App reviews? We don’t need no stinkin’ App reviews.

When it comes to mobile applications, the app stores of Google and Apple are, for most, the first port of call for critical review and helping to determine whether something is worthy of downloading. Added to that, mobile App Store SEO relies heavily on positive review scores to rank applications higher in the results, bring yet more eyeballs to an application that has just launched.

For being such a fundamental part of the mobile app ecosystem, Apple App Store reviews in particular are fundamentally broken, and something of a thorn in the side for developers.

The problem doesn’t so much lie in the reviews themselves, but the lack of any sort of feedback from the developers to help an audience adequately sort the proverbial wheat from the chaff, and indeed eliminate idiocy and irrelevant comments from the equation. All too often it’s the business and their practises that are being reviewed, and not the application quality.

To illustrate, let’s quickly take a quick look at just one of the highest profile apps on the web developed by the cream of Developer talent found Worldwide, and some of their corresponding reviews:

Facebook:

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 13.11.50

1 Star for Privacy issues, conspiracy theories and frequency of updates.  

You don’t have to look too hard to see other high profile apps suffering from the same wrongly placed feedback. Snapchat for example, has a current app rating of 3 out of 5 stars, surprisingly low for an application which has supposedly 200 million monthly users. Case in point, negative reviews are mostly comprised of teenage angst over the choice of emojis.

Irrespective of whether an App does it’s job well and serves it’s user, the App Store has quickly become a public dumping ground for consumer complaints about every facet of the businesses the app represents.

Got a problem with Starbucks? There’s a review for that.

Unhappy with top shops returns policy? Yep there’s a review for that.

Facebook privacy issues pissing you off? Yep time to leave a scathing review.

It’s a problem Apple seem happy to live with, as the nature of reviews have changed little since the App Store launched.

In principle, relying on the wisdom of crowds, and allowing the cream of applications to rise to the top based on positive reviews and frequency of downloads sounds sensible. In practise however when you have a Massive audience, with low incentive for quality contributions, you end up with the cesspool of content that is the currently on public display in the App store.

The problem is further compounded by developers unable to undermine poor quality contributions with retorts or responses, and indeed the offering of alternative more appropriate channels to have complaints or feedback dealt with. As identity is also concealed neither is there any way to contact the reviewer to resolve their complaint. It’s all one way traffic. You get your review..good or bad and you are stuck with it right until you perform a new release, a tactic Apple initially employed to ensure developers continue to develop bug fixes, and presumably move the app further in the direction of consumer desire. Now, however, we are in the ugly scenario of releases for release sake just to hide negative reviews, and companies turning to Astroturfing just to level the playing field.

There are plenty of solutions out there for countering the problem of low quality user generated content. Amazon solve it with voting for each comment. Reddits gamification of their comments through comment karma massively increases the signal to noise ratio. Hacker News. Same again.

There’s been some research on the same topic suggesting that rewarding quality contribution through either increased exposure or gamification within user generated content is the way forward, and with reviews being one of the primary forms of UGC on the web, it’s little wonder many of the larger players on the web adopt such practises. Apple, sadly continues to lag behind.

There are however a few ways to provide responses openly in the public without being dictated to by the App Store.

Some people have scraped the App Store reviews, implemented their own commenting system on their own website and attempted to offer responses to reviews. Others, try to respond directly to each review by leaving another review underneath.

Ultimately all are workarounds for a broken system that Apple really need to sort out, and it’s not just me that thinks so.

There are loads of other blog posts around the web that take a similar stance. Lifehacker offers alternate ways to rate the quality of an app. This post on medium from a third party small developer gives real insight into the problems faced.

With the recent introduction of the Apple watch, we can likely expect an explosion of apps developed for wearable platforms, and with them application reviews.

As devices become ever more and more personal, the need for decent reviews and ratings for consumers prior to application download becomes even more important.

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