Everything You Need to Know to Get App Store Optimization Right the First Time
It’s been eight years since Apple launched the App Store for iOS. EIGHT years.
It’s certainly an eternity in tech—most of us can’t imagine our lives without messaging apps, dating in the palm of our hand, and having our favorite brands interact with us even though we’re not in their physical location.
But even though it’s been nearly a decade, the search and discovery functions of the app stores (Google Play, too) don’t operate anything like the internet itself.
SEO is one thing. ASO (app store optimization) is another beast entirely.
But just because the search in app stores isn’t as refined as it is in search engines doesn’t mean it’s any less irrelevant.
“For the average app,” said Ankit Jain, the Head of Search & Discovery at Google Play, “search actually makes up the vast majority of installs.”
That means that no matter how good your marketing to increase downloads is, you’re still going to be highly dependent on app store-based search.
Which is why setting up your app’s page the right way within the different app stores is so, so important.
And by the end of this guide, you’ll be able to do just that.
ASO’s Technical Backend
Just like you take care of the metadata ground work for your website’s SEO, you have to take care of your app’s metadata in the same way.
This is the setup you can control, and is a foundation you can lay out before you ever launch your app to the public, boosting your performance from day one.
This is the main and most important piece of metadata you’ll create for your app.
It’s the very first thing people will see (along with your icon) and it’s what will let them know if your app is relevant to the search they’ve made or not. So it needs to be descriptive in some way. Not to mention it’s effect on relevance within app store search rankings.
Ideally, you’d be able to fit everything into 25 characters, since otherwise you get those funny little ellipses that cut off your app’s name… which kind of defeats the purpose.
“Photo Editor Pro” is a great name for this app. It includes both the function of the app (editing photos) and gives it the right sense of weight by adding “Pro” on the end. The name fits within the display limits, and there’s no question as to what this app is about.
This app, however, which also came up in my app search for “photo editor”, doesn’t immediately tell you what it does with it’s name. All you can see is “BeautyPlus – Magic”—which could really be anything about physical or inner appearance. Thankfully their app icon is helping them out.
BUT if you already have an app name set in place that doesn’t really do a good job of describing what you do, you can add a slug after the name for some descriptors, which will help in both search and with users identifying the relevance.
Truth be told, I don’t know anything about BeautyPlus, so it’s entirely possible that they’ve already got an established brand and felt they needed to use that name for their app name, which is fair enough. But the fact that they’ve added the keyword “camera” in their title will help them rank for their intended purpose.
#2. App Description
While your app description is one field to be filled out in your app’s metadata, there’s two parts of it to consider: above the fold and below the fold.
As you can imagine, a lot more users will only read the “above the fold” part, which is just enough space for a 1-2 sentence description.
Because users care less about keywords and more about the utility of the app in their day-to-day lives, use the first couple sentences to focus on the function and the benefit of the app. You know, so people will actually want to download it.
Of course, fit in keywords where they fit, but don’t go overboard.
The section below, though, is where you can really focus on making sure you include your relevant keywords and talk about the app’s individual features.
Here you can see the “above the fold” description of this app. It’s very concise and talks all about it’s utility.
When I clicked on “…More” all of this popped up. There’s in-depth information on all the features and keywords worked in to help them with their rankings.
Google Play doesn’t have a separate section for specific keywords, but Apple does.
And needless to say, it’s a section you’ll want to take advantage of since these characters are taken into consideration in search results.
The only real drawback is you’re only allowed 100 characters, which only about 2/3 of a tweet.
BUT you can still pack a punch with these keywords, especially if you know some insider hacks to doing so.
- Only using single words (no long tail phrases)
- Separating words with a comma (no spaces)
- Not repeating keywords that are already used in your title
- Using single versions of nouns so you can save characters by not using “es” or “s”
This is what the keyword entry field looks like when you’re inputting your app’s metadata. (Screenshot from App Annie)
#4. Localizing Keywords by Country Store
Apple and Android both have country-specific stores their users visit depending on their physical location and the language they speak.
When you change your keywords used for each of these stores based on the keyword search patterns of those areas, you greatly increase your app’s rankings and downloads.
So much so, that one app increased their downloads by 767% with this strategy. That’s over 7.5x users… which is a huge chunk.
Here is the AliExpress app in the US iOS store.
And this is the AliExpress app for Brazil’s iOS store. Because people are searching with different words in a different language, AliExpress increases their relevancy with each country-based audience by tailoring the language and phrasing they use in their app descriptions. (It’s not always a direct translation.)
