The Basics of App Store Optimization
App Store Optimization (ASO) are the tactics you can use to “rank” your app higher in the App Store. Ranking governs which apps are listed as the Top 25 and Top 100 in the App Store. An app’s ranking greatly influences how many people install it, which is why you use ASO to get more app installs.
You’ve just made your first iPhone app and published it into the App Store. Great! But… your app installs aren’t going through the roof. Now what?
In this tutorial you’re going to take a look at the 3 most fundamental factors for App Store Optimization and app page marketing: your app’s title, screenshots and keywords. The goal is to get the basics right, so you can then focus on improving your rankings.
Table of Contents
What is App Store Optimization?
App Store Optimization is the process of improving the visibility of an app in the App Store, with the goal of ranking higher in search results and Top rankings. A higher ranking means that more users download and install the app.
App Store Optimization isn’t the only thing that matters in App Marketing. A common misconception among app developers is thinking that, once you’ve built an app, you can get tens of thousands of installs with App Store Optimization alone. This is far from true. Many aspects of ideation, validation, design, development, marketing and business operations influence an app’s success.
App Store Optimization means that you’re making an effort to expose your app to a bigger number of potential users, and increase your chances of acquiring those users. If you don’t have any users to start with, there’s not much to optimize. If you’ve made poor decisions in design and development, App Store Optimization can’t save you.
What yields greater results: Optimizing 100 downloads a month to get 10% extra app downloads, or optimizing 10.000 downloads a month to get 10% extra? It’s the latter, of course! You’d rather have +1000 vs. +10 downloads extra. This is why it’s smart to improve the foundations of ASO first.
As a beginner app marketer, focus your efforts on:
- Making sure your App Marketing is good enough. This means creating a good enough App Store page, creating good enough screenshots, and using good enough app keywords. “Good enough” is key here! Don’t make it perfect; but don’t skimp on ’em either.
- At a later point, and on a regular basis, it’s smart to optimize your App Store Optimization efforts. Focus on the small wins that compound into big wins, like getting good app ratings, and improve and maintain your app’s search keywords to grow your app installs.
Perfect is the enemy of good. The worst thing you can do is focus too much on optimizing, when you haven’t yet created something that is getting traction in the first place.
When you’re ready to do App Store Optimization, what are the most important factors?
ASO 101: App Title, Screenshots and Keywords
The aspects of your App Store Optimization efforts that determine your app’s ranking are:
- Your app’s title and its keywords, both in the title itself and in your app’s description.
- The app icon, which is a single representative symbol that’s used to identify the app in the App Store and on a user’s home screen.
- App screenshots, the graphic assets that show the app’s benefits and features, when browsing the App Store. You can also provide a demo video.
- App ratings and reviews, a 1-to-5 star rating, and optional textual review, which is the voice of a user that’s already using your app.
- Your app’s description, and localization, the text that’s shown in the App Store alongside the app icon and screenshots.
- App downloads, the number of users that have already downloaded your app. You can’t directly influence downloads, but it does influence your App Store ranking. It’s also probable that click-through rates, app install rate (installed vs. uninstalled) and several automated factors contribute to your App Store ranking.
If you had to pick any three, then these are the most important:
- App keywords: Keywords determine your effectiveness in App Store search, so when you use the right keywords, users will find your app more easily – if your app has enough clout to rank for that keyword!
- App rating: Most potential app users will factor in your app’s rating when deciding to download your app, and with two equal app choices, with one having a better rating, it’s only logical to pick the app with the better rating.
- App screenshots: Screenshots can both describe your app with text captions, and help the user understand if your app does what they’re looking for.
Your app’s icon is the wildcard here. Looking through the App Store, you’ll see app icons everywhere. The app is the icon, and vice versa. If you can convey clearly who your app is for by using your app’s icon, you’re one stem closer to effectively marketing your app. When in doubt, ask yourself: “What does this app icon remind me of?”
Several tools can track these factors and determine their influence on an apps ranking. Popular tools are:
- AppAnnie, a tool that’s best used for checking your app’s ranking, ranking per keyword, and as a “lookup” tool for competitors. AppAnnie mostly focuses on enterprise customers.
- AppTweak helps you unlock the data behind your ASO efforts, so you can take the right decisions to improve your rankings. It also has market analysis tools, such as download/revenue estimates for apps.
- App Radar helps you increase organic downloads with App Store Optimization. You can track rankings for keywords and discover keyword opportunities.
Apple has its own App Analytics platform, and it is the only tool that can measure inbound visits to your App Store app page.
