An app’s ratings play a large role in its success, as they help determine its placement within the App Store and Play Store as well as inform users on what others think of it. This makes them important for App Store Optimization for both rankings and conversions. Now, Google is changing how the star ratings on its Play Store work, so that an app’s ratings are weighted towards its most recent version.Continue reading
Google has been testing out new updates for the Play Store, occasionally rolling out changes for users or rolling them back to make further adjustments. One important change is the update to the “Ratings and Reviews” section. It’s important to understand what this change is and how it will impact the effect reviews have on App Store Optimization. Continue reading
Apple and Google both use app store reviews and app store ratings in their app store search ranking algorithms.
App store optimization as a practice and strategy is evolving as are the app store ranking algorithms that help to shape ASO.
Because the app store rankings algorithms are not shared publically, and differ between Apple and Google, it is not possible to provide a specific weight of the quality, volume, or momentum of app ratings and reviews on search rankings.
While it does not appear there is a minimum number of ratings for top rankings in either Apple’s App Store or Google Play, it is generally accepted and understood that:
- more ratings (and reviews) are better than fewer, and
- higher ratings are better than lower
It follows then that any complete app store optimization strategy requires looking beyond the app listing and to not only building an app users love, but one that they are willing to rate and post reviews for.
Even with a somewhat cumbersome process, the best way to acquire lots of positive ratings and reviews is to build a great app that connects and resonates with its intended audience.
An amazing app is not enough.
Let’s review the actual process of rating and reviewing apps from the user’s perspective.
The process is a bit broken
Users can rate and review apps from their mobile devices in the app store app, or via the web if they are logged in.
The part that is a bit broken is that asking for a rating and review requires a user to stop using your app, leave your app, open a new app (the app store app) and navigate to the review section or tab.
While this is not ideal – there is another fairly common issue of irrelevant ratings.
Reminder: you might not look at technology in the same way as your users pic.twitter.com/mb2YiyC9Yd
— Benedict Evans (@BenedictEvans) October 1, 2015
Every marketplace from Amazon to Yelp suffers from their own issues with user reviews – so how do we make the most of the opportunity to hear from our users and influence new app installs and search rankings?
Let’s see if we can’t help our users a bit, by making it easier to leave our apps a relevant review.
Request app ratings
There are a few approaches to encouraging users rate your app that range from passive to downright annoying and disruptive to the user experience.
Add a link to your app listing in the app store in the menu
The least obtrusive to the user experience, adding a link in your app’s menu or settings directly to your app’s listing in the app store accomplishes two things:
- reminds the user to rate or review
- saves them the step of navigating to the app store and then your app
Not very proactive, but helpful. A more proactive approach would be actually asking for ratings and reviews.
Set an automated request after X days and X uses
A few years ago, a popular approach for requesting mobile app reviews was to simply schedule a popup that asked for a rating and review.
The publisher could set the popup to open on the 3rd app open (for example), or after 10 days or both.
This approach is flawed for several reasons:
- a user just opened your app – even if for the 10th time, why divert them away from using your app?
- while app opens are a good indicator of engagement, there are better times to request a rating and review
Ask for a rating and review during a high point
A better time to request a rating or review is when a user is at a high point in your app.
Maybe they passed a level, unlocked some content or otherwise just had a good experience in your app.
The ideal process
The ideal way for many apps to best support their users and create a funnel for acquiring ratings and reviews is checking in periodically on the user’s experience.
If there is an issue > funnel to support.
If the user is happy with the app > ask for a review.
This has been the approach adopted by many of the mobile app review and user management services.
Top Mobile App Review SDKs
The above example is actually from Apptentive – so let’s start there.
Offering ratings prompts and management, in-app polling and messaging and a growing list of features, Apptentive has built their business on helping publishers maintain a happy and engaged user base.
Similar features set to Apptentive, different pricing tiers and a focus on automation.
Or check out an example of a custom implementation shared in a case study from the news app Circa:
If you are thinking that there must be a more user-friendly way to prompt for ratings and reviews – allow me to throw some water on the fire.
Incentivized reviews are not allowed by either Apple or Google
“We appreciate you taking the time to rating and review our app – here are some smurfberries”.
