In China, if you don’t know what the word “shuabang” means, you are definite out of the loop. It is the hottest topic in the Chinese mobile circle nowadays,

“Shuabang” is the practice of using various shady methods to propel an app onto the top of the App Store ranking for free apps. App Store is the preferred victim here, because despite the fact that Android is three times as popular as iOS, the inherent fragmented nature of the Android ecosystem means that there is no universal ranking that everyone adheres to, and rigging the system is deemed too simple and common place.

App Store, on the hand, is generally deemed to be an accurate representation of user’s taste and preference. But from a developer’s perspective, it is rather difficult to emerge as the odd on favorite out of more than 700,000 apps.

Of course, there are ways to publicize an app, but none compares to “shuabang”; it’s simply the cheapest way to attract users in an age where that’s hard to come by. It takes a bit less than $10,000 for a game to reach a top 10 ranking, while making the top 100 list takes as little as $1,500. After you reach the top, there multiple benefits: users are proven to be more attracted by items, with a top 10 ranking capable of generating tens of thousands downloads a day, and VCs are willing to pay to invest in companies that could rocket to the top.

After all, there already is an entire industry of people who specialize in “shuabang”. They have millions of iTunes accounts (in China, you don’t need a credit card number to register for an account), and have the necessary labor force, expertise, and the necessary software to get the job done.

A typical transaction with a “shuangbang” company goes something this: once you pay up, they will hire and subcontract 150 to 200 (if the occasions calls for it, maybe even more) part timers, who will log on using the “shuabang” company’s millions of Itunes account, and this vast army will download and review the apps however many times to fulfill the order. If the “shuabang” company fails to deliver any part of the bargain, be it number of downloads, the desired ranking, or the period over which the ranking is maintained, it will refund the customer, no questions asked.

In fact, the “shuabang” service is so good now that you could even have a set of choices, as there are different styles of how “shuabang” is done .Some jack up the ranking all at once, usually within a couple of hours. Others do it on Friday, seeking to maximize exposure during the weeks. Another popular choice is to employ “shuabang” over course of a month. During this period, every time an app’s ranking falls according the laws of gravity, it is jacked back up again to maintain the appearance of the Potemkin Village.

While most people do not condone “shuabang”, there is no doubt the practice has gone mainstream. Every new Apple release is another opprutunity for people who utilize “shuabang” to exploit, and even RenRen and Tencent, the biggest of Chinese companies, cannot afford to choose this path of least resistance to success. (adding a screenshot here to see the top chart apps and their daily ranks could be very interesting)

So far, Apple seems to have neither an apt response nor the desire to address the problem. It would appear there is little Apple could do any way.

Ultimately, however, everyone recognizes that “shuabang”, as form of tragedy of the commons, is detrimental to the entire ecosystem. To have your work not appreciated and not recognized is already bad enough, but to have it buried before it has even gotten the chance is simply intolerable cruelty. Idealistic pursuit aside, to not be able to make a living undoubtedly also diminishes enthusiasm. Users who are disinclined to trust the ranking would be less likely to explore and download new apps, while investors would also shy away from an industry that’s full of obfuscation.

All in all, “shuabang” is turning Apple’s guarded and well tended garden into Android’s wild wild West, and this spells bad news for Apple, developers, and consumers alike, and it’s happening in one of Apple’s most important markets.

It is understandable that in a age where promotion and user acquisition costs are growing by the day, some developers would consider “shuabang” to gain traction. However, there are also other methods that are equally valid and cost effective. Even for a boot strapping app developer with no budget, there are still methods such as cross promotion.

And that’s where hope lies. It is possible the growing stringent criticism of “shuabang” would deter the practice, and everyone involved would see through the trick and instead choose other innovative methods to get the words out about their apps. “There is no virtue like necessity”, and no matter how you spin it, deter “shuabang” is a necessity.

Photo credit: BigStockPhoto

Yang is currently the brand and media director at Elitime Media & Consulting. He has published and translated seven books, and several of his works have been translated and published in areas such...

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