Bad Reviews

I thought it might be worthwhile to pull back the curtain a little, today, and talk about one unsavory aspect of publishing these apps:

The risk of bad reviews has always loomed over publishers. In the past, reviews were either written by professional critics and published in some periodical, or they were merely ephemeral word-of-mouth exchanges. Today, we live in the era of the amateur critic, the Internet troll, and the harried consumer. Like Yelp—where countless thousands go to vent any gripe (real or imagined) they may have about a restaurant or other business—the App Store invites anybody who buys an app to “review” it.

I put “review” in quotes because most App Store reviews are cursory judgments that would in the past be ephemeral, word-of-mouth exchanges uttered in casual circumstances. In the App Store, they’re more-or-less permanently attached to the product listing, with essentially zero oversight by anyone, least of all the app publisher. Imagine if anyone could walk into any brick and mortar store and, with impunity, add judgmental post-it notes to anything for sale there. That’s the App Store.

Here’s one that recently landed for the Modern Classics app:

I can at least understand how this customer might feel doubtful about the value provided by the Modern Classics: it has the second-fewest recipes of the apps in the suite. Of course, the assertion that “most if not all are already available in the PDT app” is wildly false—the PDT Cocktails app contains a handful of recipes that also appear in Modern Classics (but not in quite the same form), and Modern Classics honors a few drinks from PDT that have become modern classics, but the overlap is negligible. More importantly, this customer does not recognize that the narrow scope of what Modern Classics offers is actually its essential feature: this is a collection of just modern classics, not a sprawling wad o’ drinks of varying quality.

None of that changes the fact this customer is disappointed, and as the publisher, I have to consider whether I am doing everything I can to correctly set expectations. Perhaps I can improve on that?

Certainly, I would have prefered the customer contact me rather than posting this “review”. I would ask them how many of the drinks they’d actually tried, and I’d raise the point that the goal of the app is to be super-selective. I would also listen to what they had to say in response, and maybe I’d have the option of throwing them a bone of some kind. But because this is the App Store, there’s nothing I can do for this customer—Apple provides no way for me to respond or otherwise contact the individual. My only recourse is to request Apple remove the review for cause, which they might or might not assent to.

A bad review for the same product that I successfully had Apple remove was this one:

I have no idea what happened with this customer—the app has never cost twenty dollars or anything other than ten dollars. The latter complaints about inputting inventory into the app are fair enough, and, again, I would have welcomed a dialogue, but the App Store doesn’t permit that and, to my knowledge, this customer made no attempt to contact me.

So, both these bad reviews contain useful information (“feedback”) for me, the publisher. An App Store review is merely the least-useful and least-constructive form in which to receive the information. And both bad reviews are principally fueled by misconceptions, and misconceptions don’t help other potential customers.

Speaking of price, one of the reasons these apps are priced at $10 is to minimize this overall problem. If I sold these apps at $0.99, I might sell ten times as many, but I’d also get a lot more bad reviews, my customer base would be significantly diluted of quality, and I would probably generate about the same total revenue. The $10 price point helps me and my partners focus on good customers who recognize the value in what we’re doing. While my apps tend to draw very few App Store reviews, the ones they do draw tend to be very positive: they’re written by good customers who have actually invested the time to understand and appreciate the products. Like this one: