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You are here: MacNN Forums > News > Mac News > Editorial: Apple and Google's app stores, and the user-review quagmire

Editorial: Apple and Google's app stores, and the user-review quagmire
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Sep 17, 2015, 10:29 AM
Yesterday afternoon, Apple released its app on Google Play allowing users of Android devices to "easily" shift over to an iOS device. As expected, the app has been battered with one-star reviews by ever-classy Android fans, trotting out the same old tired missives about iSheep, walled gardens, and expensive hardware. Does the app work? Can't tell by the reviews -- and that's a problem, not only with Google Play, but with Apple's app stores as well. Cupertino, Mountain View, your attention please: its time for a change.

The entry is a good example of Google's "wild west" approach to apps versus the more-curated experience of the App Store: in the "walled garden" of Apple, you must at least have downloaded and used the app before you get to write a review, which means the reviews are generally on-topic. However, most of them are about as useless as the Google Play comments, since there is no curation of well-written ones from ranty screeds about issues that likely stem more from user misunderstanding than the app itself.

The birth of the problem

To say that digital app stores has grown is a gross understatement of the situation. On July 11, 2008, there were 500 apps. Three days later, there were 800 -- and ten million downloads. At the beginning of January 2010, there were 120,000 apps, with three billion downloads. In January of this year, there were more than 1.4 million applications, with well more than 75 billion downloads.

Google Play has experienced similar explosive growth. In March of 2009, there were 2,300 apps, compared to 1.5 million in the first quarter of this year. Google isn't transparent about download numbers, but in July of 2013, it claimed there were more than 50 billion downloads from the store, and two years have elapsed since then.

Obviously, user discovery of content is now a problem for both stores, and for developers as well. Developers have noted as of late that average application download numbers are down, and the trend in the public's demand is for $1 or free apps supported by advertising or in-app purchases, which have no incentive to be anything beyond alluring, and is killing the incentive for reasonably-priced "premium" products, which is complicating the issue. Even free apps supported by IAP or advertising catch a fair amount of complaints, with buyers frequently judging them as though they'd paid $20 or more for them.

The discovery problem

So, how do you find quality content on either store? Both stores have top lists of the most-downloaded apps, but just as in the music charts, what's popular for a time is not always (or even often) the best thing out there. At the time of this writing, both the Apple iOS App Store and Google Play have an assortment of unsurprising most-downloaded apps that simply reinforce franchises and brand names, and do not encourage discovery of new content; the top free app list is no better.

Worse yet is the utterly useless (to customers) "top grossing" list on the iOS App Store, headed by such stunningly fresh content as Big Fish Casino, Candy Crush, and Game of War. What meaning are we supposed to associate with the fact that an app has made a lot of money? That it is a flash in the pan? That it has taken advantage of a current trend? That revenue equals quality?

This is a bit like saying that the richest person to run for President must therefore be the best candidate. If we just add the word "Kardashian" to our Solitaire app, would it zoom to the top of the charts? Once again, the ability to make some money for a little while is not really an indicator of what people are actually looking for. The "top grossing" list seems like a vanity chart for developers that offers nothing to customers, and so its odd that it is even publicly available.

The assorted, variable lists of "new and notable" and "notable updates" and similar categories span the main page of the App Stores, but criteria for these selections seems arbitrary. In particular, both lists just seem to feature mostly the incrementally-updated "new versions" of familiar apps, and less often feature anything really new (as in first appearance) or notable (as in a fresh, previously-unseen approach).

Of somewhat more use is the auto-generated lists that suggest what other users who purchased the app being examined have also purchased. Now that is a good starting point for actually finding something useful, and works reasonably well in the music and video areas of the Apple Stores -- but personally, I haven't found the recommendations as helpful for finding new apps, and a quick poll of other users and some of the staffers echo my thoughts on the matter.

Apple or Google derive all these lists from the raw data of millions of consumer purchases, and that's fine -- but they're terrible for discovery, and serve mostly only to make the popular, more popular. There are so many apps that venues like MacNN, Touch Arcade, or any other review venue can't hope to cover them all, and when one site finds a gemstone buried in the muck of the app stores, it generates a "me too" across the web.

Searching for functionality works, somewhat -- but here's the problem, as exhibited by the review bombing on the Apple migration application on Google Play: moreso with Android than iOS, anybody can leave a review, which assures that most reviews are worthless (or fake). On the Apple stores, you have to at least own the app in order to comment, but you still get "reviews" from users who have not really spent any time with the app, and are giving you their "first 10 seconds" take on it. This "wild west" approach to app reviews by alleged users doesn't help searchers looking for a way to get what they are after, and forces them to sort through a pile of review to find one that is articulate and thoughtfully composed -- an increasing rarity.

Got an editorial comment about a company, like on the Apple migration app? Crank out something your "bros" think is witty, and be sure you include "iSheep" and "crapple" in the remark. That's sure make Tim Cook sees the light about the Apple App Store's policies and device pricing! Don't like Google's politics? Break out the text editor, and be sure to call out "fandroids" and wave the de rigeur "don't be evil" stick around. I'm sure that'll get Page and Brin's attention, and make them stay awake at night, rending their garments at the cutting remark.

These "reviews" were the publishable ones. Doesn
These "reviews" were the publishable ones. Doesn't take much looking to find not safe for work.

Google's iOS apps work fine. Apple's migration app works fine. Yet, the reviews of both suggest badly-defective products for no reason, which after installation will immolate your device, send hit squads of ninjas to murder your family, and induce cancer in any survivors in short order. At least according to the cavemen-quality "reviewers." This is not helpful.

There's a solution...

Apple or Google shouldn't change the top lists -- they do serve a purpose. What both could change, though, would be requiring ownership of the app (as Apple does now), and require actual utilization! Developers keeps statistics on "time in app," and Google also does. Simply requiring ownership and usage would cut down on bogus reviews, both pro and con.

