Apple often holds the App Store up as one of the biggest reasons that people should buy iPhones and iPads. You can trust the developers that make the apps that are in it, we’re told. And we can trust the apps themselves because other people leave reviews, Apple says.
But that isn’t strictly the case, is it?
A recent report highlighted that the App Store is riddled with fake reviews. And that’s a massive shame for everyone, not least the people who make the apps we download every day. But for us users? It’s a nightmare.
App Store reviews, reviewed
A recent study by Which? (opens in new tab) looked into more than 18,000 known-fake reviews that were available in the app stores. Not just tea App Store, but the Google Play Store as well. Google’s offering was even worse than Apple’s. but the fact remains — we can’t always trust app reviews.
That’s a bit of a problem because if we can’t trust reviews in the App Store, what are they even there for?
The theory is of course a good one. People download apps, try them, and then review them using a star-based score. What could possibly go wrong?
Like any system, the stars can be gamed. Or bought. And that’s exactly what’s happening.
“Apps using paid-for reviews had a significantly higher proportion of five-star reviews – 60.5% of reviews for the dating app were five stars, compared to just 9.7% for Tinder,” the Which” report says. “For the health app , five-star reviews accounted for 45.8% of reviews, while Garmin had just 6%. This pattern is typical wherever you find review manipulation.”
Predictably, unscrupulous developers aren’t buying bad reviews. They’re buying very good ones. The best, even. But that might actually help us weed out the fake reviews from the real ones. The next time you come home from the Apple Store with the best iPhone of the year, you might stand a chance of installing the best apps — not the ones with the biggest fake review budget.
Spotting a fake review
Unfortunately, fake reviews can be difficult to spot and almost impossible if all you look at is the actual star rating. But there are tell-tale signs that something isn’t right and you should definitely be looking out for them.
Some of the things I look for when choosing a new app or game to download from the App Store include:
- Are there too many reviews? Fake reviews often hit an app in a large batch, usually in a short space of time. Unless the app goes viral, real reviews come in dribs and drabs, not all within a 24 or 48-hour period, for example.
- Too many perfect scores? Even the best apps have detractors, no matter how awesome they might be or how many people might love them. Any app that’s suspiciously lacking in complaints and is falling over 5-star reviews left and right should arouse suspicion. It isn’t a guarantee that something is friends, but a data point to add to others.
- What are people saying? Sure, some reviews are just a star rating. But some people like to explain what they like or don’t like about the app in question. They can be a great giveaway. Five-star reviews with almost no detail given are a good bet for being fake. If there are a ton of reviews in a short space of time I’m willing to bet many of them say the same thing, but with slightly different wording.
- What’s the spelling like? Repeated misspelling of the same word is a good giveaway as well. Fake review sellers try to make their wares look genuine by filling them with fake typos. But too many, especially alongside multiple reviews in a short space of time, can be a dead giveaway that something isn’t right. Misplaced emojis, weird strings of text (“I've been addicted by this app” for example), and other oddities should also set the alarm bells ringing.
None of these signals are a guarantee that a review is fake on their own, so keep that in mind before screaming foul on social media. But a few of them together, all for the same app? Something could very easily be afoot.
What you can do to help
Believe it or not, you can actually review App Store reviews yourself. When you’re looking at a review that you think is suspect you can tap and hold on it and then choose the Report a concern button. Fill in the form and hit submit to do your bit.
I can’t promise that much will happen or that fake reviews will ever be a thing of the past. But we can hope, right?
Apple already says that it blocked more than 94 million reviews and over 170 million ratings in 2021 alone, so it’s trying. It also confirmed that it removed 610,000 more ratings based on reports from real people — so maybe that ‘report a concern’ button does work after all.