How to Spot an App Store “Shill” Review

App Store sketchy star ratings shill review

UPDATED 09.01.13

As of June 2013, there are now over 300,000 900,000 apps available in the Apple App Store. With that number of apps available and new ones being released every day, it’s difficult for a developer to get exposure and chart placement for their apps. Getting an app into a category’s Top 100 in the App Store gives apps greater visibility and exposure and can mean the difference between selling thousands of copies of an app or dozens. A few unscrupulous developers resort to fake or “shill” App Store reviews in order to improve chart position and increase sales.

app store shill reviewer

Nearly all of the developers in the App Store do not do this — their reviews, good or bad, are authentic. While not a widespread problem, shill reviews undermine the integrity of the user review process of the App Store. Creating fake reviews to drive up traffic increases sales and chart rankings, but it also rewards these unscrupulous developers. It also takes up chart slots that could go to honest developers who play the rules.

A lot of five star reviews and favorable written reviews can sometimes mislead an unsuspecting buyer into purchasing the app. The app often doesn’t live up to the hype of the fake reviews, but it’s only a dollar or two, right? The problem is that when an app charts — good or bad — once it breaks the Top 100 of its category, it’s probably selling hundreds or thousands of copies a day. At a dollar or two, that’s a lot of money going to a shady developer who’s selling a sub-par app. The real app store user reviews for these apps are often overshadowed by the sheer number of fake reviews and get buried.

Probably the most high profile shill review scam was the Molinker app review scam uncovered and reported by Glyn Evans and Pat Timney on The iPhoneography Blog last year. Shill review scams can get a developer booted from the App Store.

Shill reviews violate Apple’s Terms of Service, but are difficult to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt. Fortunately, with a little digging, they’re very easy for a consumer to spot.

1. A huge number of 5 star ratings — up to 50 — within hours of the app’s release. Developers are given a max of 50 promo codes for each version of an app. If you see a lot of high star ratings in a new app and very few (or none) written reviews, odds are that the developer created a bunch of fake iTunes accounts and used their allotment of promo codes to give themselves a bunch of 5 (and the occasional 4) star reviews. It’s human nature — not every user will like an app. A genuine app review should have a good distribution of 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 star ratings. If the app is that good, the ratings will be weighted to 5 and 4 stars, but it will still have some ratings of 3, 2 and 1 stars.

UPDATE 09.01.13: When I first wrote this post in October 2010, you were able to write App Store reviews if you’d gotten the app by using a developer promo code. As reader/commenter Chris correctly states below, Apple will no longer let you do that.

One thing I have noticed, however, are commercial apps that go free for a very short period of time — often less than a few hours. In theory, this could allow those user accounts the ability to review the app. =M=

2. A large number of short, generic, non-specific reviews written in similar style and similar grammar — sometimes similar bad grammar.

3. Written reviews posted by a large number of users who have never reviewed an app before or who have only written reviews of that developer’s apps.

App review blogs, such as Life In LoFi, iPhone Photography School, and other websites are good places to find legitimate and honest app reviews. Often, we’ll call out developers who resort to these shady tactics. Again, most iPhone app developers don’t resort to shill reviews. With a little vigilance, you can avoid getting scammed by fake reviews.



Related Links:

TechCrunch: iPhone App Sales Exposed

About Marty Yawnick 1829 Articles
Marty is a self-employed graphic designer in the Fort Worth/Dallas Metroplex. He is an avid Rangers baseball, Chicago Cubs, Packers and Highbury Arsenal fan. In addition to capturing random moments with whatever camera is close by (usually his iPhone), his other interests include coffee, Pink Floyd, film, music, and traveling in seats 5E and 5F with his fiancé.
  • Nice post Marty. Thankfully this is mainly a US App Store problem, as promo codes which are used to download and allow the user to write these fake reviews, are only valid in the US App Store. That said fake reviews do appear elsewhere, so always buy with caution.

  • Cyril

    CONTRADICTORY. Check it out. They make horrible applications and nearly all of their creations are 4.5-5 stars. And all the reviews are so obviously fake.

  • I'm with Cyril on that. They don't have anything to do with photography or any app I'd want for that matter but their app reviews are really shady.

  • Shill reviews can mostly be sussed out by those willing to actually read the reviews. However, for those buyers who just glance at the ratings this can be a big problem.

  • Ryan

    I'm an app developer who was recently lucky enough to have my app hit the top 10 in the US.

    I can understand the desire to do this, as it can be hard on a dev who spent half a year on a project only to see people hating it, but I think it's harder to do than most people think.

    As the developer I can not write my own review.

    Reviews (as far as I've seen) can't be written if the app was downloaded with a promo code.

    The risk outweighs the benefits in my opinion. I'm not going to risk losing the money I've made and the invested time by writing a bunch of fake reviews. I'm sure Apple can track IP addresses, and look at user analytics and all that stuff. It just doesn't seem smart. I'm sure I could find shady Chinese companies I could buy reviews from but then all the reviews would be obviously fake.

    I guess companies can and do do this sort of stuff, but I honestly don't see the point. If your app is shitty enough to get lots of low ratings you should learn from the critics and try to improve it, or future apps.

