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Why Apple's App Rating & Review System is Broken

As game developers, ratings and review for our games are critical. But it's difficult to get as many as we would like. Unfortunately Apple's app rating and review system doesn't make life easy for us. Here are the 6 key problems I see with Apple's system.

I've had converstaions with a lot of iOS game developers about what they struggle with the most when it comes to app discovery and marketing. A common theme continues to pop up, and that is the struggle to get ratings and reviews for iOS apps.

Reviews are critical to game developers because they provide valuable feedback from our users, as well as providing social proof to potential new users and giving us better App Store search rankings.

I wanted to know why app ratings and reviews are so hard to get and how the problem can be fixed. Keep reading to find out the 6 key problems I see with the Apple’s app review system and ideas on how each of these areas could be improved.

Before I get into the list, here are some statistics to help put things into perspective and highlight the problem.

It’s difficult to get accurate download numbers for iOS apps because Apple doesn’t publicly release the information, but let’s look at what we do know.

Back in January 2013, Hotel Tonight announced they had achieved 4 million downloads on iOS. As of December 2013 they had approximately 6000 reviews. That equates to just 0.15% of users leaving a review, and I’m sure there were well over 4 million downloads by December so we can assume that figure is quite generous.

In the case of an app called Twindr, I estimated about 18000 downloads based on the information in this article by Richard Kim. Richard stated that they had received 19 reviews at the time. That equals just over 0.1%, or roughly 1 out of every 1000 users reviewed the app.

So with less than 1% of users leaving reviews for apps, we can clearly see that developers are facing an uphill battle. Let’s look at why this is happening.

Here are 6 key reasons why the app rating system is broken, and how it could be fixed.

1. The process for rating an app is much longer than it needs to be

Let’s face it. Leaving a review for an iOS app is a pain in the backside. It’s an unnecessarily long, over-complicated process that few of us are willing to go through.

People generally use mobile games for short bursts of time. We are all increasingly busy, and it’s in those spare few moments throughout the day that we pull out our phones and use an app. 

The point I’m making is that if you have 5 spare minutes to whip out your phone and use an app, you don’t want to spend 2 or 3 of those minutes leaving a review for it. You see the popup asking if you want to review the app and close the box immediately. You’re on the train and your stop is coming up soon, you just want to crush some more bloody candy before you get there!

According to Swrve's App Metrics Report, the average mobile app session length is only 5m 7s!

Let's look at the general process for reviewing an iOS app to help understand why people find it difficult.

  1. You are prompted within the app to leave a review. This is the first hurdle, making the decision to press ‘Yes’.
  2. You are then taken to the app detail page in the App Store. That’s right, not the review page. That’s another step.
  3. Now you need to select the ‘Reviews’ tab in the app store listing.
  4. Once you are on the Reviews tab, you need to tap ‘Write a review’. 
  5. You would think that this is the step where you write the review but it’s not. Now you have to enter the password for your iTunes account. And Touch ID is not good enough. You need to actually type your password!
  6. Now you can leave a rating and optionally leave comments as well. Hit ‘Send’ and you’re done.

How Can The Process Be Simplified?

  • The solution suggested by Richard, which is basically to allow reviews to be submitted via a pop-up box within the app, would go a long way towards fixing this problem.
  • Allow developers to link directly to the review tab in the App Store, instead of forcing users to tap the review tab.
  • Allow Touch ID when asking a user to sign in to leave a review.
  • Another idea is to add a star rating to the App Details page. That way a user could just tap on the number of stars they want to award, scan their fingerprint and that’s it, rating submitted.

2. There is no incentive to leave a rating or review

We’ve established that the process of leaving a review is complicated, making it difficult for people to leave reviews.

Whether it’s to feel good, to achieve social status, for monetary reward, to help others, etc. there is always an underlying reason for everything we do. And the more difficult the task is, the larger that reward needs to be.

That’s the problem. There is usually no reason for a user to leave a review. In fact, Apple do not allow developers to reward users for leaving reviews.

Now, there are user groups who do have a reason to leave reviews. But that creates another problem that I will discuss in my next point.

What's The Solution?

Using incentives is difficult because there are always people trying to take advantage of the system. For this reason, using physical or digital rewards with any monetary value at all is impossible.

Social Rewards/Status

One option to consider may be to give users some sort of status credits or points each time they leave a quality review. Those with higher status would have their reviews held in higher regard, both by Apple’s algorithm and by other users.

This is a potential solution that needs to be well thought through to prevent gaming, but it’s doable. Apple knows how long individuals use apps for, how many ratings/reviews they leave etc. It would be possible for Apple to see which users are leaving genuine reviews and which ones are non-genuine by observing their behavior in regards to apps.

Think about those images of the Chinese mass app rating setups. How long do you think they use an app for before giving it a 5 star rating? My bet is not very long. An account leaving lots of 5 star reviews on apps that they use for 20 seconds would be easy for Apple to mark as a low quality reviewer.

