App Store Optimization Blog – Metrikal

Black Hat ASO: How It Works and Why You Shouldn’t Do It?

Have you ever wondered what Black Hat ASO is? No, it’s not about wizardry or magic. It has something to do with various tricks and methods people use to increase their app ranking, gain more popularity, and earn more profit.

However, if you know what black hat ASO really is, you would soon realize that it is illegal and outright deceitful. That’s why it is worth knowing what it is, how it works, and the reasons you should avoid black hat ASO.

Read on to learn more.

What is black hat ASO?

Black Hat ASO is the malicious practice of using various techniques to increase an app’s visibility and ranking but at the expense of breaking the rules and guidelines of app stores.

The forbidden techniques of ASO may lead to a sudden but temporary increased number of downloads. Its results are more of quantity rather than quality.

The graph shows a sudden spike in the number of app downloads due to black hat techniques. (Source: MobileAction)

You might have heard about black hat SEO, which is used in search engines to trick the system. Black hat ASO or app search optimization is similar to this, but only, black hat ASO is used in app stores.

If you are unfamiliar with what ASO is, please read our beginner’s guide to app store optimization.

The opposite of black hat ASO is the white hat ASO. With white hat ASO, app owners only use techniques and methods allowed by the app stores. So, in effect, you can think of the black hat ASO as the villain while the white hat ASO is the hero.

Why do people use black hat ASO tactics?

There are a lot of reasons people use black hat ASO tactics, but the most common reason would be to increase their app ranking. The problem is, there are already established apps in the app stores and it is difficult to rank higher when you are faced with fierce competition.

Consider this, according to Build Fire, “The Apple App Store has 1.96 million apps available for download. There are 2.87 million apps available for download on the Google Play Store. 21% of Millennials open an app 50+ times per day.”

With millions of mobile apps available in the app stores, it is difficult to gain visibility.

Can you imagine trying to make a name for yourself in a fully saturated market? So, some folks get too smart and try to cheat the system. Instead of playing fairly, they try to find a loophole in the system and use that to their advantage.

Yes, competition can make people work harder, but others simply want to get the prize without doing the necessary work.

How does black hat ASO work?

Black hat ASO works by using deceitful, illegal, and forbidden methods to artificially boost the visibility and popularity of an app. 

To better understand how black hat ASO works, you need to know its many techniques. 

You’ll know exactly what we are talking about by reading the following black hat tactics ASO.

Keyword stuffing

Perhaps the oldest trick in the book, keyword stuffing was born when people discovered how search engines work. Every time someone looks for something on the Internet, they use words and phrases. Search engines use these keywords to locate and provide the search results to a user.

So, in theory, the more targeted and related keywords that you use on your website, landing pages, blogs, and app pages, the more search engines would see your content as relevant. 

As you know, keyword stuffing originated in search engine optimization (SEO). However, its practice spilled over to ASO.

Let us give you an example.

A normal URL for apps in Google Play Store would look like this:

Facebook’s Google Play Store link.

However, a URL infused with keyword stuffing would look like this:

An example of Google Play Store app link with stuffed keywords.

As you can see, the second URL comes with a lot of unnecessary words and details. Instead of simply having the name of the app in the URL, you would see words such as “games,” “fatlion,” “crafting,” “dating,” and a lot more.

Aside from URLs, people also do keyword stuffing with their app description section.

Here’s an example:

This is an example of a description section in Google Play Store where keyword stuffing is done.

As you can see, this app description doesn’t seem to be written for humans, but for the algorithm. It is difficult to scan and read. It doesn’t make sense sometimes. For the owner of this app, it is more important to add targeted keywords rather than write the description for the users.

Using irrelevant keywords

In some cases, keyword stuffing would include irrelevant keywords. In the hopes to attract more people, some developers would place keywords in their titles and description field that have nothing to do with their app. Keywords may even include brand names of competitors.

When the iOS 8 was released, Apple introduced a new feature. In the search section, there’s a “trending” searches section, which you can find just below the search box. Apple designed this new feature to highlight popular apps in any given period of time. 

Trending searches on Apple App Store (Source: TechCrunch)

Some black hat programmers check this list and then add these keywords in their metadata even if they are not related to their app. 

There are also times when a keyword is trending. For instance, seasonal keywords such as “Christmas” or “Halloween.” These keywords might be popular at a certain time of the year. But if you add them to your app even if it is not related, then you may be guilty of doing a black hat technique. 

Instead of using irrelevant keywords or performing keyword stuffing, you must learn how to optimize app store keywords the right way.

Fake installs

Among the most important metrics for apps would be the number of installs. The more people installing your app on their devices, the higher your chance for Top Charts to include your app.

So, it is not difficult to see how some people use black hat ASO techniques to get a lot of installs. Here are some of the things they do:

  • Paying people to install their app.
  • Using robots to install their app.
  • Asking users to use a specific keyword in search and then install the app.
  • Hiring a company with a network of real people willing to install an app in exchange for rewards.

While it is true that these black hat ASO techniques could get you an initial boost in your app ranking, it will not last. The reason is that if your app isn’t really worth using, your user engagement level will drop.

Users would simply download and install your app, use it for a while, or worse, simply uninstall it immediately after you pay or reward them for the desired action.

Fake ratings and reviews

One of the best ways for you to convince people to download your app is through ratings and reviews. The higher your rating is, the more people will perceive your app as worth downloading. Add to that is having a lot of positive reviews. Then, you’ll see how your app can easily grow.

