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For a small developer who’s just released an iOS app, a position near the top of Apple’s App Store rankings could mean the difference between a million dollars in revenue and Top Ramen for dinner. So it’s no surprise that some coders try to cheat the system — and that Apple tries to stop it.

But in the battle between Apple’s police and the cheaters who employ automated bots or cheap Chinese labor to boost their rankings, some innocent startups are finding themselves banned from the marketplace — collateral damage in a high-stakes war with real money on the line.

Now a few of the castoffs are raising their voices to complain about Apple’s secretive policies.

“It’s hard to tell who is doing this ethically and who isn’t,” said one source familiar with the cheaters who asked to remain anonymous. “It’s hard to believe the big guys aren’t manipulating their ranks and that Apple is treating everybody fairly here.”

At issue is the cottage industry of third-party marketing firms that promise to propel unknown apps from obscurity to the top of Apple’s ranking charts. Sometimes their methods include brazen market manipulation using so-called “bot farms,” “software bots,” or human “water armies” in China — a practice that’s incurred the wrath of Apple’s policy cops in Cupertino, Calif. This February, Apple cracked down on a number of dubious marketing firms that use software bots and armies of human users to download apps en masse, propelling the titles to high-profile positioning within the App Store’s “Top Free” rankings chart.

Apple banned at least one major developer, Animoca (which published apps from Dream Cortex; read our separate report on Animoca being banned), from putting apps on the App Store because of alleged rankings manipulation. And we found that one app developer that used the marketer Gtekna saw unusual behavior; its app shot to the top 25 but then dropped like a rock, and 70 percent of the downloads were never opened.

One can’t blame Apple for trying to keep its App Store rankings pure, but some legitimately marketed apps might be getting swept up in Apple’s dragnet as the company attempts to remove software from those who would game the system. Similarly, some developers have pure intentions but have naively hired market manipulators. These developers are finding their apps blacklisted — and when they attempt to work with Apple on App Store reinstatement, their efforts are ignored. (Apple declined repeated attempts to talk to us for this story).

It isn’t clear how many apps have been affected by the bans, but in any given month, Apple takes down 5,000 apps for a variety of reasons, according to app search firm Xyologic. The developers’ concerns came at a time when overall App Store downloads were notably decreasing. Matthäus Krzykowski, the chief executive of Xyologic, said that the volume of downloads on the U.S. App Store has fallen 25 percent since January. The decrease, he says, can in part be attributed to Apple’s crackdown on bots and its decision to combat “incentivized” installs (which we’ll explain below). Fiksu, another app marketing firm, reports a similar drop in downloads on the App Store.

“We had an app rejected and we didn’t know why,” said an executive at a seasoned game development company who requested anonymity. “It would be much better if we had clear communication from Apple about what the guidelines really are. It seems like everyone is worried about this, but the information isn’t evenly circulated. People think that Apple plays favorites.”

The executive said most developers know about the manipulation tactics but will only talk about them in private. He said there’s a growing fear in the developer community that as more and more app companies use underhanded marketing techniques, the greater ecosystem will be forced to do so as well to keep up with rivals.

The words of the gaming company executive were echoed during a frank, closed-door discussion on app marketing at a recent mobile conference. Chief executives of affected companies — developers, ad networks, app marketers, and mobile infrastructure companies — all said that they were worried about Apple’s handling of the marketing crackdown, but nobody wanted to stand up and tell Apple what was wrong.

Since the download numbers have dropped since January, app developers and publishers have had to get more aggressive about marketing, said Joe Bayen, the chief executive of FreeAppADay, which uses Apple-approved methods to help market apps. “In the past, you might have only needed only three or four marketing services to spread an app,” Bayen said. “Now you might need to use 40 of them.”

Apple hasn’t said a lot about the crackdown beyond this Feb. 6 statement: “Once you build a great app, you want everyone to know about it. However, when you promote your app, you should avoid using services that advertise or guarantee top placement in App Store charts. Even if you are not personally engaged in manipulating App Store chart rankings or user reviews, employing services that do so on your behalf may result in the loss of your Apple Developer Program membership.”