Not allowed and your app will be rejected.
The thinking is that these offers incentivize 5 star ratings (even though the smurfberries are rewarded regardless of rating).
Buying reviews can lead to review removals, or much worse
The small task website fiverr used to be littered with offers for app reviews.
Similar to buying Facebook “likes” or Twitter followers, you could just pay a service to generate a huge # of ratings and reviews for your app.
Both Google and Apple are not only very aware of this issue but often take significant steps to deter this behavior.
The purchased reviews will be discovered and removed, and your app will likely be penalized or even removed from the app store.
If you decide acquiring mobile app reviews and ratings is an important part of your app marketing, avoiding the above restrictions and using examples in this post will help you get started.
Building and optimizing your app listing to tap into the massive organic traffic searching the app stores daily takes the right app store optimization tools.
While this list is not in any particular order, a good place to start is with working with your target audience.
Screenshots, the app name, the icon, even the description all have a huge impact on how your target market perceives your app.
1 – test and receive feedback on a wider range of variations
Small changes to the color of an icon can have a big impact on conversions (from app listing views to installs), but focus groups allow you to test big differences – with one design direction failing to resonate while another shows great promise.
Mobile app publishers and designers can get an idea of what resonates with their audience by looking at competing apps, but outside of that guidance, there is no way to really know what will drive your target audience to install your app without asking them.
2 – feedback is quantitative and qualitative
As with most A/B testing platforms and in Google Play experiments, you will be able to see which design, description, screenshot order, icon etc.. converted best and whether the results were statistically significant, but you won’t know why.
Focus groups provide an opportunity to experiment boldly and then garner qualitative feedback from the test subjects.
Why did they pick icon design #2 over 1, 3 and 4? Why was the app name confusing or misleading? Which screenshots best explained the most important features of the app to them and why?
While focus groups are unique in the quality of potential feedback, running ads to a poll, or polling your existing lists (email or social media) are two other ways to test listing elements prior to publishing.
Ratings and Review SDK
Ratings and reviews have an impact on app store rankings in both Apple’s App Store and Google Play.
Even bad ratings seem to be better than no ratings – which appears to be some broken measure of engagement.
While there does not appear to be some magical minimum number of ratings required for top rankings, more ratings is generally accepted as better for app store positioning.
Rating apps is not easy for users. It takes multiple taps and leaving the app to rate or review an app – a tall order even if you (the user) love the app.
Because the best indicator of user satisfaction tends to be retention, engagement or lifetime value (or some mix of the 3), if it were not for the impact on rankings, many app publishers would not prioritize app store review prompts.
But alas, while ratings matter, publishers are encouraged to find ways to request ratings with the least impact on the user experience.
Publishers can set up ratings and review prompts with a custom implementation or use a proven model for customer support and ratings acquisition by partnering with services like that offered by Apptentive.
While ratings and reviews are important for app store rankings and app optimization, prompting for reviews should always account for the impact on the user experience to ensure you are not chasing ratings at the expense of revenue.
Similar to the above, review mining is actually a tool for competitive research.
What features or functions are your competitors’ app users complaining about, requesting or commenting on that your app does better?
Review mining helps guide app listing strategies from which keywords and phrases to target to which features to highlight in screenshots.
Consider a top ranked photo app that allows for adding text to user photos. The reviews complain that posting to Tumblr does not work well or at all. Your photo app works great with Tumblr.
You may have thought this was your 12th most exciting feature, but it could well be your app’s top differentiating feature and worth prioritizing in the app listing.
App Store Data / Intelligence
As the saying goes, “where there is mystery – there is margin” and there is a ton of mystery in the app stores.
App store data and intelligence services span topics from monetization models and estimated lifetime values of competitive apps, to which SDKs apps are using to estimates on what specific apps are paying for new users by geo.
It is hard to say how accurate many of these tools are, but many services are popping up to carve out a niche and provide just a little more insight to help their clients improve their results in the app stores.
When it comes to tools specifically for app store optimization, features publishers should look for include:
- mobile app store search terms – data on the keywords and phrases the market is using when searching the mobile app stores.
