Enough with the Google Play search term cheating

Google Play has a problem, which is getting on my nerves more and more: Search term cheating. You’ve all seen it, apps that conveniently show up in searches where they have absolutely no business being. It’s dishonest, and something has to be done about it.

Search term cheating is becoming more and more common. Some apps blatantly list a bunch of keywords in a list at the bottom of the description, while others are a bit more subtle by naming these lists “similar to,” “plans to support,” or “upcoming features.” The two examples in the image above demonstrate exactly what I’m talking about, and how did I end up on those app pages to begin with? I was searching for apps that could tie into Astrid. That’s a list of perhaps a dozen or two apps, yet the actual number of results is far higher because of cheating like this.

Some might say that this is not cheating; it’s informing users about what will come at a later date. Let’s just look at the two apps above for a second. Any.DO, which I’ve already expressed my feelings about, is well into version 2, and has expanded to iOS. It’s been out since September of last year, and it currently syncs to itself and Google Tasks. I’m not counting an app’s ability to work with itself here, so one service. In 9 months. May I then ask how long it’s going to be before the 17 services in the list are supported? August 2023, perhaps? While I haven’t tried Taskos, the fact that it hasn’t been updated for four months sort of paints a picture. I’ve interacted with a lot of developers while writing for this site and mucking about on my own, and some of them turn out more features in their lunch break than these apps have turned out in the last six months.

Bottom line, don’t come here and tell me that these “plans to support” lists are legitimate. The grief caused to people who have to go through 10 times as many search results as necessary far outweighs any potential gain from people who are actually willing to wait months or years for a feature to be released, and wants to know what’s coming as a result. I would argue that these types of search term scams are just as bad as viagra spam in email, but that’s not true. Google’s Gmail filters catch viagra emails as spam. Google however does absolutely nothing that I can see about these developers abusing app descriptions on Google Play for their own gain.

There’s a reason why I’m singling out the Google Play store. Look at the same apps across Google Play, iTunes, and even Amazon Appstore, and you’ll notice that e.g. Any.DO’s “informative” list of plans for future support is missing from both of the others. The same goes for Taskos in Amazon’s Appstore (there’s no iOS version of it). So what; users of those stores don’t need that information? While I don’t know this for sure, I’m pretty confident that neither Amazon nor Apple actually allow that sort of cheating. They both review apps before allowing them in the store, which is what we always seem to come back to: open v. closed app stores. I’m not suggesting that Google changes the policies for the Google Play store here, but honestly, Google can afford paying someone to do nothing but look around the app store all day and check that people are behaving. Any.Do alone has 1-5 million downloads according to Google, so it’s not like this is some unknown app number 273957 that has been downloaded 10 times in 2 years. If people like me can find these apps that cheat with search terms, Google could have too.

I wish I could end this all by encouraging people to avoid these developers that so blatantly cheat their way through to success, but that would make me a hypocrite. The very app that lead to me finding Taskos’ and Any.DO’s cheat lists, Astrid, has a developer that I have absolutely no love for. I’ve tried to get in contact with them multiple times, using the support email for the paid add-on apps to signal that I’m not even a free user, and I haven’t heard back from them once. Still, I use the app, because I haven’t found a suitable replacement. It’s always easy to be extra supportive of apps with great developers, but actually taking a stand against those that don’t tend to not have much impact on anyone but yourself, leaving you without an app you need. Just be aware of what developers are doing and let them know that it’s not OK to cheat like that.

Just imagine how the world would be if similar methods were allowed elsewhere in society: “1980 model VW Beetle, $200,000 – plans to support: hovercar kit, amphibious kit, time travel kit, rocket launcher add-on, solar power kit, and more.”

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Andreas Ødegård

Andreas Ødegård is more interested in aftermarket (and user created) software and hardware than chasing the latest gadgets. His day job as a teacher keeps him interested in education tech and takes up most of his time.