3. Disproportionate results - Mostly 1 or 5 star ratings

If you look through the ratings & reviews left on the App Store, you will notice that there is a disproportionate amount of 1 and 5 star ratings/reviews compared to 2, 3 and 4 stars.

I hinted at the reason for this in the previous section. Think about which groups of users are most likely to leave ratings, given that it’s difficult to do and there is no real incentive.

The people who are most likely to bother rating an app are the ones who feel most strongly about it. These are the people who either love the app or hate it.

If someone loves an app, they want others to know about it and they want it to succeed. These users will leave a rating to help share the app with others and spread the word. They are loyal fans that love the product.

On the other hand, there are those who strongly dislike an app for one reason or another. These users will go to the effort of leaving a rating just so they can vent their frustration. These users are driven by the need to tell others how bad their experience with the app was so that they don’t waste time on it.

The users in between, those who would leave a 2, 3 or 4 star ratings, usually don’t love or hate the product enough to go through the hassle of leaving a review. They might use it regularly and enjoy it, but this will likely never be reflected in a rating or review. They dimply don’t feel strongly enough about it and there is nothing else to drive them to rate/review the app.

What this leaves us with are lots of 5 and 1 star ratings and not much in between. These disproportionate figures are a direct result of a broken ratings system.

What needs to be done to achieve more evenly distributed app ratings and reviews? 

This one seems fairly simple. By simplifying the process for reviewing/rating an app, you would encourage less passionate users to leave ratings. That would result in a more even distribution of ratings as those who would give 2, 3, or 4 stars start to rate/review more often.

4. Users are forced to leave the game to write a review

Getting users engaged with your app can be challenging. And once you have engaged users you want them to stay that way for as long as possible. That’s where asking for ratings becomes a problem.

If you ask a user to leave a rating and they agree to it, they have to then leave the app to do it. As I mentioned earlier, just because they tapped that ‘Yes’ button doesn’t mean they will follow through with leaving a rating.

By sending a user away you are potentially cutting their session short. They might come back if they like the app, but then again they might not. It’s a fickle business and if that user leaves at the wrong time they might not use your app again.

Of course, there is an argument here for creating a great app that users will want to come back to. But sending them out of the app is counter-intuitive no matter what the reason or how good the app is.

How can we get more app ratings without forcing users to leave the app?

There are 2 methods that come to mind that would help fix this problem.

First, I think Richard has come up with a great solution for this. An in-app popup that allows users to give a rating/review from within the app.

Second, why not prompt users to leave a review via email in a similar fashion to Amazon.com or other online retailers. Every time I purchase a book from Amazon I get an email a few weeks later asking me to leave a review. If Apple did the same thing with the App Store it would encourage users to leave a review at a time when they are not actively engaged with the app.

5. Updating a game wipes out its average rating

As you probably know, you must have at least 5 ratings/reviews before an average rating is displayed for an app in the app store search results and on the main app details page. I can understand this because without a rule like this every app would have a 5 star rating. Developers would launch an app, review it themselves and boom, a 5 star rating from their 1 review. So a minimum number like 5 is understandable.

Here’s the problem. Whenever a developer releases a new version of an app, the average rating disappears! The app needs to earn another 5 ratings/reviews for the new version before an average rating is displayed again.

This is a massive disincentive for developers to update apps. It forces developers to make a decision. Do you update and risk losing the traction gained so far because your nice 5 star average rating will disappear? Or do you leave the app as it is and hope those bugs don’t annoy users too much?

How can this be improved?

Here’s one idea. Show an average rating at all times, but weigh reviews left for the new version higher than the old version.

This way developers are not penalized for releasing updates. If they release an update that adds features that users love, they will rate it accordingly and the developer will be rewarded with an improved average rating. If the update doesn’t meet user expectations, the average rating will quickly adjust to reflect this.

6. There is no way for developers to respond to reviews

Unlike Google Play, Apple doesn’t allow developers to respond to reviews. This is particularly frustrating when a user leaves a negative review.

Often I would like to communicate with an unhappy customer in an effort to fix the problem or notify them of an update in the pipeline that will resolve the issue they have. The ability to respond to reviews can also help because it shows potential users that you are an engaged, proactive developer who wants to create a better product.

The fix?

Again it seems pretty straight-forward. Allow developers to provide a short response to reviews that will be visible to all users.

Summary

Ok I know it’s been an epic post so I’ll wrap it up quickly!

I’ve covered the 6 biggest problems I see when it comes to ratings and reviews for games on the Apple App Store.

  1. Leaving a rating is difficult
  2. There is no incentive for a user to rate an app
  3. There is a disproportionate number of 1 and 5 star ratings
  4. Users must leave an app to rate it
  5. Updating an app wipes out it’s average rating
  6. Developers can’t respond to reviews

These problems will persist until Apple decides to change the system. Until then, as game publishers we need to come up with creative, intelligent solutions to work with what we’ve got.

Note: This post can also be found on my website: SmartAppMarketer.com

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