The easiest way to get popular on the App Store

app store screenshot

A good title is gold on the App Store. Along with the app's icon, the title is the first thing you notice about an app when it appears on your iPhone screen. Ever since Apple's decision to remove the "recently added" apps list, the title of a game is the single easiest way to find it in the App Store, but what if nobody is actually searching for your app? What can you do? Well, if you're willing to set your self respect aside, you can simply steal the name of successful apps.

clumsy biker screenshot

This is RedCross Rescue, or at least that was its title when MobileX Labs released it in November of 2012. But after a few months of poor sales, its name was changed to "Bike Race HD" in January 2013. It gained some traction, breaking the top 250 in the Adventure category, but it began to slip once more.

Then, just last month, its fortunes miraculously shifted, climbing almost 750 spots from its 1,000+ ranking in Adventure to the top 300. But this amazing change of fortune wasn't due to a new update, cool level pack, or added functionality. No, it was achieved with nothing more than a simple name change. Overnight, Bike Race HD became "Bike Race Ninja Clumsy Run HD."

Capitalizing on the absolutely scorching hot search term "Clumsy Ninja," the app did quite well, but its transformation wasn't complete. On February 14, a simple new app called "Le Pupppy" took the App Store by storm, becoming a top 10 game shortly after launch. And wouldn't you know it, as soon as Le Pupppy began its climb to the top, the app formerly known as RedCross Rescue evolved once again, this time to "Le Puppy Clumsy Biker Pupppy Race Ninja 2 HD."

These are the current App Store search results for "Le Pupppy":

app store rankings

And here are the results on the app's ranking after each name change in both the Adventure and Arcade game categories:

app annie chart

The app is now more popular than it's ever been, and is once again cracking the top 250 in the Adventure category.

dumb ways to die ripoff screenshot

This is an app that was published in August of 2013 with the title "Dumb Ways to Die 2 Day Saga Despicable Pet Rescue 2k14." No smoke an mirrors on this one; it was gaming the App Store's search feature from the very start. The game has only a passing similarity to the actual Dumb Ways to Die app, and MobileX Labs has no affiliation with the creators of the original whatsoever.

Just days after being published, the app got an update that changed its title to sneak one more important keyword in, "Pou." The app's new title became "Dumb Ways to Die 2 Day Saga Pou Pet Rescue." And wouldn't you know it, less than a month after that name change, the app suddenly skyrocketed in popularity.

But wait, there's more! After the Flappy Bird clone "Flying Circus - Wrecking Ball" became a hit just a few days ago, the app's name changed once more, this time to "Dumb Ways to Die 2 Day Saga Flying Circus," and gained another healthy bump in ranking, bringing it higher on the App Store charts than it has ever been -- and even cracking the top 1,000 overall US app chart for the first time ever. This is all thanks to the success of apps with which the publisher has no affiliation.

This app in particular shows how a publisher can hitch its own app onto a successful name and ride its ups and downs. Here is a comparison of the overall US ranking of Dumb Ways to Die (in blue) and the clone's ranking on the US Adventure chart (in red):


Instaliker, published by Top Free Apps And Games -- one of the App Store names MobileX Labs publishes under -- has had a particularly robust history of name swaps:

  • Instaliker - 1000's of Likes & Followers Plus Instalikes Wow Gram Tool (launch title)

  • Instaliker - 1000's of Likes & Followers Plus Instalikes Wow Gram Wowlikes Tool (added the term "Wowlikes," another popular Instagram utility)

  • Instaliker - 1000 Instagram Likes & Followers Plus 1000likes Wow Gram Wowlikes Tool (added "Instagram", added "1000likes" which is yet another Instagram app, removed "Instalikes")

  • Instaliker - 1000 Instagram Likes & Followers LaterSnap Plus 1000likes Wow Gram Wowlikes Tool (added "LaterSnap," another popular Instagram app)

  • Instaliker - 1000 Instagram Likes & Followers Followliker Plus 1000likes Wow Gram Wowlikes Tool (current name, replaced "LaterSnap" with "Followliker," because LaterSnap changed its name)

And WakaVille, officially titled "WakaVille USA Zombie Plague Pandemic Bitstrips," has nothing to do with the popular apps Plague Inc. or Bitstrips, but it's certainly benefitting from such a carefully crafted name.

MobileX Labs

MobileX Labs is the name you'll see linked to all these apps. The Chicago-based startup bills itself as an app creation solution for people who don't want to bother with coding. The company -- which has Mark Cuban as an advisor, and appears on Cuban's website -- also offers to build from-scratch apps for its clients.

MobileX Labs publishes some of the apps itself, apparently under a number of App Store names, and if the app makes money, 20% of the profit goes to MobileX. As the company website states, MobileX is the one that cuts the check for the remaining 80% to the client.

I wanted to get a better feel for who was behind the App Store naming "tweaks," so, mentioning the Dumb Ways to Die app specifically, I emailed the official support contact listed on the MobileX Labs website. I received this in response:

We published this game for a client last year and we own the source code of the game, and we don't have any affiliation with Metro Trains Melbourne, the purveyors of Dumb Ways to Die. We have not had any pushback from Apple or the MTM people on the title, so we assume this is within the guidelines of app naming. We don't really focus on simple games like this any more but we agree with the client to leave the game up as it does generate revenue.

In a followup email, I was told any information I had received -- this is from the official support email, remember -- was "off the record." When I didn't agree to this, I was told I could not longer be helped.

I also emailed MobileX Labs CEO Daniel Novaes in an attempt to get an actual answer, and was told that apps for clients are named according to the client's wishes -- and to be fair, there are quite a few MobileX Labs apps on the store that were clearly made by well-meaning clients -- but games MobileX made may have been "outsourced to marketing firms/freelancers."

Novaes also noted that MobileX hasn't had anything to do with RedCross Rescue (or its subsequent name changes) "for nearly a year," claiming that his company simply hosts the app and gives its new owner access to it through iTunes. He also said that WakaVille was named by a separate "app marketing service." This adds another layer to things, but doesn't change the fact that MobileX is either willfully ignorant of the fact that it's supporting an extremely gross business practice, or doesn't care.

So does gaming the App Store pay off? In an October interview, Novaes notes that MobileX Labs rakes in roughly $100,000 a month. With how many clients the company has, there's no way to tell how much of that is thanks to shady App Store naming. It's worth noting that of all the apps published under the company's name, the most popular are indeed the same apps that appear to be using titles of other, legitimately popular apps.

app store screenshot

So there you have it, aspiring app developers; Popularity is as simple as blatantly ripping off the name of your competitors and turning a blind eye to ethics.

[All ranking data by App Annie]