The ratings scandal that led Apple to purge 1,000 iPhone apps underscores why the App Store user review system needs repair.
To recap, iPhoneography reader SCW accused app developer Molinker of writing hundreds of phony five-star reviews of its own products. SCW wrote a long letter to Phil Schiller, Apple's vice president of Worldwide Product Marketing, and Apple removed all of Molinker's apps.
The problem is that this action was reactive. For a store that's approaching 300,000 apps, responding to individual complaints is honorable, but not reliable.
Molinker's reviews aren't the first case of App Store review fraud. According to a MobileCrunch story from September, employees of one developer's PR team, Reverb Communications, were caught penning reviews of their clients' products. Reverb said the staff wrote reviews on their own time, and that the company only takes clients whose products they like anyway, but to say those reviews are authentic is a stretch. A better system is needed.
Build Social Features
Rabid Apple fans are legion (so are their detractors, but that's a different story). These are the people who would power a more interactive App Store, allowing reviewers to vote up or bury the work of their peers. Currently, you can go into iTunes and mark reviews as helpful, offensive or off-topic, but the system for doing so is buried under an uninviting “report a concern” button. You also can't report a review directly from the iPhone, slowing down the whole process. In addition to social features, I'd like to see a system that rewards reviewers who write more and cover apps from a wide variety of developers.
Why Apple Won't
Aside from Apple surely wanting none of my advice, I don't think Apple will build a system like I've described because it's not in the company's nature. iTunes has been devoid of homemade social features since day one, and I don't see that changing. Sure, the company gives you the tools to use other social networks--you can tell Facebook and Twitter users what you're listening to in iTunes 9, for instance--but there's little evidence that Apple wants to build social interaction tools of its own.
Apple's made great strides in improving the App Store, with the Genius for apps and the addition of search keywords, but user reviews are still lagging behind on features. Let's hope for a change, however unlikely.