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Beat deceitful developers at their deceitful games by calling them out on their deceitful “awards”

Birds might not do it. Bees might not do it — nor even, educated fleas. But… retailers do it. Auto dealers do it. Package tour operators do it. And countless other professions and occupations do it. They all sign up to membership of a trade association that has at its core a “code of ethics” and provides its members with a “Seal of Best Practice” (i.e. a logo/stamp of approval, more or less).

That logo, that graphic, can appear in many a different colors, shapes, styles, and sizes. The format doesn’t matter; it doesn’t even have to be a graphic. The fact that it exists matters. As a visual shorthand, it’s there to signal a commitment to fair and honest dealing with customers everywhere – and, as such, will be found everywhere.

Or almost. Because where it won’t be found is in relation to the output of one of the world’s biggest industries: software development.

There’s no universally acknowledged “quality seal” in the software realm. One will not find a universal “stamp of approval” on a software developer’s advertisement, on a software developer’s product, or atop a software developer’s web page because there’s no global federation of software developers (and likely never will be). Instead, what there will likely be on those advertisements/products/web pages is a logo, a graphic, denoting something else – an award.

As many awards as possible, in fact, because on the basis of an earlier era’s hype about “you’ve read the book, now watch the movie,” it’s today a case of “you’ve seen the award, now get the software.”

Just how persuasive an awards-splattered web page can be was examined back in 2007 by developer Andy Brice. Having authored a distinctive new application, Brice used a submission service to upload it to various Internet software review sites, and then sat back to see what, if any, honors it might harvest. He didn’t have to wait long.

Brice’s application garnered up quite an audience. It received dozens of awards:

Brice’s software was a massive success, appraised and acclaimed by review sites many of which may be as familiar to computer users now as they were to Brice back then, seeing as how their icons and logos continue to feature on the web pages of many software developers worldwide.

Despite that success though, Brice didn’t get his app into every home in every land. Not because he was tired. Not because he was bored. But because his app was useless: Awardmestars consisted of nothing more than a PAD (Portable Application Description) file stating: This software does nothing at all.

(Just to make sure there could be no misunderstanding, Brice also attached to the PAD a faked screenshot of what the software displayed when in operation: This software does nothing. It doesn’t even run. It was created as an experiment to see how many shareware awards it got. )

For the first time – and that’s a pretty damning indictment of every many computing magazine and computing website out there – for the very first time, the scale of awards fraud was exposed in 2007 by a private individual using his own money to finance the site submissions and his own blog to publicise the results.

Brice’s Awardmestars should in theory have killed off every site established to rake in an income from Google AdSense by generating traffic from an “award-winning” developer’s website’s back-links. But in practice, while some sites that honored Awardmestars have since vanished, others have joined the throng.

Yet how successful they (the “review” sites) will be is another matter. Because where once a lack of scruples was characteristic of phony awards website owners, such absence of ethics today hallmarks a sadly increasing number of software developers. Unlike their predecessors, they (the developers) don’t even bother now to submit anything at all, but instead screen-capture the phony award sites’ logos and icons, and paste ‘em onto their own web pages.

Of course, more experienced computer users aren’t suckered in by worthless awards that can be linked to, or copy-and-paste icons that lead nowhere. Such users take one look at BestGoldSoftDownload Editor’s Pick and think: yeah. Right. And (usually) head off, instead, to another developer where it’s pretty obvious the awards listed are authentic and their representation on a developer’s webpage, genuine.

Except… that’s not necessarily the case. In response to the growing savviness of at least some computer users, an equally growing number of developers are indulging in award-swapping: that is, willfully displaying a favorable review, or genuine award, next to one product from their software stable when that review or award was actually given to a quite different product in the same stable.

Accidental? No. Deceitful? Yes. Ethical? Absolutely not. Software developers – of all people – do not make mistakes when it comes to engineering the pages that promote their ‘wares. They know which product has earned which award…. and which product most certainly has not.

Nor is award-swapping the only manifestation of duplicity. As the credibility of 5 Stars from TopWorldBestSoftPick has diminished, the need to capitalise on endorsements of commensurately greater credibility has become increasingly evident.

