Why I Don’t Use App Review Services

Getting users to review your apps is hard. We all know how important it is to score some early reviews to boost your ranking and make it look like at least someone is using your app. So what are your options?

Ask Your Friends

This is probably the most obvious one. Beg your friends and family to download your app. Take them out to dinner. Buy them coffee. Buy them a beer. If you have five friends in the world, you can make this happen.

Annoy Users With Rating Requests

As you can tell by the headline, I’m not a fan of this one. I have used this approach off and on over the years and it always makes me feel icky. I don’t like disrupting the user experience. If you are going to do this, try something more interesting. Check out what Brian Mueller has done with the Carrot Weather rating request. It doesn’t get in the way but gives those inclined to leave a review an easy option.


Carrot Weather

Buy Reviews

Yuck. Don’t do this.

Review Exchange Sites

What these sites do is allow you to earn reviews from other developers by reviewing their apps.

I have personal experience with one of these sites. I gave honest reviews of apps and received reviews in return. Some of the reviews were good, such as a 4 star with details that showed the other dev actually tried the app. Others were not so good, such as a 5 star “Great game!!!” review of my app that wasn’t a game. The hardest part for me was the sheer number of terrible re-skins I had to deal with. It seemed like about 90% of the apps I was asked to review were in this category. I was getting plenty of reviews and I thought it was a great service to at least kick start my reviews after launch or an update.

One day last June, after using the service for a month or so, all my reviews disappeared and most of the reviews I had received through the service were gone. I talked to Apple about it and they had cleaned house and deleted what they felt were fake reviews, blacklisting Apple IDs along the way. Talk about scary. I was lucky they didn’t suspend my developer account. To this day I am still unable to review other apps through my dev account login.

I do not personally think these services are against the rules or shouldn’t be allowed. Apple thinks differently. As far as Apple goes, paid reviews are against the guidelines and they categorize developers reviewing other developers for each others benefit as paid reviews.

I would discourage anyone from using these services. All it takes is for Apple to clean house and you could be blacklisted or worse.

I believe the best way to get reviews is to make a good app that users like enough to feel compelled to review. I did that with my app, Quit That. Read about it’s success here.

When To Outsource

In 2013, I had an app that became popular enough where an Android version was needed and in late 2013, I finally committed to shipping one. As a programmer, I didn’t think it would be that difficult to put something together for Android. It’s a relatively simple app and it was easy to find a few project templates that I could adapt. I wasn’t looking to become an Android developer, just competent enough to get out this app. At the time, Eclipse was the IDE of choice, so I downloaded and installed. I tried playing around with it, figuring out how it all works, trying the simulator, and going through a few tutorials. The more I worked with it, the more I disliked it. It just didn’t fit me at all. I just couldn’t find a way to like anything about developing for Android.

What I Realized

After banging my head against Android off and on for a few weeks, I came to a realization. Why should I keep fighting this when there are other alternatives. I had enough on my plate with other iOS projects. Android was sucking all my energy and stressing me out. The only way to avoid certain misery was if someone else built the app.

Managing Expectations & Budget

I decided to outsource the project. I ended up on freelancer.com. It still amazes me how many developers outside of the US are bidding on every project, no matter the budget. Many are bidding ridiculously low prices just to get the experience or because a dollar goes much further in other parts of the world. I was comfortable losing $500 on the project. Worst case scenario for me was spending $500 and not having an app to show for it. I could live with that.

What I Learned

The first beta version the developer I hired sent me was terrible. It was completely unusable. I thought I was in trouble. But after a few iterations, I ended up with a nice functional app that was very similar to my iOS version.
What I learned…

  • Make sure it is understood that you will own all the source code. Make this clear from the original job post and when working with the developer.

  • One way to check the source code is to have them set up a repository on Github.

  • Have multiple milestones and release funds as they are met. If you release funds before you have the completed code, you are taking a big risk, regardless of your previous relationship with the developer.

  • Many times there will be a language barrier. When deciding on which bid to accept, make sure that you can communicate with the bidder, they understand what you want, and are prompt in their responses. It’s ok if the English isn’t perfect, but it should be understandable. If they don’t get back to you for a couple days in the bid process, drop them from consideration.

  • Expect delays. Things will not go as planned. You may even have to cut your losses and re-list the project.

  • If your project involves a database, only give the developer as much of the database as they would need to test. It wouldn’t be any fun to see your exact app competing with you on the Android store.

  • Pay attention to the frameworks used by the developer. Look them up and see if there are any privacy issues, etc.

  • Describe what will be required of the project in as much detail as you can when you post the job. If you forget to say you want a tablet version, do you think the developer is just going to make the tablet version for free?

  • It’s important to continue to say what needs to be said with every iteration. If a table view scrolls a little jerky, demand that it is smooth. If an image resizes incorrectly on rotation, point it out as a problem. You literally will get as good of an app as you demand. Remember, the developer is just trying to get it done and move to the next job. They aren’t invested in the project like you.

