Don’t look to the stars for app reviews

black and gold stars
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“Have you enjoyed this article? Jolly good, then just click the button below and give us a nice five-star rating. We’ve even filled the five stars in for you, just in case you can’t count, so all you need do is press Submit. That’s lovely, thanks.”

We’ve all seen pop-ups worded like the above appear in apps, but according to a brilliant report in the Financial Times, that’s not even an iota’s worth of the skullduggery used to tempt people into giving apps a great review.

If you pay attention, you’ll note that those “please give us five stars” prompts are meticulously timed to make sure you’re in the best possible mood when you come to rate an app. If you’re playing a game, that invitation to rate will appear just after you’ve posted a new high score. Got a winning wager on the 3:45 at Kempton Park? Well done you!

Why not celebrate by giving your bookmaker’s app a five-star rating? The prompt will appear the moment you’ve checked your winnings. Similarly, your news app won’t ask for a review if you’re reading a story about a train crash or a tax hike, just in case it’s clouded your mood.

If you think such devious levels of manipulation are exceptions rather than the rule, think again. These tactics are so widespread that, according to the vice president of a mobile consultancy quoted in the FT, “among major enterprises, it’s hard to find ones that don’t do this”. We are all being played like fiddles.

Still, we place an awful lot of faith in those user reviews. The difference made by a few stars is remarkable. The ‘conversion rate’ – the number of people who see an app’s listing and then click to install it – increases by 770% from a one-star review to a five-star review in the mobile app stores. Even a modest increase from three to four stars sees the conversion rate spike 89%, according to the figures from customer-satisfaction consultancy Apptentive, published in the FT.

Higher ratings and a good conversion rate are also key factors that both Apple and Google are looking for when it comes to ranking apps in their search engines. Both companies want people to install good quality apps, after all, so they’ll prioritise the most highly rated ones in the search rankings, where they’re most likely to be found by potential customers. When the success of an app hangs so much on user reviews, it’s little wonder the app developers are using every little psychological trick they can think of to maximise their scores.

User ratings are being gamed to such an extent that it’s impossible to trust them. Yet it’s understandable why 4,563 five-star reviews of an app can convince you of its merit, perhaps even more so than a single, independent review on a website such as this.

The wisdom of the crowd is very persuasive – even when that crowd is being lured like children dancing to the tune of the Pied Piper.

Barry Collins

Barry Collins is an experienced IT journalist who specialises in Windows, Mac, broadband and more. He's a former editor of PC Pro magazine, and has contributed to many national newspapers, magazines and websites in a career that has spanned over 20 years. You may have seen Barry as a tech pundit on television and radio, including BBC Newsnight, the Chris Evans Show and ITN News at Ten.