iconwrite On the importance of understanding reviews and the Great Firewall of China

August 09, 2011, 20:24

As I outlined in previous posts, every aspect is important in the decision to download an app. The icon, the description, the screenshots and finally even the reviews matter. Would you download an app if you saw all the reviews at the top had one star ?

As I twitted and blogged furiously enough about recently I managed to increase enormously the number of reviews on several of my apps thanks to my improved 'about box'. This increased downloads of my apps by a bunch up to the point my Battery HD has been ranking #1 in Japan (Free) since yesterday. Yesterday a total of over 200 reviews were posted. Yes, in one single day.

With such an enormous number of reviews it has become pretty hard to read them all (not to mention the counterpart: 81 support e-mails in that same day). To be honest I only read the reviews with three stars or less hoping to spot some useful criticism. Then of course comes the language issue. I don't understand one bit of japanese. So it's easy to be lazy and not even try to run it through a translator in order to get an idea of what the issue is. Most of the time it's the usual brat just saying "it sucks" and you learn nothing. In the case of japanese, there is no huge issue: the majority of reviews are overly positive so it is safe to ignore the other 5%.

However, I should have tried to understand the chinese reviews :-(

Since I published updates with the new 'about box' most of my apps have seen a great increase not only in the number of reviews but also the average number of stars raised to 4.5. That was good news.

However, some of my smaller apps (the ones about horoscope and astrology) had lower ratings and this didn't change, even with the new update. I didn't understand why initially. I just thought, "well the apps are just not as good and polished". Because this app doesn't get dozens of reviews per day, trends are harder to spot than on more successful apps.

Anyway looking at the history of reviews for my Horoscope HD app I noticed a weird trend. The app was getting nearly double the downloads in China than it did in France , yet looking at the sessions on my server the country was nearly inexistent.

Something was rotten and not in the state of Denmark.

Then my new magical about box® came to the rescue. Because it added the ability to easily contact me by e-mail, finally someone did. Unfortunately my app says that I cannot answer in all languages so I assume most chinese users couldn't complain in english and so they never did. They only did in the reviews ... which I didn't read because they were in chinese, assuming foolishly that any important technical issue would also appear in languages I understood.

In this case I was lucky enough for an indian man to complain about connections blocking in my Horoscope app. We exchanged a few mails. I didn't understand what the issue was until he managed to send me a screenshot.

Then I saw what it was: his operator wasn't in India. He was actually using it from China on WiFi. It turns out all my apps that require a connection get their data from my instances running on Google Appengine. I realized that all the subdomains of * are blocked by the Great Firewall of China. I contacted the user telling him about the problem being censorship in China but... he never got back to me. Let's not get paranoid, I'll assume he didn't care that much, right? Right? Hum. :-/

It was only after I successfully sent this man to reeducation camp, I mean after exchanging these e-mails that I ran my chinese reviews through an online translator. I used Google Translate because they are very good at getting along with chinese people...

Of course the translation was garbage but I got the general idea from the most common words which were something like : "Connection" “wait" "ever" "bad" "I hate you so much, you ruined my life" "the bird is blue but the lizard wide". I told you it was Google Translate.

The fix: use your own domain for China

Apparently the bulk of the so-called Great Firewall of China is just blacklisting some domains at the DNS level. While the Chinese government might have a serious unresolved anger management issue with Google I didn't think they cared that much about their citizens reading potentially subversive daily horoscope. And I was right. My sites themselves weren't blocked. So if I assigned my own domains to my AppEngine instances I could reach my servers from china.

I hope they will continue working after this post... and just to make sure I want to state that OUR DEAR LEADER MAO WAS A GREAT AND HONORABLE MAN AND I ADMIRE HIM ( in my own personal way ).

If you want to make sure your server is reachable from China then does the trick. It confirmed my domains were fine while * lagged forever. (except from Hong-Kong which has a different special regime).

Had I known that earlier I could have made thousands of users in China happy. Instead all my apps that require a connection just got one star reviews. Moreover the settings file for my ads was also downloaded from * This probably lost me a lost of revenue including in apps that didn't require a connection to work properly since they needed this to display ads properly.

I have now posted updates to most of my apps to force using my own domains and they'll soon be approved by Apple. I'll report back here as the situation evolves.

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