Incident 270: Apple Tweaked App Store Ranking Algorithms, Allegedly Resulted in Demotion of Local Apps in China

Description: Following Apple’s changes in ranking algorithm in its iTunes App Store, apps by allegedly reputable companies and local startups in China experienced significant drops in ranking order.
Alleged: Apple developed and deployed an AI system, which harmed Renren , Buding Movie Tickets , Yi Xia , Dangdang , Chinese startups and Chinese companies.

Suggested citation format

Dickinson, Ingrid. (2011-04-18) Incident Number 270. in Lam, K. (ed.) Artificial Intelligence Incident Database. Responsible AI Collaborative.

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A report from a Chinese news site suggests that Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) has adjusted its ranking rules and algorithm for the iTunes App Store in an apparent bid to punish developers who use third-party services to manipulate their apps’ rankings. Apple first tweaked its system last April, making sheer download volume less of a factor in an app’s standing in the store.

Looking only at Chinese-made apps, it can be seen that there have indeed been some major shifts this week. The changes have occurred between March 21st and March 26th, as observed on the Chinese localization of Apple’s app store. A big loser in this ranking re-jig was social network company Renren (NYSE:RENN), whose three social gaming titles for iOS saw significant drops of over 200 places. Other huge fallers included apps by local startups, such as Buding Movie Tickets, Yi Xia, and the e-commerce site Dangdang (NYSE:DANG). Being supposedly quality apps from reputable companies, we don’t think that they have in some way ‘gamed’ the ranking system, but nonetheless Apple seems to have changed something that has seriously demoted these apps.

The Chinese developer KoramGame received the biggest punishment, however. Between the two dates over the last week, its game called Feng Wan Three Kingdoms dropped from fourth place to 335th. Its app page on iTunes – see it here – is filled with 302 five-star reviews and 51 one-star reviews, with little in-between. It sounds suspicious, and apparently Apple has found reason to give it the toughest sanction.

But there were some other good titles that rose up, many of which we’ve also covered before, such as apps from Chinese banks ICBC and CCB, 360Buy’s online shopping app, Huofar, Pulse Business Cards, Youdao Cloud Notes, and Tencent’s QQ Mailbox. Those all saw their standings rise by over 100 places.

The Chinese social network Douban was both a winner and a loser in this reshuffling, with its Dujiao LBS app plummeting while its recently-updated Douban FM social music app soared from 202nd to 126th position in the Chinese iTunes App Store classifications.

In the past, such algorithm changes have been done to beat the cheats, so there’ll be the suspicion that this was the case this week. Possible means of cheating include excessive amounts of paid-for five-star comments – or negative ones aimed at competitors – and bizarre spikes in downloads or in-app purchases. There’s talk in the Chinese app dev industry that as many as ten percent of the top 100 Chinese apps on iOS are cheating the system.

Apple will likely never reveal what’s the true ‘weight’ or make-up of its App Store rankings. To developers, a high rank is critical for increased exposure. The Cupertino company acquired the app search startup Chomp last month, and perhaps some of its know-how is now being put into an attempt at a fairer assessment of which are the apps that people truly use and cherish.

It should be noted that Netease (NASDAQ:NTES), which produced this article today on its news portal, is itself a major Chinese web company that also makes a number of apps. Indeed, the aforementioned Youdao Cloud Notes app is made by the company.

Apple Seems to Have Tweaked App Store Ranking Algorithm, Many Chinese Apps Plunge