  • Never accept substandard work and just think you will fix it yourself. You will just be creating a pile of work that you will regret every minute of.

  • You will have to know your way around an Android IDE a little. You’ll have some labels you want to change, etc.

The Results

In the end I was happy with my outsourcing experience and would do it again. I came in about $45 under budget and learned quite a bit. I would have no qualms outsourcing a portion of an iOS app. I found freelancer.com to be easy to work with and didn’t have any problems of note with payment or communication. The developer I selected was based in India and I would recommend them if you are in a similar situation.

Devs Are Not Tax Experts

For the 2014 tax year, I have an unusually high tax bill. It’s a tax bill I wasn’t prepared for. Like many independent developers, I have income from various areas. It’s hard to make a living just making apps, so I diversify. For 2014, our family had the following income.

  • iOS sales
  • I sold a few of my apps
  • My wife now has a full time job (didn’t work full time in 2013)
  • She also had income as an independent contractor and taught a college course (neither was taxed)
  • I had an increase in pay at my regular day job

Making more money as a family in 2014 versus 2013 is definitely a good thing. So, I knew we had more income and would be paying more in taxes. What I had not anticipated was moving to a higher tax bracket.

Sometimes we can get so caught up coding, releasing, marketing, and planning that we don’t pay attention to the boring stuff. I’ve always done my own taxes. I’m pretty sure this will be the last year of that. I’m not a tax expert. I don’t want to be a tax expert. I think the money to hire someone that is would be money well spent.

App Store Integrity: A Fresh Perspective

Many apps on the store frustrate me. I don’t consider being hammered with ads and constantly dismissing nag screens to be a good user experience. Why do apps do this? You already know the answer. Because it works. If your app is popular and users have to see ads or make purchases to get anywhere, you are going to generate revenue. But at what cost? We are all trying to make some money on the store, so it’s tempting to just go with the flow.

Can You Generate Revenue Without Compromising Your Integrity?

I struggle with this every day. I think it’s mostly a user experience issue for me. I understand how advertising works and I’m not trying to vilify the ads. I don’t think apps shouldn’t have ads. I just don’t like the tactics that have come to be acceptable. I don’t mind in-app purchase nag screens in my apps, but I know to get more conversions, I need to present them more often. I need to nag much more. But what about the user experience? You could argue, and make some good points, that since this is what users expect, you actually are giving them the user experience that they want or deserve.

Am I different than my users in that I don’t like nag screens and ads? The answer is definitely yes, I am different from my users. I think most of my fellow developers are too. We care about our apps. We reward the developers of other good apps with purchases. It’s easy for us to forget how different we actually are from most of our users. But that doesn’t mean we should accept the norm when it comes to ads and in-app purchase practices.

The Crossy Road Way

Is there a way to have a free app that generates revenue and allows you to sleep at night? The developers of Crossy Road took a fresh perspective. I really admire how they were able to take a fun, addictive game and monetize it without ruining the experience. For example, you can play Crossy Road all day and never see an ad, nag screen, or review request. When Crossy Road first hit it big, the guys on ATP were discussing their monetization strategy and how they were probably leaving a lot of money on the table. They weren’t saying this was a bad thing, just pointing it out. Crossy Road may have left some money on the table, but based on their revenue, they’ve done very well. More importantly, they have respect for the way they present in-app purchases and ads. You can optionally watch an ad after you die every so many times. The app also may show you an in-app purchase that is available after you die. Instead of being a pop up ad, it’s just part of the regular screen. It’s a nice way of getting it in front of the user, but it doesn’t force the user to dismiss it to get where they should already have been.

courtesy of iMore

courtesy of iMore

Crossy Road also allows you to try out a character for limited time. The characters are unique and make interesting sounds. If you try one out and you like it, you are going to more inclined to buy it through in-app purchase, or watch videos to have a chance to ‘earn’ the character. I love the idea of allowing all the features of your app to be used for a limited time when first downloaded. Letting the user see what they would be paying for adds credibility.

My five year old son doesn’t care about how far he goes on Crossy Road. That seems to be the point of the game to me, but all he cares about is getting coins so he can get new characters. He jumps in front of a train as soon as he gets 100 coins to quickly cash them in for a new character. He is happy to watch the video ads every chance he gets. But, he never brings the iPad to me, wanting me to fix it after he has been redirected to the app store because of strategically placed cancel or buy buttons. The app keeps it simple and doesn’t try to fool you.

My Takeaways on App Store Integrity

  • Treat your users with respect, even if you don’t think they care.
  • Consider a paid app if you can make it work (then you can just drop all the BS and give the user a great app without restriction).
  • Look for ways to make ads available without killing the design of your app or getting in the users way.
  • Think of creative ways to generate revenue. Don’t just look at what all the other apps are doing to squeeze every cent out of users.
  • App store integrity is important. Don’t compromise your values for a quick buck.
  • You can probably always learn something from an Australian company named Hipster Whale.