Such need was graphically demonstrated by IObit, whose Security 360 software product page was plastered with the logos of Reuters, AOL, and Forbes in what could only be construed as an attempt to signal that these institutions – and institutions they most certainly are, not just modest enterprises – were endorsing the product.

But they weren’t. None of them had at any time reviewed or reported on Security 360. After complaints, IObit removed the corporate logos (Reuters, AOL, and Forbes) from the Security 360 product page on November 3, 2009.

Where the IObit affair was concerned, it was pretty easy to see that something odd was going on: Forbes, self-evidently, never has published and never will publish software reviews. The lesson to any unscrupulous developer is therefore quite clear: if you’re going to proclaim, suggest, or even imply that your product has earned some blue-chip endorsement (i.e. an endorsement of high credibility/value), then better make sure first that the blue-chip concerned really is in the (software) endorsement business.

Generally speaking, a good blue-chip is a computer magazine. And it’s one such title that’s currently at the centre of a small though as yet unresolved mystery: PC Authority magazine, published in Australia… the country that’s also home to software house GetData whose product stable includes an app to restore accidentally deleted material, RecoverMyFiles.

According to GetData’s website, RecoverMyFiles earned a 5- Star rating in PC Authority’s July 2008 issue, at which time the magazine wrote:

“Losing files is easy, but luckily to undelete them isn’t much harder with this fantastic software. This is the best data recovery software for those who find themselves in a sticky situation. It’s so easy even first timers shouldn’t have trouble using this product.”

That’s a pretty persuasive recommendation. Yet curiously, it’s by no means unique. According to iCare Software – not a fellow Australian company, but ostensibly based in the USA, although its actual provenance is obscure – its iCare Data Recovery app was also reviewed by PC Authority, earning so high an endorsement that it was honored in the magazine’s 2009 Best Tech Awards, published in January 2010, and praised thus:

“Losing files is easy, but luckily to undelete them isn’t much harder with this fantastic software. This is the best data recovery software for those who find themselves in a sticky situation. It’s so easy even first timers shouldn’t have trouble using this product.”

Baffling. Is PC Authority using exactly the same words a year apart to review the products of two different companies? Is the reason why the same laudatory review is quoted on the websites of those two different companies because, in reality, GetData and iCare are one and the same? Is the software the same but being put out under two different names? Who knows?

More to the point: why should such questions have to be asked anyway? A computer user invited to download or purchase a software product shouldn’t have to play amateur detective with every cited review and every displayed award. Rather, it should be “this is the product; this is the award; this is the reason why you should have it.” Simple as that.

If only.

Against a background of deceit that’s as old as the Internet itself and more slick than snake oil selling ever was, it is now, more than ever, required of every computer user to posses the common sense to never to accept anything at face value. There are no internationally accepted standards of conduct. There is no international code of ethics. There is no “Seal of Best Practice” to denote the existence of a commitment to the fair and honest treatment of consumers.

And sadly, in the absence of an international award police, it seems that for every reputable and hard-working software developer and/or publisher out there, there’ll continue to be another someone somewhere else with quite the opposite agenda.

Perhaps, when it comes right down to it, every computer user should take to heart the two maxims instilled into every journalistic trainee, everywhere:

1) When in doubt, find it out;

2) Or: when in doubt, leave it out.

To be in doubt where computer software is concerned is to be insured — insured against everything from cynical exploitation to practices considerably more sinister. And to leave software out of your computer, if you can’t find out the truth or otherwise of its review or award, is the best defense you can mount not only in your own interests, but those of every honest developer as well. (The irony of the situation is some developers – who practice deceit – do have quality products; if only they would recognize the fact and rethink their marketing strategies, they could gain customers through honesty rather than lies.)

Though scammers exist in abundance, there are still countless numbers of honest, plain-dealing software developers whose products may not be suitable for your needs, but whose continued existence certainly merits your encouragement.

By shunning any software, available free or not, whose claims cannot be instantly checked and validated, you’re helping the honest folks to thrive. There may be no award for that kind of courtesy – but the long-term benefits both to you and the industry as a whole will far exceed any number of phony, glittering stars. (Of course we won’t come after you with pitchforks if you decide you need software provided by developers of deceit.)