In February, after the Apple crackdown, some third-party marketing services such as AppMagenta went into hiding. This wasn’t the case with Gtekna, a small app marketing firm in Palo Alto, Calif., with only two employees. Rather than going underground, Gtekna changed the wording on its website so that it no longer promised to work App Store magic for developers.

Indeed, Gtekna’s web site no longer guarantees top 25 placement, but it proudly proclaims it can “Increase visibility and maximize sales!” It also notes somewhat cryptically that it does not use “bots.”

Gtekna’s top executive was willing to talk with us about the gray areas of rankings-driven app promotion — the points at which solid marketing tactics give way to shady market manipulation. We’ll share his story shortly. But let’s first delve into what happened when Apple started fighting back against shady app marketers.

Getting caught in the dragnet

Earlier this year, Apple took broad action against third-party marketing services firms because evidence showed some marketers were manipulating the App Store’s top rankings using automated computer systems — that is, software bots — as well as armies of human users. The marketers used these tools to download their clients’ iOS apps en masse, artificially inflating Apple’s store rankings.

Many app marketing services use defensible, above-board practices, but Apple eventually cracks down on those that reek of rankings manipulation, much as Google deals with websites that try to manipulate search engine rankings for profit. Apple can’t directly control seedy marketing firms, so it chases down those manipulators’ customers — the app developers who either knowingly or unwittingly purchased the dubious marketing services.

Apple doesn’t explain its take-down policies in detail, so not only are some developers confused by why their apps were kicked out of the App Store, but the whole developer ecosystem is also left with unclear marketing guidelines.

“A friend of mine had a pretty successful mobile app development company with hundreds of titles in the App Store,” said Daniel Kim, the president of Nexon America, one of the biggest publishers of online games in Asia. “He just got cut off one day because he used the wrong marketing company. Without his knowledge, this company had used bots to bring some of their titles up on the rankings. Ironically, they were already there before they hired this company. But [Apple] just basically said, ‘You’re done.’ They were completely cut off. They were running like 24 million [downloads] a year, and there is no appeal process. It’s pretty absolute.”

Apple declined to comment for this story. And, in fact, its overall silence regarding takedown policies vexes developers who feel they’ve been treated unfairly. It isn’t clear just how many app developers have been warned or cut off, because Apple prohibits them from talking about its communications.

Were all these apps promoted by nefarious marketing practices? It’s impossible to tell, because Apple doesn’t clearly communicate its motivations to those affected, developers say.

The line between good and evil

Some marketing practices entail nothing more objectionable than time-tested, smart promotion. Legitimate marketing companies include the likes of Tapjoy, PlayHaven, Flurry, Chartboost, AdParlor, Iddiction, and FreeAppADay. They all help clients with the tough challenges of app discovery — compelling users to share apps with friends and convincing users to try something new.

Tapjoy, for example, places ads for new apps inside of established apps. Chartboost incentivizes developers to promote the apps of other developers through a variety of cross-promotions and direct deals. And FreeAppADay is exactly what it sounds like: a website that promotes apps that free for just one day. Developers who join are willing to reduce their prices to zero (if only briefly) to enjoy the fruits of a larger user base.

For all these marketing services, direct chart manipulation is not the object, but ethical boundaries can be crossed. Tapjoy got into trouble last year after it started making a lot of money through incentivized installs — in effect, Tapjoy gave in-game rewards to users who installed another app.

Apple decided the rewards were such a big motivator that people were installing apps that they had no interest in using. And the impact of incentivized installs in the market was big enough to cause a distortion in the top 25 rankings. Nonetheless, Tapjoy (and others) still do a lot of business using nonincentivized cross promotions. What’s more, Tapjoy can still do its incentivized install promotions in Google Play market on Android devices.

We know at least one developer, Dream Cortex, had all of its apps removed from the App Store for violating Apple’s guideline 3.10, which states, “Developers who attempt to manipulate or cheat the user reviews or chart ranking in the App Store with fake or paid reviews, or any other inappropriate methods, will be removed from the iOS Developer Program.”

Pretty Pet Salon and related apps from Dream Cortex were removed on Jan. 12 for the policy violation. The software was published by Hong Kong–based Animoca, a division of incubator Outblaze Ventures. An Apple spokesman confirmed to us that Animoca’s apps were banned because they violated guideline 3.10. Pretty Pet Salon downloads were above 10 million, so the app’s removal wasn’t a trivial takedown.

