Despite Google’s elaborate algorithms, it’s still too easy to manipulate Play Store ratings

Fake reviews on the Play Store is a topic that is talked about too often, but here we are again. Even though Google is researching to keep the platform free from spam and malware (leading to some achievements, I must add), bogus reviews are still a problem for Android device owners and developers alike. The problem is far from new, but it seems that malicious actors seem to be able to escape again and again, and it seems that their methods don’t even have to be overly sophisticated.

An informant who contacted us recently caught our attention on this subject with an example. He pointed us to an app called iGPSPORT, a companion app for a cycling computer. A look at the Play Store App Store ratings histogram reveals that the app never received high ratings until earlier this year, which is when it suddenly jumped to a five-star average. The informer tells us that the app is not exactly known for its reliable Bluetooth connectivity, which many of the early commenters pointed out. Despite the fact that many of these complaints are still highlighted in the app’s review section, it has risen to an average of 4.7 stars in recent months.

Find the real reviews.

Looking at the recent reviews of the app, there are two obvious patterns at play: one part of the reviewers’ names consists of random five-letter first and last names, while another part of the names consists of two random, capitalized words. Some people may not want to see their real names anywhere on the web, but the plethora of similarly generated names and five-star reviews should trigger some alarms in Google’s algorithms.

It seems to me that the algorithms that Google has trained for years cannot detect these obvious fake accounts.

Of course, we still have to give this cycling app the benefit of the doubt – the app may have been chosen by some review farms trying to blur what customers they work for, but given the number of these reviews it’s pretty unlikely.

There are probably much more sophisticated fake rating campaigns with more realistic names, but I’m amazed that algorithms that have been trained for years can’t detect these obvious fake accounts. Even if each is not a spam account at first glance, the reused naming scheme and the sudden influx of high ratings should be a sign that something is wrong.

False ratings like these are not just a nuisance. They cause people to lose confidence in the legitimacy of the platform and can harm developers who try to promote similar products with honest methods. There are even companies trying to harm the credibility of their competitors with bogus reviews, hoping to kick them out of the Store for policy violations.

False ratings cause people to lose confidence in the legitimacy of the platform and could harm developers who try to promote similar products with honest methods.

While you won’t necessarily be looking at some Play Store ratings for a companion app when you buy a new cycling computer, inexperienced people can be set up for a scam app with a high average rating or a clone of a beloved discontinued weather app.

It certainly doesn’t help that fake reviews are often available for single-digit prices per rating when purchased in bulk, offered by a multitude of companies. Some unsuccessful or future developers might be tempted or pressured to try to supercharge their products for a small fee, as high ratings are likely to give them a favorable place in Play’s search results, even if the practice kicks them out of the Play Store one time discovered. However, with Google’s weak track record when it comes to spotting fake reviews, that might not be enough of a deterrent.

The company needs to step up its game to make the Play Store a safer and fairer place for everyone. It might even be worth exploring a cooperation with the competing App Store, as Apple is struggling with similar issues from years on its platform.