The Dirty Little Secret About App Review Sites

| November 1, 2011 | 57 Comments

I began my life with apps as a bystander in the app development process as my husband created his first Android and then iOS apps. But soon I was drawn into the process, helping with ideas, marketing and more. Then I began my own review site, as I realized how important (and influential) the reviewer could be in the whole world ‘o apps. This post represents some of my own discoveries about app reviewing, reviewers and review sites now that my own site, Digital-Storytime.com, is approaching its one year birthday.

I have learned a lot about review sites by being on ‘the other side’ of review requests. Initially, as part of an app development team, I found review sites to be a bit mysterious. The more professional the site looked (and the more popular it seemed) the more I thought they were either making money doing reviews or run by a big organization. It seemed like giving a free copy of our app in exchange for a review was a reasonable offer – we worked hard on the app, so why wouldn’t they work hard on their review? But it’s just not that simple. Here are a few things I’ve learned about the world of app reviewing:

1. The first ‘not so secret’ discovery I made was that app review sites are businesses … and like all businesses, they vary a lot. A surprising number of people seem to be under the impression that app reviewing is a ‘public service’. I come from the world of non-profit work, and while app review sites do provide a useful service, they are by no means ‘public servants’.

App reviewers vary from those being paid (on salary at big tech sites or per review at smaller sites) to independent entrepreneurs, small bloggers and those who write reviews as more of a hobby. Some sites have simple ads on their sidebars, some charge a fee for ‘expedited’ reviews, some look more favorably on apps that advertise on their sites while others sponsor products to monetize their business or take on ads that are disguised as content.

And all review sites that bring in more than just a few reads from their friends are in the business of promoting themselves and their reviews. They want to capture the attention of all the players in their market. But capturing the attention of app developers is easy … getting readers and consumers of apps to pay attention is much harder. Sites run contests, build social media followings and try to build as much buzz around the apps they review as part of this process.

2. But the ‘dirty little secret’? Most review sites are small enterprises run by individuals who don’t make much (if any) money on their sites/blogs. Even sites that seem to be very big and popular are likely only sustaining their sites, not making ‘big money’. In fact, the biggest myth around apps in general is that there are lots of people making big money. Yes, apps are a big business, but a very small percentage of developers and others make it ‘big’. Most reviewers, developers and app content creators are part of the ‘99%’.

[And the idea that reviewers are in it for the ‘free apps’ is just crazy-talk. Once in awhile a reviewer gets access to a desirable app, but for the most part, reviewers have to review a lot of apps they are not personally interested in. And as reviewers, chances are they get the opportunity to download so much free content (simply by being aware of sales) that they are actually as tempted by a free app as the worker at McDonald’s is tempted by free fries.]

3. And the really big myth? That reviewing is easy. It isn’t; it is very hard work. It takes a lot of time, a lot more than one would think. Before I started reviewing professionally, I assumed that writing up my opinions of the apps I shared with my child would be relatively easy (and painless). But the reality is that keeping up with a review site takes a lot of work and perseverance.

I have seen many sites start up over the past couple years while I’ve been watching this industry. Often they start out with a review every day, but then it drops to one every few weeks and soon almost nothing at all before the URL is dead. There is a lot of work behind the scenes too, like answering email, running contests, keeping promo codes straight and maintaining adequate promotion of a site’s traffic. Plus there are technical issues associated with setting up a site that is user friendly, even if the blogging tools seem relatively well-developed. All of these things take up truck-loads of time for the average review site.

So, what should you know as a reader of review sites …

1. Reviews represent opinions and like the people behind the reviews, they vary a lot. Find a site with lots of reviews of apps you already have and see if their opinions fit yours most of the time. Once you’ve found a good fit for your own perspective, you can be more assured that the reviews will be a good guide for your own purchasing decisions. With kids apps, it can also help to find someone who has a child the same age or gender as the child you are shopping for …

2. Any good review site should have some constructive criticism for the apps they review, even if they like most apps. Find an app you’ve downloaded and didn’t like … then read a variety of reviews until you find someone who has spotted the flaw you’ve found in the app. Now you know you’ve got a good site to fit your views!

3. App review sites, just like app developers, depend on your business as readers and consumers of apps. Let them know what you think of their reviews. If you don’t agree with a review or see something the reviewer missed, let them know. Reviewers often hope to drive discussion, even if it is critical in nature.

And if they’re doing a great job, tell them! It means the world to me to hear that people find my site useful and keeps me going on those days when the process of app reviewing becomes tedious. Bloggers, reviewers and writers of all types depend on their readers more than you will ever know … you are not a number on our google analytics but a real person we are writing for and most (if not all) of us writing reviews really care about what you think.

4. Review sites depend on ads to support their basic costs not just to ‘make money’ off your eyeballs. For a popular site, the out-of-pocket costs for server bandwidth alone can eat up a lot of the so-called profits from these ads. If you see something interesting advertised on the side-bar of a site you like, click on it and find out more about an advertiser – they are supporting the work of the site you enjoy.

