Why Paid Reviews are Bad for Consumers and Developers, and How to Avoid Them

Not even a month ago, I was contacted by an individual representing a company that wanted to pay me to publish reviews on a site that I already write for. This individual emailed me and said that he would like to choose apps for me to review on the site, and pay me a fee for each one.

I declined (by not answering the email), but there are app review sites and writers out there who have not turned down similar inquiries, and who are paid to write specific reviews for apps that may not be truthful because of the money involved.

For example, take a look at The Review Roster, a newly released site that claims to connect developers and publishers to publish application reviews. Both developers and publishing sites can sign up, and The Review Roster promises to pay publishers for writing app reviews. While the site claims that such reviews are meant to be “completely unbiased,” receiving money for creating a review makes that an impossibility.

There is an implicit agreement between money spender and money receiver that the product bought will be of value. If a developer pays a fee for a review, that developer is expecting a positive result, and even if a reviewer did attempt to create an unbiased review, the very act of accepting money makes it inherently infeasible to have an impartial opinion.

While it is not illegal or technically against Apple rules for an independent publisher to be paid for a review, it does cause people to question the credibility of both the site and the developer of the app who bought the review. App reviews should be truthful, informative, and helpful to readers, not marketing ploys to fool readers into making unwanted purchases. It’s the modern day equivalent of hawking snake oil.

Developers and sites that engage in this practice run the risk of being found out, which will ruin the reputation of both. I don’t think I’m alone in believing that a developer who needs to pay for a review doesn’t have a good app in the first place. Money spent on reviews is money that could have been spent on improving the app or on legitimate forms of marketing.

I don’t know why some developers and review sites/services think that we are stupid. It isn’t hard to spot fake reviews in the App Store, and it’s not difficult to spot fake reviews on websites, either. Like in the App Store, a series of overwhelmingly positive reviews for clearly mediocre apps is a dead giveaway. Almost every app has one or two (or more) negative aspects.

When I spot a fake review on the web or in the App Store, I immediately refrain from purchasing the app and any content or future content from that company, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. At PadGadget, when we see fake reviews, we no longer consider the developer’s apps for consideration for a review on the site. Choosing to use fake reviews is a great way to lose customers and other legitimate opportunities.

Customer who do succumb to paid reviews may be disappointed in an app, which would keep them from purchasing another app from the same developer in the future. It’s a bad business practice.

From a developer’s point of view, a positive review can be an important aspect for both driving sales and creating awareness of an app that’s lost in a sea of a million other apps, but there are legitimate sites that will take a look at an app and review it if it is worthwhile. The best way to get recognition is to have a great app and to use reputable sites. A site that asks for money is not a site you want to review your app.

Of course, some developers are tricked into purchasing app reviews. There are sites that claim they will consider any app, but may take months to get around to it. These sites are happy to expedite a review, for a fee. Additionally, some newer developers may not know that there are sites that don’t charge for reviews, especially because many illegitimate sites and services seek out developers rather than the other way around.

At PadGadget, we are given promo codes by developers to review apps, but we can and often do turn down apps that we do not feel are worth sharing. Developers often send promo codes to a variety of sites, and the codes do not come with an expectation of any review – positive or negative. A site that accepts payment for reviews does not have the luxury of turning down apps that aren’t up to par.

As an app reviewer, a game enthusiast, and an Apple fan, I often pick out games and apps that I play and use myself; apps that I want to share for the benefit of the people who read my reviews, not for the benefit of the app developers. I genuinely enjoy sharing great content, and I think my fellow writers would agree with that sentiment. I wouldn’t want to be fed false information, and as a writer, I wouldn’t do it to someone else.

It is disappointing that there are sites and developers that profit by fooling consumers into purchasing apps under false pretenses. There is very little difference between a paid review and a paid advertisement. All bloggers are expected to disclose when a review is written in exchange for money or gifts, but unfortunately, many sites do not give that information, and may give people the idea that all review sites are publishing paid content. Not so.

Is there a way to determine which sites are giving falsely positive reviews? In some cases, yes. These sites will often publish positive reviews for every app, without pointing out any faults. Often, the sites will have only reviews for relatively unknown apps, and subsequently, those apps will have high ratings in the App Store. It’s not always easy to tell, but an examination of both a website review and reviews left in the App Store should help potential app purchasers to determine when a site may not be giving unbiased reviews.

About Juli: Contact me via Twitter: @julipuli

  • Anonymous

    Hey – I just released my first app in the app store, will you write a… oh wait, kidding. I did release an app though and some people offered my to write reviews for it – for compensation. I declined.

    But I recently checked out some apps for my kids and found a bunch of free games by a publisher called, somewhat suspiciously, “Top Free Games”. The name often appears next to an app title, so calling yourself “Top Free Games” will mislead many consumers into thinking that the app actually is one of the top free games.

    I downloaded the apps anyway because they were free, and because they had almost all 5 star reviews. But I didn’t find them (there were at least 10, hence the plural) to be very good. Every time I did something, I was prompted for some in-app-purchase or other. Not illegal of course, but I did wonder about the many 5 star ratings. People like spammy apps like that?

    Reading through some reviews, they did seem artificial. They said things like “Great app, love it” – no details. 

    As an app developer, it annoys me that people get away with that sort of thing. The games themselves weren’t spam, they were just cheaply put together clones of other, older games. 

    Anyway I am sure that both the publisher name, and the fake reviews prompt many people to download these apps and that the whole thing pays off in the end with accidental in-app purchases – keep in mind these are kids apps so kids might just get the password from their parents if they nag enough – and some of those in app purchases were $50! 

  • http://www.facebook.com/ekbecker Emily Becker

    Well said!