra features.
The app is nice, addictive, makes you feel that you can actually win the game, but deep inside you can’t, you will always be limited by the lack of “items” or “Smurf berries”…
Users are then offered these additional goods or features for free in exchange for downloading another app (potentially your app).
Users install the app, but since it wasn’t really something they wanted or were looking for they ignore it or uninstall it. There is no user loyalty to the installed app, nor do they perceive it to have any real value.
The user only agreed to download the app to get something else of interest. They didn’t want your app, they didn’t make any conscious decision to choose your app, therefore they don’t care about it – they are just doing it to get more berries to move to level 2 in the original app.
Not only that, but these random users of your app are not necessarily your target users. When you present your app to people that it is not meant for, you are more apt to get a negative review or a 1 star rating because the user doesn’t care about your app and doesn’t understand it.
The problem with this incentivized strategy is that in many cases the goal is just to increase ranking, then in an indirect way they can eventually win more organic traffic…
Using inorganic traffic to achieve ranking to later on enjoy organic, healthy, clean traffic.
The problem with an incentivized download strategy is that it can backfire. People downloading your app are doing it for the extra bonus… for the “goodie”… and the person that downloaded this “other” app, has very little loyalty or desire to use, play or engage with the second app.
This could open the flood doors to a backlash that is hard to prevent and that could, instead, negatively manipulate your rank. Let’s remember: The goal is to increase your rank by getting installs, showing that people want your app – if users are immediately uninstalling the app this is not a good sign to the app store.
Once again: Not at all… it’s just another way to get downloads in a very, very difficult market.
The ROI of CPI and whether it’s worth it to get the App gods upset or not is a decision for every app company to decide. Big boys and publishers do it… and if they use it, I guess it provides a good user base generated through CPI.
CPI can be used as a strategy to bring new users to an app and potentially inspire them to become engaged fans and active users…however, if it is used to falsely inflate download numbers on a large scale it is likely to backfire eventually.
So how does this work? Oh this is smart, very smart and has been out there for a very long time. The idea is simple, powerful and complicated to execute, but once it works it is brilliant.
The concept is: software scrapes reviews from iTunes, creating a huge collection/database of fake reviews. The reviews are created from a mix of formulas that make it look slightly legit at a quick glance. These reviews are then posted to the app’s review section of iTunes.
“Excellent App, had heaps of fun. I can’t wait for the new update, I’m giving it 5 stars – luv it!”
Usually the reviews will include some type of slang like “luv it” or “kool” to try to make them more legit and credible…
But mainly what the software is doing is posting reviews that are 100% false, taken from other apps in the same genre.
The reviews are posted from different devices, automated, and from different IPs (connections) to try to give the impression that the reviews are in fact “real”.
The desired effect is to manipulate the algorithm and try to create an increase in ranking across a certain portfolio of apps.
This type of software is usually subscription based and it is used by many (trust me – many) of the big players out there.
Manipulate the paid app category
This was a fascinating experiment that was executed like this: You price your app at a stupidly insane price – let’s say $1000. You get 10 friends to buy the app, and the app goes into Top Grossing apps for the day, right?
Once the app is in top position, your friends request a refund, and you, the owner of the $1000 app, drop the price of the app to $0.99 to try to reap the benefits of the organic traffic you’re achieving from being in the top position.
Smart? Not sure
Can it be reproduced easily? I doubt it.
But, they get 5 brownie points for trying!
My theory about black hat
If the app store was built by 5 teenagers sitting in their garage, while having burgers and playing Xbox… using black hat would be easy. But the engineers (yes, real engineers) behind the app store are not only smart, but they take pride in their work.
I always wondered if it is worth it to pursue the black hat way.
The difference between me and many public appreneurs is that for me, black hat is not BAD… I’m not here to judge the ethics of it. I just wonder if it is worth the effort.
How much time, energy and how many resources are spent in trying to game the system?
I wonder if the same time, energy and brain cells could be spent doing something productive and smart, and that has a better chance of surviving in the long run.
This is an chapter of ASO Bible, download the full digital copy free at https://www.asoprofessional.com/theasobible/
Also, check out this video where I talked about ASO in 2016.