Amazon, for example, notes in user reviews if the text is from somebody who actually owns the target of the missive, and Newegg does something similar. Game purveyor Steam also lists time of play next to a user review posted for a game. Why can't Apple and Google implement this as a hard requirement in app store reviews?

Another thing we'd like to see is some editorial curation of reviews: well-written ones float to the top, shouted garbage only gets seen if you go looking for it. That's what customers are looking for when they look at reviews, and presently on both stores, it's the sheer luck of the draw if you even see one that features a coherent sentence. More effective filtering tools, coupled with the time of use requirement, would clear the user review uselessness problem right up.

Sure, the truly insanely devoted can run an app for hours to leave a statement about something off-topic, and maybe those would slip by strict filters, but that takes a certain level of crazy dedication to pull that off, and is easily ignored by the reader. However, as it stands, none of these tools exist in either company's app stores.

To borrow a Sci-Fi quote from Joseph Michael Straczynski, "once the avalanche has started, it is too late for the pebbles to vote." We, as mobile users, have set the mold for mobile software distribution, both from a price demand criteria, as well as the "purchaser" review contribution.

We're now at a point in sheer volume of choices on the app stores alone, where things like user ratings are vital for user research and purchase decision-making; but the noise-to-signal ratio on all the app store user review sections is terrible, leaving us as consumers little choice but to mostly abandon them, or spend a stupid amount of time to sort through and discard idiotic manifestos that have very little to do with the app in question.

We did this to ourselves, but its not too late for it to get fixed. We just can't do it on our own.

-- Mike Wuerthele
Managing Editor
( Last edited by NewsPoster; Sep 17, 2015 at 12:49 PM. )
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Sep 17, 2015, 11:26 AM
I'm guessing that the author of this piece is not a native English-speaker. He might want to run it by someone who can help him with his grammar and then repost it. A lot of what's here makes no sense. I'm not trying to be rude. As a rule, this site is well-written and informative. This is a very weird exception.
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Sep 17, 2015, 12:01 PM
To sort of concur with Wisterley, these are the most egregious examples of bad English:
) "No room for reviews from users that have never used the app in question" I think this means to say "No room for reviews from users that have actually used the app in question"
) "At the time of this writing, the Apple iOS App Store has an assortment of unsurprising, most downloaded apps not encouraging discovery of new content, and the top free app list is no bettter"??? What are apps that discourage discovery of new content? And "better" has only 2 't's.
) "We, as mobile users, have set the mold for mobile software distribution, both from a price demand, as well as the "purchaser" review contribution." Huh? Does "from a price demand" refer to the preference for free or $1 apps? What is a '"purchaser" review contribution'? Was the intent to say, "We, as mobile users, have set the mold for mobile software distribution, from both our demand for lost prices as well as the reviews we've contributed"?
) "We're now at a point in sheer volume of choices on the app stores alone, where things like user ratings are vital for user research and purchase decision making." -> "We're now at a point, due to the sheer volume of choices alone, where user ratings are vital for other users' research into purchase decisions".
) "But, the noise to signal ratio on all the app store user review sections are terrible,..." -> "... is terrible" ('noise to signal ratio' is singular).
Mike Wuerthele
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Sep 17, 2015, 12:08 PM
Yeah, I'll take the heat. Poorly edited, lack of manpower this morning. We're on it.
Charles Martin
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Sep 17, 2015, 12:52 PM
This is what happens when we switch the office coffee pot to decaf. We've refilled the cups with hi-test, and remastered the editorial to better make the points we wanted to make. Thanks for your (not useless) comments.
Charles Martin
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Sep 17, 2015, 02:47 PM
I agree with the main points of this article. I put my own app up for sale on Apple's App Store a few months after the iPad launched. I was selling 10 units a day, when someone put up a 1 star review about a bad download experience (Apple's fault), and my sales dropped to almost zero. Apple does not provide *any* mechanism for developers to communicate with users, such as a web forum, and Apple doesn't help users either.
If you were to search for my app using "scientific calculator" you will not find my product, but you will find questionable results, such as Kitten Calculator; certainly not a calculator in the sense that the user intends with these search words. You will also find a number of products that perhaps shouldn't be called scientific. In case you are wondering, my product is called Scientific Expression Calculator.
The App Store is not serving users!
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Sep 17, 2015, 03:01 PM
The problem with a time-in-app approach is that some apps may not actually work in a particular environment or OS upgrade. While Apple tries to catch those things in the review process, the people doing that are human and make mistakes or are unable to predict a particular scenario. A case in point is an app for bar code scanning by a very large company that I downloaded. I wanted to save each scanned item to a list that their app lets me create (one core piece of app functionality), but trying to add anything to a list crashes. I definitely didn't spend much time in that app.

As for the cross-communication with users, I've suggested to Apple by way of their http://bugreport.apple.com/ site that they provide a similar service to that through iTunes Connect and the App Stores. Feel free to add your own requests if you're a developer, and it might eventually get added.

In the meantime, developers can include the means within their apps to request feedback from their users (they just can't require the user to give their personal information; it must be voluntarily given), and I've gotten some good responses from such apps and some not-so-good responses. For example, the aforementioned app that crashes takes me to a web site that says the developer's subscription has expired, and another developer's customer support group tells me to uninstall and reinstall the app which plainly would not solve the issues I submitted. On the plus side, after submitting an issue for another app, I got a nice apologetic response and a fix was in the App Store the next day.
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Sep 17, 2015, 06:08 PM
I found the article useful. It also mirrors my experience with Android fan boys. I do think it was great of them to point out that Google allows reviews on things you don't even own or haven't used. Wow, that's astounding...
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