For the first time, the App Store will be cleaned up en masse.
Apple announced it will start deleting apps from the App Store on September 7. As the primary criteria for deletion, Apple will be using their Review Guidelines that normally are only applied to apps being updated or submitted for the first time.
Many of these apps will fall afoul of guidelines that have been changed or updated since the apps’ last release. Apple’s primary position is it is purging low-quality apps from the App Store.
But guess what many of those low-quality apps are for? Advertising fraud.
The most sophisticated ad fraud scheme is click spam, which causes tracking systems and ad networks to falsely attribute organic in-app conversions to fraudulent ad campaigns. The fraudsters release a simple app into the App Store that, when opened, triggers thousands of hidden ad clicks in the background — invisible to the end user.
The clicks appear legitimate to ad servers. With enough users and clicks, there’s a miniscule chance that a user actually downloads the targeted app organically, which nets the fraudster a conversion from ad clicks that never happened.
The type of simple, quickly-built apps that fraudsters use to execute this strategy are precisely the “low-quality” apps that sneak past applicable clauses in the App Store Review Guidelines. The company hopes to remedy that now.
There are three primary offenders that should go, based on Apple enforcing its guidelines retrospectively:
You don’t need to look for too long on the App Store before finding a Flappy Birds clone, umpteen million identical to-do lists, or an app with a confusingly similar brand to a well-known app. These apps will implement a similar, but scaled-down version of the original app, and confusing it for the real thing is enough to make fraudulent revenues.
Apple has a specific copycat clause in their Review Guidelines. This rule can be difficult to enforce, and plenty of genuine app developers offer a slightly different take on a popular concept, such as tower defense games or productivity techniques. However, applying more time to root out clones will let Apple clean the Store of a lot of bad apples.
2. Flashlight Pretenders
A common example for poaching organic conversions are the flashlight apps. These either activate the LED on the back on the phone or turn the entire screen white. These variants are both extremely simple to implement, and offer a go-to app concept that a fraudster can easily release.
While this category of apps had a purpose once upon a time, with the current devices and OS versions, these apps serve no purpose.
Apple’s Review Guidelines state that apps “monetizing built-in capabilities offered by the hardware or operating system” are unacceptable (3.2.2 ii). That’s presumably enforced in new app submissions, and it’s reasonable to assume the clause will be applied on older apps as well.
3. Blatant Pre-loaders
Apple directly assaults click spammers in their Review Guidelines, stating that “apps that artificially increase click-throughs or impressions” are unacceptable. Applying this rule may now prove much easier.
While traffic is difficult for ad servers to identify, the high-volume pattern of ad requests is very conspicuous when the app is downloaded and inspected with standard debugging tools.
All the same, it’s easy to sneak past App Store review: Fraudsters can just deactivate ad serving during the seven-day period when the app undergoes review. Plenty of “low-quality” apps have likely entered the App Store this way, and without retrospectively inspecting apps, Apple won’t have caught offenders very frequently.
Will Apple’s new initiatives represent the end of all fraudulent click spam? Probably not.
Fraud prevention is a cat-and-mouse game, where we can only hope to make the process ever more onerous for the fraudster.
Yet, as fraudsters find themselves squeezed between marketing analytics that increasingly prevent their gains right away, ad networks that leverage the same data to block payouts, and Apple squashing their parasitical access to unsuspecting users, the cat may soon gain the upper hand.