Can You Trust iTunes App Store Reviews?

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Browsing Apple's App Store in search of new applications for your iPhone or iPod Touch, you find an interesting-sounding program and start reading its user reviews. Many are overwhelmingly upbeat, their wording eerily similar.

Are the reviews fake? Were they written by the developer (and family and friends) to inflate the app's overall rating? For other programs, you may find a string of 1-star reviews that trash the app and recommend a competitor. Were those penned by a devious rival?

With more than 25,000 programs in the App Store, at least some competitive shenanigans are bound to happen--and a few developers have already accused others of planting negative reviews.

NMobile by Njection
Njection, the developer of NMobile, an app that alerts drivers to speed traps, has accused competitor Trapster of posting reviews that criticize NMobile and praise Trapster. When contacted by PC World, a Trapster spokesperson, who asked not to be identified by name, e-mailed this response: "We don't have time to post petty slams against competitors, nor respond to accusations that we do."

Complaints are flying even over frivolous programs. Air-O-Matic, maker of Pull My Finger, says that rival InfoMedia, which sells iFart Mobile, posted bogus comments that praise iFart and slam competing flatulence apps.

InfoMedia CEO Joel Comm counters that he doesn't see anything wrong with a developer's posting an anonymous review of a competitor's app. "If people purchase the app, they can do whatever they want within the guidelines of the iTunes review system," Comm wrote via e-mail. "I see no reason to disclose that you are a competitor."

Reviews by Nonusers

Whether fake or biased reviews of iPhone/iPod Touch apps are common is difficult to ascertain. Verifying the legitimacy of a review is nearly impossible, although in browsing reviews for this story we did come across more than a few that appeared suspicious. We also discovered that it's easy for reviewers to pass judgment on apps they haven't used, despite Apple's recent efforts to curtail that practice. (Apple didn't respond to PC World's inquiries for this story.)

Take, for instance, the reviews for ViewTi Golf, a golf rangefinder currently on sale for $25. In early March it had 19 reviews, including 14 by people who gave the app 5 stars (best on a scale of 1 to 5). Of those 14 reviewers, 10 had reviewed apps only by ViewTi LLC, the developer of ViewTi Golf. We contacted the company; in response, representatives noted that 4 of the 5 other reviewers (those who gave ViewTi Golf 1 to 4 stars) had also reviewed only ViewTi Golf and no other app.

Then there's Brick Breaker Revolution 3D, a $6 game from Digital Chocolate. Within hours of its February 27 release, the app had four 5-star reviews. Certainly, that alone wasn't a big deal. But one reviewer, "Snorkydog," had given 5 stars to six Digital Chocolate games, and just 2 stars to a game from another developer (the only other game Snorkydog had reviewed). So was Snorkydog a plant? Or just a devoted fan?

Digital Chocolate CEO Trip Hawkins acknowledges that user reviews are often less than reliable. "Many reviews are pretty idiotic or hilarious or biased in one direction or another," he wrote via e-mail. "It is like reading any forum or chat log. Of course you have to assume that every developer that loves their mother's cooking should be expected to love their own games."

But a fake review, pro or con, doesn't invalidate the system, he says: "Frankly the presence of these ‘lover' votes only seems to be enough to offset the even more ridiculous hater votes."

The Employee-Penned Review

One review we found was written by an employee of the company that sells the program. Reid Carlberg, who works for Model Metrics, gave a 5-star rating to his employer's Search2GO for Salesforce CRM. The first paragraph of his review read:

"Downloaded last week and have been loving it. It totally saved me this AM when I was walking to the office from the train and needed a phone number. Fired it up and 10 seconds later I had it and was not late for the conference call I forgot about. AWESOME."

Carlberg's original review didn't disclose that he worked for Model Metrics; he added information later, after we contacted him. Carlberg says that since he didn't try to hide his personal identity--his App Store user name is ""--he wasn't trying to deceive anyone. But it's unlikely that the average reader would have known that Carlberg worked for Model Metrics until he stated so in the amended review.

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