How to Avoid ASO Black HattersIf you work in a corporate environment, you are well shielded from tricksters and black hatters who roam the world of app optimization. They are out there promising the moon and stars, and unfortunately they are louder than many of the white hat companies that do ASO and app optimization by the book. Here is a quick guide to help you distinguish between the two and a few good reasons why it’s important to avoid black hatters.

Black hatter technology trickery

If you are not familiar with the term black hatters, they are a group of companies who use temporary opportunities and methods to improve search ranking – until their methods are discovered and stopped by the search engines owners.

A common technique is to trick the App Store guidelines by using keywords that lean on famous and well established apps. They also use imitation imagery that borrows the colors or symbols from those successful apps. There are plenty of examples – a search for “angry bird” in the iPhone App Store will return 1,800+ apps. Keyword stuffing is not just used by black hatters but also by developers who simply try to rig the system in their favor.

Other examples of gaming the system is by using networks of US reviewers, who are paid to review your app positively, thereby boosting an apps ranking. Due to Apple’s secrecy on how their ranking works, it’s impossible to say how Apple manages to keep these types of techniques from affecting their ranking algorithm. Yet, judging from observations of the top 20 charts, sporadic appearances of “non-top-20” apps still happen.

Whereas black hatters are highly dependant on technologies that can trick the App Stores, white hatters focus on content, clarity, and long-term value for the consumers.

Why it is important to play by the rules

Both Google and Apple have a strict set of guidelines governing their stores. It is important to play by these rules and avoid conflicts by all means. It is not published anywhere how Google and Apple penalize accounts, but developers are reporting that behaviour that pushes the envelope of what is allowed, can result in account holders experiencing the submission process becoming increasingly harder to deal with, a decrease in ranking, and ultimately a ban of the developer account. If you have a significant app portfolio released under your account, you do not want to have your account flagged for misbehaviour. If this has already happened, tough luck… there is no documented way of getting your account unflagged. With Google Play you actually have a chance to be pardoned through the Google Webmaster Tools, however the “not-knowing” can add a lot of unwanted stress to the app developer team.

Long term thinking

It is important to remember that having your app downloaded 100 times by users who use it only once compared to having 20 users who use the app on a daily basis, has remarkably different outcomes. In the long run, adhering to ethical behavior when engaging in ASO will create organic growth, that is if you ensure that your app has a solid and positive history of reviews and happy users. In terms of ROI, investing in black hatters methods might give your app a temporary boost, yet directing those resources towards techniques that add value through clarity and a better user experience, along with ongoing analysis of keywords and other app store data, will win in the long term. Keep in mind that a successful brand provides a guarantee of trustworthiness and quality. Consumer trust is the foundation of all brand values, so if your app represents a well established brand, using black hatters techniques will undermine your trustworthiness and thus be detrimental to your brand value.

Spotting a black hatter

One of the most important differences between white hatters and black hatters is that white hatters care for and nurture your brand(s) through a deep understanding of market insights and analytics. They understand the value of consumer trust and reliability. Black hatters, on the other hand, care about short term profits and engage in careless behavior. Where white hatters are relying on content and strong copy, black hatters typically rely on techniques that are based around loopholes and dubious programming skills.

If a company promises you a fast and easy solution to beat the competition steer clear. In other words, if it sounds too good to be true – it most likely is. When it comes to long term success there are no quick fixes. A good strategy, reputable partners, strong vision, and a little patience, wins in the long run.

UPDATE (June 21st 2014):

As we’ve highlighted, techniques used by black hatters and ill-advised developers, are short sighted and unwise to use. TechCrunch just posted up-to-date research that points to a crackdown by Apple on these dubious techniques.

One example is the app “Better Fonts Free” which essentially had around 16,000 reviews removed. Since developers can’t remove reviews, it is clear that Apple has been intervening to remove the invalid reviews. The technique used was so called “incentivized” reviews, where users of the app would get free fonts in exchange for a 5 star rating.

The effect on the apps ranking in the App Store has been dramatic. It’s chart position on the Global Chart went from a top 10 position to unranked in just a few days. It’s charting position on the Entertainment Chart decreased from 1st position to 34th in just 10 days.

A screenshot from App Tweak, showing the chart position after Apple took action against "incentivized" reviews.
A screenshot from App Tweak, showing the chart position after Apple took action against “incentivized” reviews.



ASO, Black, Blackhatters, Hatters, White, Whitehatters

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