iPhone App Store reviews: Here's the problem

User ratings are easy to assign when an app is being deleted but the process is fairly convoluted if the user wants to keep the app on the phone

It's not new to hear gripes that the iPhone's App Store review system is broken, but two recent incidents illustrate just how troublesome the user-powered system can be.

Hot off the press, Spotify's new iPhone app is already being met with mostly one-star reviews -- 1000 of them compared to 400 five-star ratings, by I4U News' estimate. Many of the negative ratings have little to do with the app's functionality. Instead, users are griping that a premium subscription, which costs about $10 per month, is required to stream Spotify's millions of music tracks.

A year ago, Apple tried to correct for baseless negative reviews by requiring people to download the app first. Unfortunately for Spotify, people can download the app for free but can't try it without a subscription, effectively opening the door for more negative reviews than usual. Any free-to-download, subscription-based app could face the same problem.

But a bigger issue is at hand: User ratings are easy to assign when an app is being deleted -- something you'd do if you didn't like the product -- but the process is fairly convoluted if the user wants to keep the app on the phone.

When deleting an app, a pop-up ratings box appears for easy thrashing. By comparison, reviewing an app you plan to keep requires visiting the app store, clicking on the section for user reviews, clicking "Write a Review," signing in to iTunes, and finally submitting a rating and review. This is not a system that favors positive feedback.

It's not surprising, then, that the system is ripe for cheating. MobileCrunch noted an example] last month, in which employees of a PR firm were writing positive reviews for their clients' iPhone games. The firm, Reverb Communications, denied that the reviews were fake, but acknowledged that employees were reviewing the games "based on their own game play experience." A Business Week story notes the extremes to which developers go to get recognition through positive reviews. (See also "Online User Reviews: Can They be Trusted?")

A better user review system would create reputations for writers. Maybe users who submit only ratings, without text, should have less impact on an app's overall score. And instead of listing user reviews chronologically, how about giving top priority to the most prolific writers? A more advanced system could even include social features for voting user reviews up or down.

Otherwise, the App Store's review system may be doing more harm than good.

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Jared Newman

PC World (US online)

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