The week of June 18-22 was not a happy one for the creators of YouMail, a voicemail and call-screening service for Android smartphones. That's because four different Android owners delivered one-star ratings and scathing reviews for the app in Google's Play Store. "Garbage and overpriced," wrote Sally. "CONSTANT problems and issues," said Jake. And a review from 'Clear' was headlined, simply, "Worst," with two words of body text: "app ever."
What's odd about these reviews is that the same four Android owners had apparently discovered a competing voicemail service just five days earlier, and granted it five stars. If they were so happy with their current app, why would they be downloading and reviewing another one so soon after?
I spoke with a few Android developers during and after the recent Google I/O conference to find out what was on their fix-it list for Google's Play Store. The problems they spoke of are not unique to Play—other mobile app markets are also rife with fake reviews, a lack of analytic data, and have a problem surfacing new apps—but now that Google is pushing to broaden awareness and adoption of its Play Store, and a promising new version of Android is rolling out, it’s a good time to look at how the Play Store could be improved.
1. Go Beyond Ratings
Let more app makers start a real conversation with customers.
It would be fairly simple for Google to lower the barrier separating developers and their customers in a few significant ways. Google is allowing its "Top Developers" to reply to reviewers, but it can't come to all reviewers soon enough.
YouMail works only in the U.S. and Canada, and only on standard post-paid plans on the four big carriers. But anyone in Germany, or anyone with a pre-paid phone, can level a sharp word or one-star rating, said Alex Quilici, CEO of YouMail. If the Store let app makers know the device a person was using, it would allow them counter spam and fake reviews.
Knowing how long the reviewer had the app installed would make proving and reporting negative campaigns to the Play Store’s moderators much easier as well. There were, Quilici noted, reviewers who seemed to exist only to give the lowest rating to all but one voicemail-related app (a HulloMail rep confirmed this problem: "When a campaign against you is clear, it’s even more disheartening that you can’t fix it.")
Nate Weiner, creator of Pocket (the renamed and updated Read It Later app), said the Pocket team’s major wish for the Play Store is to allow non-developer access to Play Store controls, so that support and customer service workers can respond to reviews and complaints, but don’t have access to upload or update apps.
2. Better International Filtering
One of the key tools offered by third-party analytics firm App Annie is international ratings and review sorting, along with whole-world statistics and analaysis. When you see just a few things they’ve discovered, you’ll realize how important international analysis is to Google's Android platform.
Brazil is far and away the Play Store’s fastest growing market, and its Japanese prospects match those of iOS, relative to its overall growth. Developers can, as of February 2012, see and sort their installations across countries. But Google Play doesn’t split up its ratings and reviews by country, so developers can’t see where their app has potential to grow, or where a bad translation is pushing refunds. Given App Annie’s findings that iOS users spend $2.45 for every $1 spent in the Play Store, Android developers can use all the intel they can gather on new, growing markets.
Quilici added that giving developers the ability to filter reviews, bug reports, and other data by country would cause fewer headaches for developers who are very specifically targeting their markets. "We're very clearly targeting certain phones in certain countries, and we do well within that universe. But it's hard for us to take in feedback from everywhere, and stack up in the ratings with universal apps."
3. Improve App Discovery
App Annie can let developers know when they’re featured on one of Google Play’s front pages, but can’t offer much beyond that. In some ways, neither can Google.
Weiner, of Pocket, believes the Play Store, compared to Apple’s App Store, "has the potential to be the same or higher (in exposure or sales) if they get the discovery right." When Pocket was featured in the Play Store, "the numbers are astronomical," even compared to iOS. In short, there are lots of Android owners looking for apps, Weiner believes, but they have trouble getting beyond the first page.
Quilici, of YouMail, is surprised that Play's app search powers aren’t stronger, given the specialty of its parent company. But he doesn’t believe they’re any less cluttered or problematic than iOS. That’s why YouMail, like many apps you download these days, include strong viral-minded prompts and features. "It’s a struggle in both stores," he said. "You don’t rely on people searching. You work to enlist them for your cause."
[Image: Flickr user Kennisland]