Ibrahim El-Mouelhy, a spokesman for Animoca, told us, “We have never used bots or intentionally engaged in any manipulation activities.” He said Apple never provided specific reasons for the app removals. Animoca tried various times to get its apps restored, and even consulted legal advice, but it has not succeeded in getting back into the Apple iTunes App Store.

Oddly enough, a version of the game that Apple banned, Pretty Pet Salon Seasons, is now under the auspices of Pretty Pet Company and has reappeared in the App Store. Pretty Pet Salon Edition, now under the development of Oriented Games, is also back on sale.

So how did these apps win back entry when Animoca’s efforts for reinstatement were futile?

Simple: Animoca gave up on being reinstated and instead sold off its iOS business to another developer that wasn’t banned. Its preference was to work it out with Apple so that it could keep its lucrative iOS business alive, but it met a stone wall and had to sell.

“We are doing very well on Android and Amazon,” El-Mouelhy said. “We hope to be able to get back on Apple, if we have a conversation with the right person.”

The plight of Animoca underscores the frustration of small developers caught up in Apple’s crackdown. Apple has (quite rightly) messaged to the developer community that the consumer comes first, and market manipulators will be ousted from the ecosystem. Apple may not act quickly, but it will eventually chase down app publishers it thinks have violated policy.

But the manner in which Apple deals with store removals retains a great deal of inequity. Apple will communicate directly with the highest-profile and most successful app developers and publishers so that they understand how to comply with all store and development policies, whether those policies concern content, privacy, technology or marketing. But Apple has not been so transparent to the relatively obscure developers caught up in its marketing crackdown. In effect, if you’re a small publisher, you won’t get an explanation.

While reporting this story, we spoke to several large and small developers whose apps were removed from the App Store for violating guideline 3.10. Only one — Animoca — would share its story on the record, but all felt Apple provided insufficient explanation of precisely why their apps were removed.

How to shoot from No. 1,800 to the top 25

After February’s crackdown, some of the other third-party app marketers turned tail and ran, changing their website marketing messages but remaining in business. Some turned down new customers. App marketer Gtekna, meanwhile, remains in business — though, as we explained above, the company has changed some of its own marketing language. Gtekna’s chief executive, Chang-Min Pak, granted us an interview, and he denied that his business was using bots.

Rather, Pak said that his company was merely paid to promote apps on a wide variety of web sites via banner ads. And in it contracts, Gtekna promised that it “will not use any offensive marketing methods such as spamming which may create a negative reputation to the application and the customer,” Pak said.

While Pak says Gtekna never used bots, he thinks rivals who’ve undercut him on pricing have resorted to these automated techniques. And, indeed, at least one other app marketing service openly describes practices that would provoke Apple’s wrath. Visit iSales Boost and you’ll find language that references “review generation.” AppMagenta now says it offers “promotion services for iPhone and iPad apps,” but it once guaranteed placement in the top 25.

But Gtekna’s picture isn’t entirely clear. One of Gtekna’s former customers — who spoke only on condition of anonymity — confirmed that a Gtekna contract agreement from last year guaranteed placement in the Top Free list in Apple’s store. If the app didn’t hit the top ranks within five days, the customer could cancel the promotion for a full refund.

When the app was promoted with Gtekna’s help last year, it shot from number 1,800 to the top 25 in Apple’s top free apps list. Within a couple of days, the app got between 50,000 to 100,000 new users.

But after the promotion stopped, the app dropped like a rock. Adding insult to injury, it appeared the app’s popularity was mostly manufactured: According to Flurry, an independent analytics provider, more than 70 percent of all the new users never even opened the app. Our anonymous developer concluded that Gtekna had used either bots or masses of humans who were paid small amounts to download the app.

It’s impossible to determine if Flurry’s data speaks to market manipulation. It’s not uncommon, after all, for users to download apps to their computers and then wait days before transferring them to their devices. And for his part in the manner, Gtekna’s Pak said that it makes sense that “the ranking will fall after the campaign unless the app is so popular to get enough downloads to hold the ranking.”

