Why did Southwest Airlines' app store ratings suddenly skyrocket 1000 percent?

9 months ago by Jeremy Bloom in Facts

Sometimes we find data that backs up an existing narrative. And sometimes we find data that just raises a bunch of questions. The latter is very much the case with this data set: The review numbers for Southwest Airlines in the Apple iTunes app store. The numbers, frankly, look too good to be true.

For most of the past few years, the SW app gained a handful of reviews a day, with a mix of ratings - some 5 star, some 1 star. SW would updat the app, new reviews would come in, but the numbers remained pretty consistent, in the low to mid double digits.

Then, on January 17, SW uploaded the latest, version 5.1... and reviews started pouring in. First by the hundreds, and then by the thousands and tens of thousands. It took them 8 years to get to 31,000 reviews, and then over the next 29 days 268,841 poured in. And nearlly all of those reviews were 5 stars.

(Note: We're not sure why there are little steps in the data, equating to days when there is 0 growth - but this phenomenon crops up for other companies as well, so it's probably an artifact of Apple's reporting)

SW Airlines app store starshttps://www.similarweb.com/apps/top/apple/store-rank/us/travel/top-free/iphone

This isn't an obscure little app - it's conisistently one of the top 10 travel apps on the iTunes store, along with United Airlines, American Airlines and other travel companies like Uber, Lyft, Airbnb and Expedia.

How do the other airlines compare? They look the way SW did before the explosion, which it rated 3.5 stars based on 30,000 reviews.

United Airlines (currently ranked #7 in Travel) got their rating the old fashioned way - a few dozen a day (this is the "Version Count", which means each time the app adds a new version it resets to zero and starts building back up. Slowly.)

And not surprisingly, it's a mixed bag of 5 star down to 1 star ratings:

United Airlines app store ratings

And here's the rating history for American Airlines (ranked #6):

American Airlines app store

And again, for comparison, let's head over to the Android app store, Google Play.

The numbers for SW's Android app look pretty reasonable, and very much in line with the numbers for the rest of the airlines - and the numbers for SouthWest before the blowup.

SW on android

So, what's going on? There are a couple of possibilities:

Maybe there was some sort of promotion that encouraged huge numbers of people to sign up for the SW app - and rate it. This happens a lot (see: Whataburger).

Maybe the new version was actually much better than every other app, ever? Maybe SW passengers were so dazzled by the experience that, wide-eyed and buzzing from the afterglow, the said to themselves, "By gum, I hardly ever rate an app, but I have a couple of minutes before my plane takes off, this time I'm going to go right there and give it as many stars as I'm legally allowed to!"

Or maybe something in the new code is broken. Maybe it's accidentally dropping in a 5-star rating whenever somebody uses the app to track their arrival time.

And maybe... somebody somewhere on the SW social media team really, really, wanted the app to have a better rating. And decided to make sure that happened.

We reached out to Southwest, but they're still formulating a response. We'll let you know as soon as we find out.

(Southwest Airlines image by iStock photo)

Jeremy Bloom

When Jeremy Bloom isn't writing about energy, the environment, or the amazing strangeness of modern life, you can find him drinking really good single malt whisky...

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