Yes, I Do Mind Reviewing Your App

8 minute read

Do you have a bunch of apps that constantly nag you to review them? The nicer ones have a “never ask me again” button or give up after one or two times, but the worst won’t let you silence the nagging permanently and show the screen at unpredictable moments. Now this practice seems to be spreading beyond apps: I’ve gotten requests from sleazy Amazon sellers who even offered me discounts or other rewards for reviewing them, and the other day the guy who cleaned my carpets (who was otherwise nice and did a great job) sent me an unsolicited text message asking if I would go review him on Yelp.

I think most people find these irritating, but it gets worse – so much that I think there’s a good case for totally banning this practice. Let’s talk about that.

The annoyance factor

First of all, being asked to go review a product is just plain annoying. “If I wanted to review your stupid app,” you might huff as you dismiss the message, “I would have just gone and done it!” There’s a massive asymmetry between the user and the developer here: the user gets basically nothing from reviewing the app, and can do nothing to avoid being nagged except stop using the app altogether; the developer presumably gets a bump in their reviews and their sales, and can make the app do whatever they want as long as it doesn’t drive away too many users. One might argue that having more people write reviews is beneficial to users in the long run, but I will argue later that this isn’t necessarily true, and even if it is, this is a tragedy of the commons: your particular review doesn’t meaningfully influence anyone’s behavior, even if everyone’s reviews put together do.

This means requests for reviews totally disrespect users’ time. People are already bombarded with requests to do pointless things, quite apart from all the meaningful things, and you’re asking me to spend 10 minutes to go review your $2 app? Unfortunately, the strategy works, because even if only 0.01% of the users of a popular app actually write a review when they’re asked, that can be quite a few reviews.

Product surveys can be annoying too, but they’re a much different kind of annoying, one I see as acceptable. In the case of a survey, if you’re in a charitable mood and decide to take the survey, you have a chance to provide real feedback that someone might listen to (even if it’s a small drop in the bucket). Further, the company will be able to use the information to improve their product. This is not generally true of product reviews. Sure, occasionally a user might mention something revealing in a review, but more often they’ll say something false about the product (e.g., “This product can’t do X!” when they just couldn’t find X), and since the seller often can’t respond to these reviews, they have no chance of helping out that customer or correcting the record. Further, most reviews, especially those that arose from nagging people to write a review, will just say “Great product!” and provide no useful information, much less the targeted types of information one can request in a survey to look into particular problems or explore possible avenues for new products or improvements. Mostly, the only thing good reviews do is encourage more people to buy the product, and the only thing bad reviews do is discourage people from buying it.

The growing unhelpfulness of reviews

Back in the early days of online shopping, reviews felt legitimately helpful. Sure, there were plenty of reviews that just said “Great product!” or gave one star because the shipper damaged their package or delivered it late, but many of the rest were helpful. And there were few enough that, if it was an important decision, you could usually scan all of the reviews, or at least a significant fraction of them.

I think several forces have conspired to make reviews less helpful lately:

  • There are more people shopping online now and hence more people writing reviews, which means useful reviews are more likely to get buried – even with the “did you find this helpful?” buttons, which work well but can only do so much on popular products.
  • The early people using the Web and thus online shopping were likely disproportionately thoughtful, good writers, and concerned about the success of the online-shopping community, thus leading to a higher overall review quality. This would have been even more true had online shopping become popular in, say, 1990, but I suspect there’s still an effect.
  • It has become both relatively easy and extremely profitable to scam the system by paying people to write fake reviews. Large numbers of fake reviews usually aren’t too hard to spot if you look for them, but now in addition to just reading the reviews, you also have to carefully evaluate the legitimacy of all reviews. (One of the most popular Amazon scams now involves the fake reviewer actually purchasing the product and sending it to a random address, then reviewing it. It’s quite difficult to flag these people since they actually bought the product, and the price of losing a few dozen items is tiny compared to the profit you can gain by jumping up a couple of places in the rankings. Indeed, you yourself may have had the experience of a product you didn’t order, addressed to you, mysteriously showing up at your door. There’s a good chance this is why.)
  • Most importantly, years ago, people who didn’t care to write a review (because they had nothing meaningful to say, or they just didn’t particularly enjoy writing reviews) had no incentive to do so, and therefore they didn’t. This was a good thing! It meant that the people who wrote reviews were the people who had something to say about the product that other shoppers might want to read, whether that was “here are the five reasons I absolutely love this product and will recommend it to anyone,” or “this product is pretty good, but these three things were enough of a deal-breaker to make me return it,” or “this product looked sweet, but then it literally exploded and injured my cat.” Now, as we nag people to write reviews, or pay people to write reviews, or offer discount coupons for people to write reviews, or even just politely ask people to write reviews to help a small business owner (like my carpet cleaner did), people are encouraged to write useless reviews.

The necessity of participating

So you’re an app developer, and you think that nagging your users to review your product is disrespectful and counterproductive. What are you going to do?

Quite possibly, you’re still going to put in the nagware – because all of your competitors are doing it. Asking users for reviews tends to increase an app’s rating (it’s common knowledge that people who had a bad experience with a product are much more likely to write reviews or speak up than people who had a good one). And even a small boost in the rankings could make or break your business – being ranked first instead of second in search results can be worth as much as a fourfold increase in sales. If your competitors are nagging people and their ratings are increasing, and it doesn’t seem to be driving too many users away, how can you avoid it? You have to artificially increase your ratings too, to keep pace. Plus, once everyone is nagging, users don’t have anywhere else to go anyway!

The more important it becomes to have good reviews, the more people need good reviews and the more people are induced to write reviews. Writing unnecessary reviews is annoying in itself, but it also makes having good reviews more important, forming a vicious circle. To break the circle, we have to stop people from requesting reviews.

Of course, with carpet cleaning, this could be tricky to do. But in other areas, we have considerably more leeway. On the Apple app store, for instance, Apple has some fairly arbitrary rules already about what is and is not allowed in an app, including various forms of user-hostile behavior, and a human reviews apps’ source code before any updates go live. It would not be hard for Apple to say that nagging people for reviews will get your app yanked from the app store. Similarly, Amazon could at least ban the practice of offering people discounts for reviews, and kick sellers off who are found to be doing it. (Even if they don’t claim it depends on the content of the review, are people really going to be honest here?)

In the meantime, I have a policy: if anyone asks me to write them a review, I’m definitely not writing a good review. Mostly, I just won’t write a review, but if they’re particularly obnoxious I might go on and write a two-star review that says something like, “I love this app, but I’m afraid I just can’t recommend a product that nags its users to write reviews like this one.” Maybe if enough people do that, we can turn the incentive around!