#5. Publisher Name
“The publisher name is also used by the App Store algorithm,” said Sylvain Gauchet on Apptamin. “Search phrases mixing keywords between the developer’s name and the app name seem to work.”
So if you’re a company that creates and publishes lots of different apps across lots of different industries, you might not be able to use this trick to your advantage.
But if you’ve only published one app for your company, or you develop apps that focus on one specific niche: like workouts, cooking, or outdoor adventure, making sure your developer name has relevant keywords in it could help you rank better for people doing a generic search.
This app is for tracking pregnancy, but the related keywords “health” and “parenting” in the publisher name can help it with its ASO rankings.
Where to Find These Keywords
Now that we’ve spent a fair amount of time bossing you around about what to do with your keywords when it comes to your app’s ASO metadata, we’d be remiss if we didn’t actually help you out in finding those things.
Because it’s not nearly as easy as checking out what Google Autocomplete suggests. (If only.)
Like SEO, you do still need to take things like search volume, competition, and relevancy into consideration… but the way keywords perform in a browser-based search engine is much different to how they perform in app stores.
So here’s some good places you can go to get that app store-specific keyword data you’re after:
#1. App Annie
App Annie is used by 94% of the top 100 app publishers, so you know they’re doing something right.
They go much deeper than just keywords and into things like the intelligence of how people actually interact with your app, but we’ll save all of that good stuff for another blog post.
When it comes to discovering keywords, it has an ASO section in its dashboard where you can see any app’s top-ranking keywords. (And these store stats are free to access after you sign up for an account.)
This is an iOS report for the Unscientific Calculator app. Near the bottom, you can see they give the top keywords this app ranks for.
Formerly MobileDevHQ, this tool helps you boost your app’s search results and rank higher in charts—most of their clients see a 20% increase in downloads after implementing the suggested keyword changes.
See how well your app ranks for certain keywords, and find suggested keywords to integrate into your ASO metadata.
#3. Sensor Tower
This is a tool that focuses on helping you pick out the most important keywords for your ASO campaign and lets you look at what kind of competition you’ve got stacked against you so you can decide which keywords are the best to target and which ones might be best left alone.
It even lets you see the differences between iPhone and iPad if you’re looking at keywords for iOS apps, for example. (source)
#4. App Tweak
This is a tool that has a free one week trial, which is certainly enough to find a solid list of keywords, and they’ve got other cool features beyond just keywords that would make them worth paying for.
Specifically focusing on keywords, however, App Tweak helps you find localized keywords in six different languages (English, French, German, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese) and lets you see their daily performance so you can identify trends popular in your app’s industry.
This, for example, is a sample keyword analysis for the Google Play store.
#6. Keyword Tool
This tool helps you find keywords using App Store Autocomplete, which means it focuses on the most commonly searched items by users wanting to download an app… so the search intent behind the keywords is high.
When I searched the word “productivity” in their App Store search function, these were the results it gave me.
Images are more about presentation than actual metadata-based optimization.
You can have the best keyword-optimized metadata setup in the entire app store, but if you’re images aren’t enticing or explanatory, you’ll lose rankings because no one will interact with your app description or download it.
Basically, your icon has to look good enough to make people want to click on it. The image quality needs to be high, and the design needs to correlate with both your app’s name and it’s function.
Instagram’s icon, for example, reminds you of an old polaroid camera. This works because the app is based around personal photos (what the polaroid camera was for) and shares them in a square shape.
The Instagram icon is both colorfully enticing and does a great job conveying the description of the functionality & benefits of the app.
To get the most impact with your icon, Optimizely suggests to avoid cramming words into it (save that for your title and description), and to add a border or background color behind your main image to make sure your image stands out on all screen colors.
First things first: the “screenshots” you upload into your app’s page in the app store don’t have to be exclusively and only direct screenshots that demonstrate the app’s flow of use.
Instead, think of them as promotional graphics that incorporate app screenshots to show the action of the app and the benefits of using it in a visual form. Kind of like a description, but for people who don’t want to read.
Instead of showing the exact process you go through with direct screenshots, Duolingo shows only those screenshots that show the ease of the learning process with descriptive text to entice more downloads.
As a rule of thumb, try to make your first two the most impactful, focusing around the end user benefits of the app, rather than the technical functionality.
ASO’s Third Party Factors
Up until this point, we’ve talked about ASO factors that you have 100% control over setting up yourself.
You can get a long way with these alone, but it’s some of the more arbitrary factors that will push you over the edge into greater success.
