Mobile devs re-emphasize app ratings to goose downloads

App ratings have always been a key measurement and tool for mobile developers looking to get noticed in the download market. But with the increasing competition in app marketplaces as well as the decline of some distribution tools, there seems to be renewed focus on getting users to highly rate mobile apps.

Over the last year, developers have been dropping in a greater number of dialogue boxes prompting users to rate their app. The boxes can be timed to appear after a certain number of launches or upon completion of user milestone. And more recently, the emphasis has picked up with the demise of incentivized installs in Apple’s App Store (s aapl). Up until this spring, developers and publishers were increasingly turning to monetization and distribution services like Tapjoy to drive downloads through incentivized installs, in which a user can earn virtual currency or goods in exchange for downloading another app.

That model helped many publishers pay to reliably get into the top of the App Store rankings, which proved effective because many users simply downloaded apps from the top ranks, assuming they were popular choices. It all came to a halt in April after Apple cracked down on the practice, banning new and updated apps with incentivized installs because it gamed the system. The ban has helped force some publishers to look around for tools to help them drive downloads. And they’re looking even more at ratings, to see how they can help ensure more installs.

“In the absence of solutions like Tapjoy, other factors like ratings take on a bigger role,” said Brian Akaka, CEO of mobile application marketing and consulting firm Appular. “People are looking for trusted sources and that’s why the chart rankings were so important. It’s the same way with the ratings.”

The push for ratings and reviews is also giving rise to new start-ups that are helping developers head off bad reviews and help encourage goods ratings. Robi Ganguly, CEO of Apptentive, a start-up that helps build feedback channels inside apps for developers, said only a fraction of users actually leave an app rating or review and it’s not clear if better ratings result in bigger sales. But he’s hearing now from more larger developers who are looking at his product to keep the downloads flowing after the loss of incentivized installs.

“The bigger folks have started have started asking harder question, saying if we can’t buy installs, what can we do?” said Ganguly. “People are looking for a lever (to boost downloads), that’s the biggest things we’re hearing from developers.”

Crittercism, a start-up I recently wrote about, is also looking to help improve communications between developers and users, which it believes can limit bad reviews and encourage positive ones. Like Apptentive, it helps developers capture feedback right in the app so users are not tempted to blast the app in a bad review in the App Store. But it also features a “love” button that channels people to the App Store to hopefully encourage them to favorably review the app if they like it or after their issue is resolved.

Andrew Levy, CEO of Crittercism, said with app stores getting crowded with similar apps, software that has a bigger following with better reviews stands a better chance at getting downloaded. He said developers are also realizing that the game is shifting away from snagging one-time downloads to building longer-term relationships with users.

“The hits-driven business of pumping out one app after another, it’s not sustainable,” Levy said. “There’s more of a focus now on building an app or network of users and monetizing them and keeping them engaged.”

It’s a tricky proposition at times, prodding people to get good reviews. Notification provider Urban Airship (see full disclosure below) recently put out a list of best practices for soliciting reviews and ratings. The company said developers should avoid harassing their users and abusing notifications and should learn to time their prompts after a user has opened an app several times or has progressed through a few levels. That ensures that people who discard the app aren’t encouraged to review it and instead captures users who are more engaged with the app.

Urban Airship CEO Scott Kveton said he’s sensed the conversation shift in the last year toward ratings, in part due to the rising competition in the App Store. And after the ban on incentivized installs, it’s forced developers to look deeper at their relationship with users.

“2010 was all about downloads; 2011 is all about engagement,” Kveton said. “I might have a million downloads but how many are engaging on a regular basis?”

Cole Krumbholz, co-founder of Kuduco Games, which makes mobile titles like 3-D Checkers and Chess 360, has been using Crittercism, which he said has been helping in soliciting constructive criticsm and allows users to feel like they’ve had their complaints addressed. He said that has helped his apps receive an average 4.5 star rating in June. And that, he believes, can provide a big help for a new app.

“At the beginning, better ratings definitely lead to better sale. When you haven’t established a lot of users, the first 25 reviews can really boost the initial launch. It’s really the quality of the game after that,” he said.

At some point, there is a question of whether or not app ratings can get inflated to the point that Apple, Google, or other app store owners feel it necessary to clamp down on app rating tools. If all the ratings range around 4 stars, it undermines their usefulness. But it seems like we’re a ways away from that, in part because it’s still harder to reliably obtain reviews and it’s not as fool-proof as Tapjoy’s ability to drive downloads. Also, ratings and reviews get refreshed upon updates in the App Store, which starts the process over for developers. There are some tools like AppRebates that offer to help pay the cost of an app download in exchange for a review though it appears its reach is limited

It’s not surprising to see developers and publishers look more closely at reviews. The app market is booming but it’s increasingly getting harder to ensure that an app gets visibility. I think developers should still work on building great apps first and shouldn’t chase downloads or ratings before putting out a solid piece of software. But if you got that right, you still have to think about all the other ways people will encounter your app, both negatively and positively. A study by MTV Networks found that users discovered entertainment apps based on friend recommendations (53 percent), user reviews and ratings (52 percent) and browsing app stores (47 percent) and seeing a friend use an app (42 percent). So it makes sense to include reviews and ratings as part of an outreach strategy.

But I think it’s important to go beyond that, not just trying to game reviews and ratings like some companies manipulated app store rankings with incentivized installs. The key is to build real relationships with users and give them an opportunity to be heard. Some will still slag your app, but I think tools like Crittercism and Apptentive show that it’s more valuable to start a dialogue with users. That helps with reviews in the short term but I think long term, it shows that the developers cares overall about maintaining a relationship with their audience. That, I think, is how you stay relevant in this increasingly crowded sea of apps.

DisclosureUrban Airship is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.