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Unfair practices in the App Store?

The App Store might be only a few days old, but it has already proven itself to be a viable and potentially lucrative outlet for developers. With so many apps (and more being added all the time) for sale, getting exposure is extremely important if a developer wants to stand out in the crowd. Unsurprisingly, the market, especially in the games sector, is very competitive. But is the quest to compete leading to some unfair, and ultimately consumer unfriendly practices? Note: All of this data refers to the U.S. App Store, I'm unsure of the situation in other parts of the world.

We got a tip from an iPhone developer, who requested anonymity, about some shady techniques being employed by some developers to obtain a higher app ranking in the App Store. As it stands right now, if you choose to browse the App Store in iTunes, not using the search but using the "All iPhone Applications" category, apps are visually displayed in alphabetical order. Well, they are supposed to be displayed in alphabetical order. As it stands right now, only five of the 21 titles displayed on the first page actually fit that criteria -- and they are the last five apps on that page.

Some developers have figured out that adding a symbol or space before the game name will promote the app to the first page. Thus, Solitaire City, which alphabetically should be on page 26, is the very first app listed in the store. Other tiles like Whack the Groundhog, $0.99 Sudoku and 'ColorRise 3D' are all listed on the first page, instead of where they should be cataloged.

Why do this? Well, most people aren't going to browse through all 35 pages of App listings, instead opting to look at the first few pages and then just browse through the predefined categories. Because the category pages aren't always listed in alphabetical order, larger categories like games are broken into genres and then displayed in a "featured" order, the best way for some developers (and right now, this syntax practice seems to be largely used by game developers) to get exposure is to appear on the first page of listings.

This is a problem. Right now, if I want to find an application that stars with the letter "A" -- I really have to go to the third page of listings, because almost all of the listings on the first two pages have either altered syntax or a naming scheme designed to make the application appear higher alphabetically. It's one thing to legitimately name an application something that starts with an "a" -- even if it is just to get a higher listing -- but "A Legends Book" series that names every app "A Legends Book: [Title name]," instead of listing the app by the book title, is another. I take issue with this because not only is the taxonomy incorrect, it makes it more difficult for a potential customer to find a program, because if they click on the first word of the title, nothing will appear in the results.

And ultimately, this is my biggest problem with these types of syntax exploits, in the quest to get more visibility, programs are harder to find. Yes, doing a search will probably find the application, but unlike songs or movies, where a customer comes into the store with a specific artist or title in mind, the App Store is new. I know that if I was looking for a program of a certain name and it wasn't under its logical alphabetical header, I would more than likely skip doing a global search. Additionally, these types of naming conventions only make the App Store more cluttered and harder to navigate The App Store has so much great potential, it's a shame to see the hijinx and attempts to "game" the system starting already.

So what can be done? Personally, I think Apple should disallow blank spaces as first characters in an application name. I also think that the iTunes taxonomy introduced in one of the late 2007 updates should be applied to the iTunes Store -- that is, instead of listing titles that contain a number or a character or a symbol at the beginning of the alphabet, list them at the end. If that sort function was employed now, the efforts of anyone trying to exploit the system would be reversed. It also wouldn't be a bad idea for customers and developers to contact iTunes Support to complain about some of these practices.

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