“We stop a campaign 12 hours after we hit top 25,” Pak said. “In most of the cases, the ranking goes up to around 15th to 17th. Our partners give away gift cards to their members by drawing to encourage the members to click ad banners. For game apps, we’re told from a few developers that about 60 percent to 70 percent of people open the apps, and for nongame apps, we’re told that 35 percent to 45 percent are opened.”

The experience was very instructive to the developer that used Gtekna: It showed that there’s no substitute for quality content — a great app will generate its own downloads via human word-of-mouth. App marketing can provide a temporary boost, but an app will only stay in the top 25 if it’s really good.

Or if the developer continues to pay for marketing.

“You need muzzle velocity out of the chute,” said Lee Crawford, a critic of bot-driven marketing and a cofounder of social and mobile game developer Making Fun. “The question is, do I have what it takes to stay there, or do I have to apply marketing dollars to stay in the top 25?”

Animoca, the original publisher of Pretty Pet Salon, used Gtekna for marketing, but Gtekna was just one of many options Animoca tested. Pak said he had no idea why Animoca was banned. “I never heard from the client about it,” Pak said, “and there is no reason for Apple to remove our clients’ apps just because they used our service. We have no case where our clients lost their Apple developer programs, or had their apps removed by Apple.”

Indeed, thousands of developers have evidently used Gtekna, so it’s a mystery as to why Animoca had its apps deleted. Many developers — many larger and many smaller — had their apps marketed the same way but weren’t singled out.

Gtekna speaks out

Pak said Gtekna has never used “bot farms” — automated computer programs that behave as users downloading apps. And Pak says the same about using “water armies” — masses of users in China and other countries who are paid small amounts of money to download apps.

Rather, Pak said his company charges around $8,000 and higher to market apps with banner ads. The fruits of this marketing can yield about 20,000 downloads a day, he says. The amount of time it takes for the marketing campaign varies.

Some developers suspect Gtekna is operating a bot farm, and many have said so privately with us. But no one has provided proof, because the results of a bot-farm effort and the results of good advertising are quite similar: An app rises in the charts.

In defense of the legitimacy of his business, Pak doesn’t do much to help his own case. He claims he has 10,000 customers among developers but can’t name any. He says Gtekna runs multiple campaigns a day but declines to disclose more about how his company does marketing. He also won’t share any details on his sole business partner.

While Pak denies all associations with bot farms, these automated downloading agents aren’t hard to find in other markets.

“A lot of these content farms are poisoning relevancy,” said Andy Yang, the chief executive of PlayHaven, which has a platform for cross-promoting apps in a legitimate way. “Some developers will try to get away with it. Others won’t take the chance. It is universally good news if Apple cracks down on them and the marketing dollars don’t go into bot farms.”

Chen Cheng, a computer science student at the University of Victoria in Canada, went undercover to fight as a soldier in a water army — a paid human poster on Chinese websites. He and his colleagues then used what they learned to write software that can detect the presence of bots.

Cheng said China-based marketing companies use thousands of Apple IDs — faked logins for Apple accounts — to help human workers download apps en masse. The marketing companies also use proxy services to change Internet Protocol address to help prevent the human workers from being detected by Apple, Cheng said.

“Since Apple has showed a more aggressive attitude toward this malicious manipulation, the [third-party marketing] firms hire paid posters to download and write reviews for the apps, just like what normal users would do,” Cheng said. “In this way, their behavior will become even harder to be discovered. The firms also suggest that attempts to enter into Top 10 or Top 3 are very dangerous and can be easily detected by Apple, but the Top 30 to Top 50 would be OK.”

Largely due to privacy reasons, Apple is moving away Unique Device Identifier numbers, or UDIDs. Each 40-digit number is a specific code associated with a particular iOS device. In late March, Apple began rejecting apps that tap into UDID code, and the company has signaled it is phasing out UDIDs entirely. But the more Apple distances itself from UDID in the defense of privacy, the harder it may find analyzing data that could lead to identifying market manipulators.

“To be able to discover the hidden behavior, a large amount of data is a necessity,” Cheng said. “For example, you can try to collect all the reviews from a certain Apple ID and then analyze the trends of downloading and commenting. Incorporating the name of apps, you may notice that a certain Apple ID has a higher probability of appearing along with the known hyped apps. Then this ID should be considered a malicious one. And if a set of these malicious IDs appear together under a new app, then the new app may be hyped by the paid reviewers.”

