Most of what I write for VentureBeat is objectively factual news or fact-based analysis, but there are times when I share my subjective opinions, backed by details with some gray areas. This is one of those times.
I don’t believe Apple cares about user reviews, at least on an executive level. Another way of putting this is that the company’s executives don’t really care what individual users are saying about what it sells, unless those opinions negatively impact its revenues. But I’ll concede up front (and explain below) that the evidence on this point is mixed.
Regardless of its motivations, Apple’s apparent lack of interest in user reviews became a conspicuous problem twice in the past week alone. At some point in the last several days, it abruptly removed all reviews from its online store, just ahead of the holiday shopping season. And today, The Washington Post revealed that Apple ignored over 1,500 App Store reviews warning that sexual predators were using certain iOS apps to contact underage users.
Having covered both the company and this specific topic for many years, I can tell you that it matters more than one might initially think, but it’s also a more complicated situation than can be quickly or superficially summarized. So I’m going to do my best to explain why this is an actual problem for Apple and its users, as well as what can be done about it.
Apple controls what many users see about its products
Apple has established itself as the exclusive vendor of apps for most of its devices, as well as a major vendor of both first- and third-party accessories. Users who want iOS, iPadOS, tvOS, or watchOS apps have no real choice but to get them from Apple’s App Stores. Similarly, Apple sells a substantial fraction of the accessories consumers buy for Apple devices, some of which depend on apps that can only be acquired from the aforementioned App Stores.
As a result, even when users aren’t planning to buy something directly from Apple, they come to its site and stores to learn about its products. In some cases, such as accessories that are exclusive to the Apple Store, there may be no other place online to find reviews of those products.
Despite its active role in managing its ecosystems, Apple seemingly doesn’t see itself as having a broad responsibility to provide access to user reviews, particularly for its own products. Years ago, the company openly prevented Apple Store customers from reviewing Apple products, saying it felt that every Apple product was worthy of five stars.
After Apple changed that policy, users unsurprisingly flooded the Store with plenty of less than five-star reviews for Apple accessories, spotlighting issues with easily damaged cables and earbuds, undisclosed performance flaws, and other indicia of poor design or quality standards. Up until this week, you could see those reviews before you purchased a product, but as of now, they’ve completely disappeared, replaced by a “Looking for something?” pop-up that doesn’t redirect you to a reviews archive.
User reviews are one part of keeping potential customers aware of issues with products, as well as keeping Apple “honest” by disclosing details it might not address in its marketing. When Apple pulls those reviews from its site, it instead presents a universally positive perspective to prospective customers, arguably misleading them.
Some people might say that Apple is under no obligation to risk damaging the sales of its products by sharing user opinions on its Store pages. That’s clearly the fear that motivated the company to block negative reviews in the past. You can always look elsewhere, the argument goes.
Unfortunately, Apple actively worked to make itself the dominant resource for information on its products, punishing independent alternatives that didn’t follow its mandates. In recent years, the company all but killed third-party app discovery alternatives such as AppShopper and TouchArcade by either blocking them from its stores or starving them of affiliate revenue.
As a result, finding masses of Apple-related user reviews elsewhere has become challenging. Authorized Apple retailers such as Amazon and Best Buy may or may not have reviews of accessories. Even if people could find them with Google searches, there aren’t many other places that aggregate user reviews, and trustworthy independent review sites are few and far between.
Even apps can endanger users
The problem with the App Store isn’t that Apple is removing or censoring user reviews, but rather that it’s completely ignoring them, even when they contain important information that pertains to the safety of apps or their users. As the Post report notes, multiple “random chat apps” have become havens for predators to reach children with sexual requests and content. Using basic machine learning tools, the Post found numerous reports of the problem in App Store reviews, but Apple — the first to receive every report, and a trillion-dollar company with every conceivable automated and manual resource at its potential disposal — apparently didn’t do anything about them.
When I say that “I don’t believe Apple cares about user reviews,” this situation is direct compounding evidence of that point. I can imagine every apologist excuse for this situation — there are too many apps to screen, too many reviews to read, or no point to reading posts that are mostly drivel. But Apple has been selling products for 43 years, and operating its iOS App Store for 11 of them. It is capable of screening reviews for keywords. It’s capable of including a prominent “Report a Problem” button in or next to every “Write a Review” button. If it had ever cared to do so, it would have been done already.
But it didn’t. Much like users who report software beta bugs with Feedback Assistant, or struggle to reach anyone at the company who cares when a massive FaceTime privacy violation is discovered, there is a continuing sense that actually getting a more than basic response from Apple — to say nothing of actual corrective action — requires going to the media, and even then, it has to be enough media to make a real stink. If Apple actually cared to monitor what was being said in user reviews, this wouldn’t be necessary.
But user reviews aren’t necessarily reliable
Ideally, potential customers would be able to consider objective reviews from independent, well-trained experts rather than relying largely on the ad hoc conclusions of random people. But as the growth of Yelp and the decline of professional restaurant reviewing illustrate, lightly policed user reviews have become popular, even if their credibility is unclear.
That is itself a problem. Even if a review has a person’s name attached, you have no idea who really posted it, what their agenda may be, and how they’re reaching their conclusions. There’s ample historical evidence of both small- and large-scale review manipulation — reviews submitted individually or en masse to boost or hurt a product’s ratings — a problem Amazon tackled years ago by adding a purchase verification badge to some reviews, then displaying verified reviews first.
Having moderated user comments in the past, I know that review aggregators have tried all sorts of responses, ranging from featuring handpicked or upvoted reviews to manually approving or deleting reviews, as well as introducing encumbrances to prevent rapid or computer-aided posting of reviews. I also know that many if not most users have come to understand that any individual user review is of questionable veracity, so canvassing multiple reviews to get a better sense of “the truth” is advisable.
A solution: Get Apple executives to start caring
Getting Apple to actually care about user reviews isn’t going to be easy. I’m convinced that the company employs thousands of lower-level people who genuinely care about what customers think, but can only pass those messages up the chain and hope they’re addressed at higher levels. The real impediments are the sheer volume of reviews and comments Apple receives every day, and executives who have historically prided themselves on knowing their customers’ needs before they’re even articulated — then taking years to respond when confronted with contradictory evidence.
There’s a clear solution to this problem: proper screening and triaging of user reviews aided by machine learning, with internal mandates that reports receive daily employee-level screenings and weekly executive-level reviews. If the Post could independently use machine learning to sift through reviews for reports of illegal or inappropriate in-app content, so can Apple. Back in March, Apple went hunting for an analyst to sift through complaints about Siri, so if there’s not already someone or a team of people doing this for the App Store, it’s time to put out the “help wanted” sign.
Similarly, if there’s a question over the integrity of users who are posting Apple Store reviews, Apple should be using credit card-backed Apple IDs and/or purchase verification to better secure the service. I would normally call this point obvious, but apart from such concerns, I can’t imagine another valid reason for Apple to abruptly yank user reviews from its site.
It’s entirely possible that Apple will explain its removal of user reviews by saying that it cares so much about their accuracy that it is putting a better system in place. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it removed user reviews from its site just as it began its holiday marketing campaign, without having a superior replacement — or anything at all — ready to go. Just like iOS, Apple wouldn’t stop users from using a troubled release just because a better version was coming soon.
Despite what’s happened in the past, there’s every reason to believe that Apple should be caring deeply, right now, about what users are saying about what it’s selling. Ignoring or removing those sentiments might increase its sales in the short term, but it isn’t a good solution for the long-term health of the company or its users.