Your app got bad, unfair reviews. Now what?

Developers are taking issues about feedback on apps and mobile games into their own hands. Smooth Reviews, Appbot and Empatika offer their insights
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"SUCKS!" it says, followed by one star. "Garbage. Needs major improvements, very slow app," says another, with an equally low rating. "Not great. Meh, and not accurate," says a third. 

These are extracts from user reviews of an actual sports app randomly selected on Google Play. Though there are some more positive ones, particularly for a more recently-updated version, there are about 33 bad reviews and an average of 2.3 stars. Needless to say, it will take considerable work for the developer in question to get enough good feedback to push the rants and diatribes out of the way. 

Smooth Reviews

Through Smooth Reviews, developers earn points for writing reviews for others. (Image Source: Smooth Reviews)

Developers in action
Such is the lot of many app developers. In some cases poor reviews are a simple result of a poorly designed app or mobile game. In others, however, developers say users failed to understand how an app worked or appeared to have some other ax to grind. There are always complaints of "trolls" or "flamers" who seem to have nothing better to do than ruin a developer's reputation. Only now are those who make apps for a living starting to fight back.

Earlier this month, for instance, New York-based app developer Jason Van Buiten launched Smooth Reviews, a company that tries to enlist developers to help each other out by writing informed, credible reviews of each other's apps through an online submission system. For each review a developer writes, they earn a point on their SmoothReviews.com account. That point will translate into their app being served up for a review by another developer. In other words, the more reviews a developer writes for their peer's apps, the more reviews they'll get for their own apps. Smooth Reviews just came out of beta and has already attracted more than 150 developers, he said.

"It was really a case of solving my own problem," Van Buiten, who has developed several apps of his own, told FierceDeveloper. "In many cases developers don't have any reviews of their apps, and it's hard to kind of manufacture them. This is a way for developers to help each other."

Of course, developers can also appeal to their early adopters or people they know personally, but Van Buiten questions that approach. 

"It comes down to a point where you're annoying your users on your own app," he said. "You see apps where they're asking you to write a review every five minutes. Either that or you have to annoy your own friends."

Appbot app monitor

Appbot's tools let developers view trends and stats for app reviews. (Image source: Appbot)

Keeping track of reviews
Garnering more thoughtful or high-quality reviews may be more effective than trying to pick fights with those who write bad reviews, especially since some platforms lack the ability to do so. Apple doesn't allow iOS devs to respond to reviews, for instance. Two years ago Google introduced the capability for those making Android apps, but restricted it to those its app store deemed a "top developer." More recently, Microsoft said it had launched a pilot program to let Windows Phone 8 developers to engage directly with reviewers, but the rollout could take some time. 

For developers with a portfolio of several apps, just keeping track of what users are saying could become a full-time job in itself. That was the reason Australian developer Stuart Hall created Appbot, a tool that monitors app stores for feedback. Hall said he was only weeks away from launching additional services that will not only alert developers to the kinds of reviews they are getting but actually get better reviews. 

"Appbot customers are using the data to find early bugs and get honest feedback. Many also track their competitor's apps to find how they can achieve an advantage," he said. "I think you need to be proactive in stopping the bad reviews. Communicate issues early with your customers and try and get feedback directly from disgruntled customers before they leave an app review." The update coming to Appbot in the next couple of weeks will help them achieve this, he added.

Study: Not so bad after all
As mortifying as a bad review may be, developers may see the problem as worse than it is. Two years ago a firm called Empatika released a study of half a million Apple App Store reviews to gauge the average sentiment they expressed. Rather than exposing a preponderance of trolls and flamers, Empatika said 52 percent of its sample were positive, with only 5 percent focusing on purely negative feedback. The remaining 43 percent wrote a mixture of positive and negative reviews, but the company also discovered that 70 percent of the reviews had a sentiment that didn't match the star rating--they might have given a mobile game three stars, for instance, but spent most of their review focusing on a complaint. 

In an e-mail from Empatika's offices in Russia, co-founder Bayram Annakov said the art of getting good app reviews partly involves strategic timing. 

Bayram Annakov Empatika

Annakov

"Typically, you should ask for review after the user experiences the 'aha' moment of your app or the main use case," he said. "For example, in our flight tracking and airport guide app named 'App in the Air,' we ask for review after we notify user of flight delays or after he finds some airport tip useful."

Annakov acknowledged that sentiment analysis could be hard to implement for the average indie developer. Instead, he suggested summarizing reviews with every release and finding the most common keywords to get a sense how the app is doing and what users think.

They should also use the data to see if users truly understand the features and functions before they start writing a review, Van Buiten added. Consumer confusion often comes through in a many reviews, which is a huge issue for developers to combat. "Sometimes," he said, "it's like they haven't used the app at all."