One developer who spoke on condition of anonymity believes that bot operators use the following strategy in the larger scheme toward automated downloads: “They put some code in an app through an SDK, tricking users out of their unique device identifier, the UDID. This code then seems to operate as a bot assisting in downloading [new] apps, or at least in acquiring valid UDIDs to use to automatically download apps.”

Cheng added that the Chinese marketers might be tapping into databases of iTunes accounts that have either been hijacked — “users might not notice extra apps” — or generated for bot activity.

“These accounts are sent to the bots along with ‘jobs’ from a central control that instruct the bot on which app to download,” Cheng said. “The central control program then uses chart positions to adjust the flow of installs to match the campaign. This is how they can ‘hold’ an app at a position for a long period of time.”

Rising costs drive app makers to the back alley

Some developers and app marketers have told us that Apple unwittingly created the illegitimate marketing economy by cracking down on legitimate app marketing techniques, such as Tapjoy’s incentivized installs, which are permitted on Android. They say desperate app makers may have turned to the “backstreet methods,” particularly in the fourth quarter of 2011, when rates for promoting apps tripled in some cases.

During the same quarter, the cost of acquiring new app users via ads — a legitimate form of user acquisition — hit an all-time high. Fiksu, the mobile ad firm, said that it saw the cost of user acquisition rise from $1.10 per user in May 2011 to $1.81 per user in December. That number is somewhat alarming, as many apps sell for 99 cents. The number dropped on a seasonal basis earlier this year and is now at $1.26 per user.

Mobile advertising costs fell during the post-holiday slowdown in January, but these rose again in February. Costs have since taken off on an upward trend thanks to spending by the mobile social network Gree, which is moving into the U.S. market after building a billion-dollar business in Japan.

Some developers are getting priced out of the market: The bigger ones can afford to spend a lot of money on advertising, but the smaller ones don’t have the budgets. To deal with that, some developers might have turned to the third-party marketing services, a less expensive promotional option.

“The number-one place you can get customers today is through the Google promotions, and the number-two place you can get customers is through paid advertising,” said Neil Young, the CEO of Ngmoco and an executive officer at Japan’s DeNA, the maker of the Mobage mobile social gaming platform. “The number-three place is chart position. So that’s one of the reasons, in aggregate, that the cost is rising. You’re having to spend money on paid advertising. And being experts at customer acquisition through paid advertising is not a trivial challenge for lots of developers.”

Nonetheless, Young believes it’s appropriate for Apple to crack down on bots and human water armies. He has little sympathy for developers who try to game the App Store simply because they have no better legitimate alternative.

“You could make the same point about crime,” Young said. “Crime exists because society is not serving the need of a segment. It doesn’t make it right to do it. I think that Apple’s right to crack down on it.”

Young also believes that Apple’s acquisition of Chomp — an algorithm-based app recommendation engine optimized for real-language queries — shows it intends to solve the market manipulation problem. Relative to the App Store, Chomp is much less focused on ranking charts and much more focused on helping users find great content through clever app discovery.

What’s more, Young says Ngmoco itself hopes to alleviate user-acquisition problems via its own Mobage social gaming platform. If enough users use Mobage to share games with each other, developers won’t have to spend as much money to acquire users. Apple offered some relief in the past week with the launch of iOS 6, which will allow users to “like” apps in the App Store, helping them spread in a more viral way on Facebook.

Naoki Aoyagi, the chief executive of Gree International, said that his own mobile social gaming platform became more popular after Apple’s crackdown announcement. In short, Aoyagi says developers became fearful of using illegitimate channels and have gone back to above-board platforms for marketing games. “The developers understand that manipulation is not working,” Aoyagi said. “[Apple’s crackdown] makes the market a better place.”

The sentiment is shared by an app developer that’s never resorted to bots or water armies: “I have heard the rumors and seen articles about our competitors,” said Ben Liu, the chief operating officer at mobile game publisher Pocket Gems. “We are aligned with Apple’s efforts here. The most fun app should rise to the top.”

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