  • MartyNearDFW

    Ryan, thank you for stopping by and for your perspective as a developer and the overseas "ratings farms." And congratulations on the success of your app!

    Just to check, I just left an App Store review for an app that I downloaded using a promo code. I was able to do it on my iPhone.


  • Is there any relevance to the number 5? The reason I ask, is because I have noticed sone newly released apps that consistently have 5 five star ratings. I even noticed one app where all five of the reviews had the same gramatical inconsistencies. Is this something to do with a limit? I always thought there was a five device cap, but don’t really see that relation. I feel fooled for mentioning this, but I got duped into one of those fake phone locator apps with this crap. I would have thought Apple would have a better detection system for these scammers, but it seems they are just following in the footsteps of eBay.

  • robfuzz

    No.3 is a good barometer. Just click on the user's name. You say "nearly all of the developer's in the app store do not do this" but I beg to differ. I can't count the number of times I've clicked on the user's name for the most "liked" reviews for many of the top apps and the only app they've reviewed is the one I'm looking at. Maybe there's one more for a "beard". Ryan, I have seen developers leave reviews for their app only when there's a misunderstanding and the app is getting flooded with 1 star reviews and the dev is stepping in to remind people he can't set them straight or help them if they don't contact him personally. Imagine the amount of good reviews if user's wrote their review to the dev instead of to the store.
    I can understand the developer's dilemma of trying to get exposure. Every day there must be hundreds or thousands of newly approved apps entering the store each day…….and THAT'S the problem. Apple, or Steve Jobs, is so focused on being able to boast about the amount of apps, but if the curtain of apps that should never have been approved was pulled back maybe the deserving apps would get some light.

  • Steve

    You also are unable to write a review if you got the app with a promo code. So that part of the article is mistaken.

    • I'm able to write App Store reviews on an app I acquired using a developer promo code. Just wrote one. I think this policy was changed a while back.


      • Chris

        Then you probably got a gifting-code from the dev and not an actual promo code….

  • Appdemigod

    There are also negative shill reviews where a competitor pays to have an anonymous reviewer rubbish a product.

    These can also be detected by being generic 'this app is useless' or 'this app is too buggy to use' type content, or bad grammar. However I think readers will tend to believe these.

    I'm an app developer and I notice I almost always get one of these when my sales rise for a couple of days. Maybe I'm just paranoid, but I find this very suspicious.

  • This is how the developer of crApps punks the rating system. First, get something up that does what it says, ie 'like night vision for your iphone! Green night vision through your camera!" and shows images of green shaded environments with reticle hashes…..but has some kinda misleading name like 'night vision' or something.

    These crApps with have a refresh release every couple of days, so the the one star reviews get masked behind the 'current version rating' filter. They will usually all have the negative bashes of disgruntled buyers who feel they got ripped off, but they will just release a new 'upgrade' to the app and the new rev will get a grip of 5 star ratings right out the box….keeping the current revision rating looking good.

  • Marty,

    I've been given promo codes before by developers and from blogs like yours. When I use a promo code, I can't review it. iTunes says I must buy the app in order to review it. I only write what I honestly think about an app without regard to whether or not I paid for the app or was given a promo code. Unfortunately, some really cool apps I have, I can't even review because I got a promo code. So, maybe your item #1 is no longer correct. It's been this way for awhile now.

    • I'll look into that, Skip. It may have changed. You are not the first reader to bring this up. But, as recently as a few weeks ago, I was able to review apps that I had acquired with a promo code from the developer.


      • I vaguely remember being able to review apps that I got with a promo code a little over a year ago or so. But when I use a promo code now and try to review, it just says something like, "You must buy and download this app in order to review it". Even though iTunes shows it's been downloaded. Are developers given different kinds of promo codes?

        • Chris

          They changed that last year!

          You can’t rate apps anymore that you got with a promo code. Only redeem-codes through gifting will let you rate the app now (since the app was payed for then.).

          • Hi, Chris,

            You are correct. When I first wrote this post, you could review apps acquired by promo code. I’ve updated my post to reflect that you can’t, and to reflect that shady devs CAN drop the price for free, get a ton of downloads on fake accounts, and review away. Thanks for catching that, Chris!


  • Camilo

    Gorilla workout app is one of those apps where the reviews and the app are as fake as themselves. I tried writing a review of how bad it is but It doesn’t allow me. For months it was all 5 stars etc… But yesterday I tried 3 times to write a review and all of the sudden there is a reviewer saying that the app ain’t good but that’s all… I find this weird. I bought it I think for 2.99 imagine how many people are falling for it. Thousands!

    • Marty Yawnick

      Hi, Camilo. That happens more often than gets reported. Unfortunately, the few real reviews are often pushed down by the scammy devs themselves with a “bug fix” update and more fake 5-star reviews.


    • Chris

      Sorry, but that’s just utterly wrong… Gorilla Workout is actually quite a decent app for what it is and certainly not a scam (or even buying reviews). It was one of the first, good bodyweight-training apps arround actually.

      They did get a few low rating reviews after they offered the app for
      free 2-3 times now already…but that’s because people without a
      physical-therapy/personal trainer background usually don’t realize how well the app and exersizes are put together!

      They have been on the market for quite some time now…and even designed their own sports-wear line….that’s not something that you’d see a scam-developer do!