- evaluation of how the app name and keywords or description fields work together for broad coverage of relevant search terms (the “keyword matrix”).
- suggested keyword and phrase targets by category, trending, current traction and competition.
In previous posts, we have explained why app store data and web data are very different. It may not be obvious but several app store optimization tools use the free Google keyword planner built using web search as a proxy for app store search volume and related phrases.
If you would like to see how Gummicube approaches ASO and the proprietary tools we have built for optimizing app listing for organic app store search, you can request a demo here.
Any time there is an algorithm that determines where an object (website, book, mobile app, etc..) ranks for a specific search, there are ways to improve the object’s ranking.
For example, a book on Amazon is much more likely to be ranked highly in a search if the title of the book contains the searched for words.
Practices for optimizing a mobile app for the Google and Apple app store indexes fall into one of two camps – white hat or black hat.
White hat and Black hat
For the uninitiated, “white hat” and “black hat” are terms used in marketing but stem from hacking computer security systems.
White hat hackers hack security systems to test for flaws or otherwise ensure the security of an organization.
Black hat hackers circumvent security for personal gain or general maliciousness.
In marketing – and specifically optimization for ranking/visibility – white hat generally refers to approaches that are not against any laws, or rules and guidelines of the indexing entity (Google, Amazon, the app stores, Pinterest, etc…).
Black hat – on the other hand – are approaches that do not follow the rules of the indexing entity, but may not be detectable or enforceable in the short-term.
In general, black hat in marketing may appeal to some as cutting edge or a chance to jump ahead, but is rarely (never) a good long-term strategy.
In web search, each new Google algorithm update addresses black hat tactics and penalizes the websites and urls significantly.
In the app stores, Apple and Google can simply remove your app or worse, remove the entire developer portfolio and profile.
It is simple not worth attempting to game the app store rankings system with black hat techniques as the risks far outweigh the rewards.
Black Hat Strategies (to avoid)
So what are some black hat app store optimization techniques we should be wary of?
Automating ratings and reviews
You build, or hire a service that scrapes reviews from other apps, reformats the reviews and automates posting ratings and reviews in Google Play and in the Apple App Store.
Carter Thomas over at Blue Cloud wrote up a nice analysis of what appeared to be automated reviews on the smash hit Flappy Bird.
Here is a sample of what Carter found and shared (go see his post to see a few more):
Examples pop up from time to time, where there are seemingly random reviews or reviews that don’t align with the rating.
Large fluctuations in the app stores are often linked to Apple and Google scrubbing out offenders like the above.
Buying Ratings and Reviews
On fiverr, Upwork and across the web, there are offers for bulk app reviews. Not unlike “Get 1,000 Twitter followers for $10” but far more damaging.
Apptentive is a service for engaging users and prompting reviews naturally in the app. Check out their thoughts on fake reviews.
Incentivized app downloads and ratings
Because downloads, ratings/reviews and velocity impacts search rankings and placement in the top app charts, why not give away a few smurfberries in exchange for a rating or for installing another app in your portfolio?
Apple recognized that ads that included a virtual good as a reward for installing an app meant that apps were being installed and immediately deleted as users performed actions for the reward and had no interest otherwise.
Likewise, rewarded ratings and reviews seemed too much like rewarding “good” reviews so Apple banned rewarded reviews as well.
The process for a user to rate or review an app is ugly, so incentivizing seemed like a good deal for all parties – publishers, users and the app stores.
Apple and Google disagree and are solving this issue another way, by using conversion and engagement metrics as stronger indicators of an app’s relevance to a search than the quantity or quality of the ratings.
White Hat Strategies
White hat strategies for ASO continue to provide the most long-term benefits and include a lot of what we talk about on this blog.
- aim for coverage of the specific features of your apps, using the words your target market uses in app store search.
- use app store search data
- review and adjust frequently (monthly or on every update)
- optimize creative elements using focus groups and then live A/B testing
Remember that the app stores are closed marketplaces, and are booming.
The review teams and Apple and now Google are busy, and the reward for those who follow their rules is high enough, that both Apple and Google have little tolerance for developer and publishers who push the envelope well past their respective policies.