Reviews and ratings that come from your users, for example, play a big part in how well you rank in your category, and subsequently how well your app performs overall.
Well-written, happy, and thoughtful reviews can be a great factor that helps increase conversions.
Just don’t fake them.
I used to work for a company that did this (thank God I left), and it was so obvious and easy to spot.
Yea, you might have a great app, but 15 people claiming “It’s the best app I’ve ever used!!!!!” and all with five stars is insanely obvious.
These reviews, for example. Clearly fakes. (Source)
Clearly, it’s much better to let your users be the ones to review your app, and when you prompt them with a question like “What do you like most about [your app name]?” it gets them thinking and increases your chances of getting an honest, positive answer to that question… which is what prospective users are looking for in the reviews section, anyway.
If I was asked that question about a real estate app, for example, I might respond with something like “I like how easily I can find properties in my price range in my area” rather than simply “nice app, easy to use” which is something I might write if not prompted.
Here’s some five star reviews for Candy Crush Saga. You can see how the first two reviews, though five-star, really didn’t take much thought even though the users love it. The third review, though, is very substantial and could have easily been elicited from the two users above if they’d used a question like “What’s got you hooked on our game?”
To get more and better reviews for your app, you can use a plugin like Rate Our App to prompt responses, while also creating an incentive like more lives or in-app credit in exchange for leaving a review.
You know, those things where your users either give you one star (if your app is terrible), five stars (if your app is great), or somewhere in between.
How highly your app is rated is directly connected to your app store performance, ranking, and number of downloads. (Clearly, no one wants to download an app everyone else thinks is crappy.)
If you’re lacking in ratings… getting more is easy. You can simply use a plugin to prompt your visitors to rate you while they’re using their app.
Here’s what Rate Our App (mentioned above) looks like on iOS.
You’ll get better ratings, though, if you time the prompt to pop up after a positive experience within the app rather than just when someone is about to close out of your app.
For example, in the screenshot above, you can see that the rating prompt pops up right when the user is about to spend money by making a purchase… which means that they used the app to find exactly what they were looking for… meaning they’re more than likely happy with it.
Plus, according to Apptentive, the top 100 apps in either app store often had at least 10,000 ratings… so the more ratings you can prompt (and the higher those ratings), the better your rankings will get.
This is something that only matters for Google Play, since, like Google’s search engine, it takes PageRank into consideration.
So if you have an app on Android, you can use the same kind of tactics you’d use with SEO to get backlinks from quality sites to point to your website, but instead point it to your Play Store url.
This page on Indie Game Hunt, an app review site, gives a link back to each of the apps they feature directly to their Play Store url.
If you’re doing a web-based SEO backlink strategy, then incorporating your app store link into the mix of your guest blog posts, your forum commenting, and your info-building efforts, switching between when you use your website’s url and your app’s url.
“Google has access to PageRank and the link graph of the web, while Apple does not,” said Ian Sefferman on Moz. “Thus, Google will take into account the inbound links to your app’s detail page as a factor in Google Play search.”
Apple vs. Google
For the most part, the basic mechanics of ranking in the App Store and the Play Store are pretty much the same.
Certain keywords may perform better or worse in one store over the other, but if you’re just getting started, you can more or less use the same strategy for both and tweak descriptions and keywords along the way as you see fit.
Cartwheel by Target for iOS.
Cartwheel by Target for Android. As you can see, the descriptions are slightly different, but the screenshots they’ve chosen are the same, except for the iOS vs Android versions.
The only major and obvious differences that you have to account for, of course, is the 100-character keyword field that Apple allows and the consideration of backlink “juice” by Android.
Oh, and the fact that you’ll want to make sure your screenshots are representative of the store they’re in.
Go Get ‘Em Tiger
While part of App Store Optimization is a clear, cut and dry science, parts of it are art, too. Which, unfortunately, makes even the most straightforward scientific parts not completely predictable.
And while things like category-based top charts ranking, ratings, reviews, and number of downloads can help you get an idea of how successful your app is, none of those numbers really tell you the ultimate truth: how your app is affecting the bottom line of your business.
We’ve given you guidelines for ASO setup to give you a great start, but we’d suggest always keeping your hand in the ASO game with one experiment or another, seeing how tweaks in one place affect metrics like ranking and downloads, and whether or not those app store boosts bring you boosts in revenue.
They don’t have to be difficult experiments, but ASO (like SEO) is always changing, so constant learning about app store performance and behavior will keep you ahead of the game.