If a site has annoying ads, tell them about it. Getting good advertising set up is a delicate balance and most site-operators cannot watch their sites constantly. If you see something inappropriate or a big turn-off to you as a reader, before you stop visiting, drop them a quick note, especially if they are a small blogger or independently run site. You’d be surprised how much influence you can have.

And as an app developer, what are some useful things to keep in mind …

1. Reviewing apps is hard work and reviewers are real people, and very busy real people at that … 

When I was new to the marketing of apps, I also didn’t have any idea just how hectic handling correspondence for a review site could be. Most reviewers receive dozens (if not hundreds) of emails a day. These include long-winded marketing pitches as well as personal pleas from developers.

I try to respond as a real person to everything, but the more popular a site gets (and everyone wants a review on a popular site, right?) the more email requests you can assume they receive. It may seem like reviewers are being rude or are ‘short’ with developers in a response (if they respond at all), but imagine getting hundreds of emails a day that have to be dealt with before you can begin to write the reviews everyone is requesting in the first place.

Reviewers of kids apps are usually people who really enjoy technology and include parents, teachers and aspiring app developers. Share industry resources you like with them, engage them about technology or apps they’ve reviewed recently to begin to build more of a relationship. Like their Facebook page, follow them on Twitter and spend some time on their site if you are truly interested in understanding more about how they approach marketing apps.

2. Reviewers are also under a lot of pressure to write ‘good’ reviews for developers, but consumers want fair, accurate reviews, so understand that any truly useful review from a trusted reviewer may not be glowing.

If they are critical, politely ask what you can do to improve your app. If you are willing to fix the things they’ve criticized, ask them if they are willing to re-review an app that has been substantially updated. Real people often respond warmly when treated with appreciation for their hard work and the difficult line they have to walk in their industry.

And if you catch an outright error, something the reviewer missed or even a typo? Let the reviewer know in a polite email. There are two people who want a review to be as perfect as possible, the app developer and the writer of the review. Very few prolific reviewers can afford professional editors or other staff, so help them (and yourselves) out by letting them know about any inaccuracies, especially those than can be easily fixed.

3. Review sites are very dependent on web traffic, so anything you can do to help promote sites you like shows a real interest in the reviewer and what they do. 

Review sites aren’t ‘free’ marketing for your app – someone is doing the work or footing the bill for this marketing. If the reviewer is willing to spend hours with your app to review it, the least you can do is spend some time on their site to get an idea of how their review process works and what they’ve liked or disliked among comparable apps.

Requests that show that you’ve never so much as gone to their website are not going to be received very warmly. If I get a review request for an iPhone ‘math learning app’ I can be pretty certain the person asking for the review wasn’t willing to spend a few moments on my site, since I only review book apps for iPad. I do try to respond politely to these requests, but they waste time I could be spending on reviews or other promotion of my site. However, a request to be on my ‘deal page‘ from the same app shows an understanding of how my site is set up.

Anything you can do with your own audience of social media followers and friends to promote a review of your app that you like goes a long way to ‘thank’ the reviewer for their time. Or offer a few promo codes to help promote the review or even give the reviewer a ‘scoop’ on your next sale. There can be a lot of ways to naturally collaborate with a review site once you get to know how they run their business.

4. Some review sites are scams.

They may ask for money, just let you to upload your own review or other questionable practices. Others generate reviews by charging developers by asking them to buy ads on the site to ‘improve’ the chances that their app will be reviewed. Some greatly exaggerate their web traffic or make other unrealistic claims about their sites. Some are even developers promoting their own apps while giving low reviews to competitors to make their apps look better. Some review sites even lift and re-work writing from your publicity materials and pass it off as original content. Be wary of these sites and realize that even if they seem popular now, consumers won’t trust their advice for long if it’s bought and paid for by developers or otherwise biased.

And finally, a note for everyone …

App reviewing has taken off for a reason … the world of apps is enormous and impossible for any one person to manage. There may be an ‘app for that’ out there, but the real mystery now is how to find it! And even more challenging is how to find something well-made and well-suited to your needs. Developers of good apps want to be found and consumers want to find them. App reviewers are just trying to fill the space in between, where good curation of apps is an evolving and important field. But it is a field in its infancy …

What do you think about review sites? Are you a developer? Consumer? Reviewer? I’d love to know what you think!

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Carisa Kluver is the sole reviewer for the iPad picture book app review site, Digital-Storytime.com. She co-founded this site with her husband, Marc, an app developer and programmer. She tries to run her site with the following three “A’s” in mind – to be Approachable, Accountable & Accurate.

Category: 100+ Reviews ... What I've Learned So Far, All About Apps, Marketing Apps

About the Author ()

Carisa Kluver is the the editor of Digital-Storytime.com, an iPad children's book review site. She has a BA in Anthropology from UC Berkeley and an MSW from the University of Washington. Before starting this project, she was a school counselor, health educator and researcher in child & maternal health.