The App Store Could Really Use Something Similar to the Yelp Review Filter

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I created my Yelp profile in early 2010. I’d used the site for years before then, but for whatever reason, I didn’t feel compelled to start writing reviews until a few years ago. Yelp, in the off chance you’ve never heard of it, is a massive community-driven site which primarily focuses on offering honest customer reviews for all sorts of businesses. It’s equally useful to find a place to get lunch, somewhere to get your hair cut, a cool shoe store, or a million other things. Taking a step back, there’s tons of similarities between Yelp and the App Store, but Yelp does two things that make a massive difference.

Just like how you can find listings for anything from a roller-skate repair shop to a studio to learn fencing, you can equally come up with just about anything on the App Store. Both feature an insurmountable amount of content that’s hard to even imagine, and both Yelp and the App Store orbit around an equally important customer review system. Sure, sites like ours provide a more “official" venue for long-form reviews, just like a proper newspaper columnist would offer restaurant reviews, but I’d argue that a platform for legitimate customer reviews is just as useful.

Legitimate" being the key word here. Developers on our forums have encouraged players to leave reviews for their games since, well, the birth of the review system. This sort of vague motivation generally results in reviews which I’d describe as both thoughtful and extremely useful for fellow App Store shoppers. Whether the particular review has a positive or negative slant usually doesn’t matter, as people who are leaving reviews just for the sake of leaving reviews often form at least a semi-intelligent argument for why you should (or shouldn’t) download something.

Then two things started happening.

Developers started putting these sorts of annoying pop-ups in game, interrupting gameplay to pressure players into leaving a review. Also, they forged this strange ultimatum of sorts, dangling the potential promise of future updates in exchange for five star reviews. In my opinion, both of these things taint the entire review process to the point of bordering on complete uselessness.

If you’re already into the second world of Ragdoll Blaster 3 [99¢] and you get this confusing pop-up asking if you like the game, why would you tap “no"? So, you hit “yes," but at this point your head isn’t in a “alright I’m going to sit down and write something useful" space, you’re thinking, “I just want to get back to the game." Similarly, if you’ve got a game you even vaguely enjoy and you notice the all-too-common update text that mentions something along the lines of “your five star reviews keep updates coming!" you’re not leaving a review because you want to assist in the purchasing decisions of the iOS gaming community, you’re doing it because you like free stuff.

I can’t really fault developers for this behavior either. It’s difficult to keep your head above water on the App Store, especially when there’s only space on the top lists for around couple hundred apps/games to be even making a decent amount of money at a time. Deciding you’re going to take the moral high ground and not beg for reviews could make the difference between keeping the lights on in your studio or not.

So, anyway, switching gears back to Yelp, if you’ve used it at all you’ve likely noticed that nearly all reviews you come across are at least somewhat useful. You almost never see reviews like these on Yelp:

You might stumble across the occasional funny but vague review, or reviews that are as simple as “Try the tacos!" but I’d argue that both of those are more useful than “love it" or “hate it" with an accompaniment of one to five stars.

Yelp accomplishes this in two interesting ways.

First off, there’s a real motivation to build your own profile up on Yelp. They’ve done an outstanding job of making your Yelp profile something you’d link your friends to show them what sort of things you enjoy locally, or maybe places you went to on vacation. It features all the social networking tropes that make it feel like home, complete with a basic avatar system and space for superfluous personal details such as “favorite thing." As a Yelp user, you don’t want to leave a useless review because the profile creates a feeling of ownership to your reviews, and provides a record of all the places you’ve been. Comparatively, this is about the closest thing you have on iTunes.

There’s no ownership to that page. No customization, and no reason at all why you’d ever link it to someone or include it on the links on the side of your blog, or anywhere else that you’d normally put links you care about. There’s more to it than that. Even with a profile, some people will just flat out never get invested enough into things to put forth that effort to produce good reviews. Similarly, automated review spammers don’t care at all that they can have an avatar. This is where the truly ingenious Yelp review filter comes in to play.

Check out this fantastic video which details how and why it works:

The crazy part about the Yelp review filter is it works so well you don’t even know it’s there. As mentioned, I’ve been using Yelp for years. Yelp explained how the filter worked around the same time I officially joined the site. I discovered that it existed only a few weeks ago when I noticed that I could solve a CAPTCHA at the bottom of a restaurant’s review listing. Doing so revealed reviews of the same caliber of App Store reviews, what have systematically been deemed worthless by the Yelp review filter.

Apple has the resources to make the App Store incredible, and make app reviews just as useful as Yelp reviews for a new restaurant. They’ve already dabbled in building a low-level social network inside of iTunes via the Ping music service. A similar feed or apps that friends of mine are buying (and hopefully reviewing) would be immensely useful. From there, you’re only an avatar, a tidy URL, and a few silly profile data points to having something that people would genuinely want to link people, and in the process, pour effort into maintaining beyond “★☆☆☆☆ sux" or “★★★★★ ownz".

Genius for apps already exists, and provides great recommendations for things you should try based on your previous purchases. I can’t imagine it being much effort to massage that same algorithm into flagging drive-by low-content reviews from people who can’t be bothered to spend more than 10 seconds typing out a coherent thought, review bots up voting, or people mudslinging with one star reviews of apps/games they don’t like- Especially if it falls out of line with what this customer would typically enjoy per Genuis.

Can you even imagine how different the purchase experience would be on the App Store if reading customer reviews was closer to reading product reviews on Amazon? Comparatively, just think for a second how much a wild west style review system like the App Store currently has would completely ruin sites like Amazon, Yelp, and others that are dependent on honest and thoughtful customer reviews for purchase decisions.

And no, the “Was this review helpful?" system is not a solution. All that seems to have proven is that, in some strange way, the App Store hive mind believes that of the 11,546 reviews for the current version of Angry Birds, this is the most useful:

This is one of the best games I’ve ever played! Plus it extends your time on the toilet by a good 10 hours."

I rest my case.

The Yelp system is by no means perfect. Yelp has been the the target of all sorts of accusations both from business owners and internet conspiracy theorists. However, the fact remains: When I read Yelp, I almost without fail genuinely feel like the reviews are useful to me. App Store reviews, on the other hand, generally just result in a whole series of face palms.

I’d love if that changed.

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