The problem is that asking for ratings and reviews can be difficult especially when you don’t know how to ask. Sometimes, you might be asking for reviews at the wrong time. At other times, users are just not keen to give feedback unless they feel your app is really great. That’s why it is important to know how to improve your app store rating and reviews.

So, what happens in black hat ASO is that app owners pay users to provide ratings and reviews. Not only any reviews but in most cases, it should be positive reviews.

To make things even easier for black hat ASO practitioners, there are companies on the Internet who really offer this service. You can even easily google these companies and you’ll find a lot of them that offer app fake reviews and ratings. 

Here are some of examples of fake reviews:

Examples of fake reviews and ratings on Google Play Store (Source: Android Police)

These may not look like fake reviews, but if you look closely, you’ll notice they are all given on the same day. The users don’t have a customized profile picture. They don’t even have a name but only “A Google User” for some. Fake reviews such as these are commonly generated by computer programs.

Google has taken steps to improve its algorithm. They have enhanced their filtering system to automatically flag fake reviews and do the necessary steps to ensure that only deserving apps get recommended.

It should be noted though that there are times that paid visits, downloads, and reviews can be considered legal. That’s why this technique can sometimes sit on the fence between black hat and white hat techniques. This has given way to a different terminology called, “gray hat” techniques.

So, it can be legal, but it can also be illegal. When you read the guidelines of app stores, it doesn’t directly condemn such practices. So, it is in the gray area.

Attacking competitors

One of the darkest techniques of black hat programmers is to paint competitors black. This is done by providing fake negative reviews to other apps. Some companies may hire a third-party company to create real or bot accounts. From there, they will then download and use other people’s apps, then provide unfair and low ratings in the hopes of lowering the rank of that app.

In theory, when they pull down the rank of their competitor through negative reviews, they would have a better chance of beating them in the ranking.

Using bot traffic

Some clever programmers have created computer software that can mimic a user’s behavior in app stores. For example, this software can behave like a real user — visiting an app’s landing page, downloading the app, and using it. Just imagine how many downloads a bot can make within minutes!

Thankfully, Google Play Store, Apple App Store, and other app stores have changed their algorithm. Instead of just focusing on quantity, they have now focused more on the quality of the downloads. This means it is not only the number of downloads that are being considered but also user engagement and app retention.

Manipulating top grossing rank

On app stores, Top Charts is a place where your app can get a lot of exposure. Imagine if your app is tagged as “top trending,” “best app,” or “top grossing.” Surely, your app would have a lot of new users.

The problem is that black hat practitioners found a way to rise on top of the top-grossing list. How do they do this?

We all know that the top-grossing list includes apps with the highest income. So, what black hat practitioners would do is increase the price of their app. Sometimes, it would reach thousands of dollars. 

Top charts of Google Play Store

From there, they have some accomplice who will then pay for the app. Afterward, they will refund users. 

Thus, technically, their app just earned a huge amount of money. App stores would then see this and put the app on the top-grossing list. 

Once they have earned a spot in the Top Chart, they will then lower their price. As a result, they have gained valuable visibility and possibly more downloads and installs.

It’s worth noting that top grossing black hat tactic isn’t applicable in the App Store anymore. In 2017, the App Store removed its top-grossing charts. However, Google Play Store still has this feature.

Copying popular apps

It’s common to find imitations of various products in the market today. If you think these imitations are only found in department stores, think again because you will also find them in app stores.

Check out these apps that make themselves look like the popular app, Messenger:

How other apps mimic the app icon of Messenger (Source: Google Play Store)

In just one look, you can easily get confused about which of these apps is the real Messenger app. 

Yes, app stores would definitely list the real one first on the list. They even add a “check” mark to show which one is genuine. Nevertheless, there are still people who get tricked and download the wrong app.

Well, people might get fooled into downloading an app imitation, but they will eventually uninstall your app the moment they realize they’ve been tricked. So, better stay being genuine and original.

Why you shouldn’t do black hat ASO?

There are a lot of reasons for you to avoid using black hat ASO techniques. To better understand why you should not adopt black hat ASO methods, here are some of the words that describe it:

  • Deceitful
  • Dubious 
  • Unfair
  • Tricky
  • Illegal
  • Forbidden
  • Dodgy
  • Scammy
  • Unethical
  • Untrustworthy

Now, do you really want your app to be like these words? So, if you don’t want those words to describe yourself, then better avoid using forbidden ASO methods.

To help you better understand why you should not do black hat ASO, here are some reasons to consider:

  • Black hat ASO are discouraged and banned in app stores.
  • App stores will penalize your app and even remove it from their listings for repeated offenses.
  • Black hat ASO can give you quick results, but it will typically not last long. This will only lead to wasted time, money, and effort in the long run.
  • You are manipulating and cheating the app stores’ algorithm. This is an unfair practice, which comes with serious repercussions in the future.
  • You don’t get loyal customers. Most may download your app, but will simply uninstall it once they feel your app isn’t what they are looking for.
  • Your app will have low user engagement and retention.
  • You risk yourself having a lot of negative reviews.
  • People will find your app difficult to trust.

In short, it is not worth it to use a black hat ASO trick. You will end up losing more with these app store ranking manipulation techniques.

Do it the right way

We just learned what black hat ASO is, how it works, and why you shouldn’t do it. With all these in mind, it is only reasonable to conclude that you must avoid black hat tricks. Instead, you should concentrate on using white hat ASO techniques — the techniques that are encouraged, promoted, and most of all, legal.

If you are really confident in your app’s features, then there’s really no reason for you to use black hat ASO. Consistently doing the right ASO techniques should bring you long-lasting success.

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