Insights and Opinions

Everybody's a Critic: How Developers Can Be Proactive in Policing Reviews

It's a bad review, we gotta bad review ...oh Lord
It's a bad review - wotta we gonna do? ...oh Lord
      Half Man, Half Biscuit “Bad Reviews” (1997)

A key to any successful mobile app -- whether for Android, BlackBerry or the iPhone -- is driving downloads from people visiting the app stores. Many people have discussed how to do this by optimally buying downloads or having one of these app stores feature the app. Just as critical, however, is to ensure your app is consistently receiving very solid reviews. In our experience with YouMail, we’ve seen that going from three to five stars doubled the number of iPhone daily downloads in the App Store, and going the other way on our Android app -- where a competitor essentially manipulated the review process -- drove Google Play daily downloads down by 25-30 percent.

The problem for any app developer: how do you cultivate those positive reviews while minimizing legitimate negative reviews (and eliminating the bogus ones)?

It’s easier said than done. Unfortunately, the app stores generally provide few tools to help and it’s expressly forbidden to incentivize users explicitly to provide good reviews.

But we’ve found three things that work for us:

1) Find the “bad reviewers” and try to fix any real issues they have. To do that, it’s critical to have a means to contact them. At YouMail, all our apps ask for an e-mail address and/or phone number and/or name. By contacting users, we’ve learned a lot about issues we weren’t aware of, been able to fix them, and then had the users provide more positive reviews.

2) Provide an easy way for users to complain directly. One reason users write bad reviews is that it’s the only way they think can get a company’s attention. So, to prevent reviews from being the outlet for users to express their personal gripes, an app developer needs to provide another mechanism. We recently modified our iPhone app to have a setting to give us feedback with two choices paraphrased as: (a) we’re doing great, and (b) we suck. If they choose “great,” it takes them right to the App Store to provide a review, which has directly driven numerous great, very engaging reviews. If they choose “suck,” we provide a pre-populated e-mail that’s sent directly to our support team, which then tries to fix the problem. This eliminates many negative reviews, and gets us feedback that helps us quickly iterate the app.

3) Create a “developer response” page, linked to within the app description. We use this page to highlight the bad reviews and respond to them. We’ve found that ours gets considerable traffic (for Android, it’s when users have heard good things but see bad reviews, they can click and quickly see whether those bad reviews are reliable and should matter. While Google is testing a more integrated developer response, this isn’t a bad temporary fix for us, and can be used on Apple’s App Store as well.

Unfortunately, focusing on improving reviews isn’t free. In fact, our team easily spends 20 hours/week on the review-handling process. That’s a lot of time, especially for small developers, but given the impact reviews have on an app’s success that might not even be enough. Until the app stores can provide more tools to ensure legitimate, accurate assessments of apps, developers must be proactive about how they handle user interaction and feedback, in and outside these app stores.

Alex Quilici is CEO of YouMail, which develops a visual voicemail app for the iPhone and Android.