If you don’t include any tracking in your app, App Analytics can still give you a decent insight into app engagement and conversion rates. Reporting on inbound traffic on your App Store page is very valuable, because it can tell you where potential users come from before they install your app.
Now that you know what factors to pay attention to, let’s continue to the first one: your app’s title, and keywords.
Picking a Great App Title and Keywords
What’s in a name? The title of an app is a “hook” that people use to identify your app. The name is not the brand, but it’s part of your brand.
Your app’s name is visible on your website (outside the App Store), inside the App Store itself and below the app icon on a user’s home screen. A good app name is the starting point of App Store Optimization.
Finding a good app title is an art on its own. In general, an app name – as seen from an ASO perspective – should address two things:
- Does it include a brand or product name?
- Does it include relevant keywords?
The name of an app, together with its icon, is often the first trigger for a user to check it out in the App Store. When browsing the top lists, a user only sees an app’s icon, title and category. When searching (i.e. using the search function) a user sees the app icon, title, rating, the name of the publisher and 2 screenshots.
In the above screenshot, you can tell that these apps are going to show up for search phrases like “run tracker”, “movie maker” and “meme editor” — even though none of those keyword combinations are explicitly provided.
The best app name is a name that a potential user searches for, and your app shows up as the top result. Think of typing “shoes.com” into your web browser, but then for apps. Can your app own that space?
The best keywords are words that a user uses to describe your app, in their own words. This is important! You may think of your Sleep Meditation app as a “sleep” app, whereas users could prefer to use the word “meditation” or “going to sleep”. With a good App Store Optimization tool, you can tap into those keyword ideas and find more of them.
Ask yourself: “When a user searches for my product, what kind of keywords would they use?” It’s often not enough to come up with a search term you think is relevant. You need to test what kind of words your target audience associates your service with.
A good way of researching that is using a keyword tool, like Google Keyword Planner or App Radar. These tools return search results based on keyword ideas you put in. Such search queries are used by real-world users, which makes it a good representation of how a potential customer searches for your product. On top of that, many research tools can give you an indication of search volume: How many users search for those keywords?
When you’ve established both the app’s brand name and its keywords, put the two together. Keep in mind that Apple sometimes rejects apps that include a slogan or catchphrase. You can only include keywords in the title when they’re relevant for the app, or explain the app title in a more complete way than just the brand name.
Note: It used to be common to include a catchphrase or slogan in the app name in the App Store, like “Beepboop – Sleep Timer”. This behavior is becoming less common, because you can now add a slogan right below your app name in the App Store. Plenty of apps still include a slogan and keywords in their app’s name, and/or use the slogan, so YMMV.
Good app titles are:
- Moleskine Timepage – Calendar for iCloud, Google and Exchange. Moleskine is obviously the brand name, but “Calendar” and “iCloud” etc. are relevant search keywords.
- Ultimate Guitar Tabs – largest catalog of songs with guitar and ukulele chords, tabs, lyrics and guitar lessons. “Ultimate Guitar Tabs” isn’t enough, because potential customers might search for “chords” or “ukelele lessons”.
- Sleep Cycle alarm clock. Although the product is known as a “sleep cycle app”, it’s function is that of an “alarm clock”.
Bad app titles are:
- US PayPal Fees. This is a fee calculator for PayPal, but it omits relevant keywords: calculator, share, etc.
- Iconzoomer. Unfortunately, this app title doesn’t tell one bit about what it is. And no, it does not zoom icons.
- mPage. This is an app for a popular online learning system, Moodle. Unfortunately, the app name only includes the ambiguous “mPage” name.
Found a good app title? Let’s continue with creating app screenshots.
Screenshots & App Store Optimization
App screenshots help a potential user a peek inside your app before they install it. Think like a user: when you’re browsing the App Store looking for an app, you are constantly asking yourself if an app does what you’re looking for. Good screenshots help with that!
In the App Store, 2 screenshots are shown when using the search function, but no screenshots are shown when browsing a Top list. When opening the app page in the App Store, all screenshots are shown (two at a time). App pages can have a header image, and curated content in the App Store often includes additional graphics.
A screenshot is typically an image of the UI of several in-app screens, which isn’t optimal. See, when a user sees your app in the App Store, they’re asking 3 questions:
- What is this app for?
- What’s in it for me?
- How can I use this app?
When one question results in a negative decision, i.e. “This app isn’t for me”, the next questions aren’t asked. That’s why it’s so important to have a solid app title. The question “What’s this app for?” is answered by the title of your app, and by the keywords inside the title.
The screenshots of your app help the user answer these questions. A user will try to understand the user interface design of your app, and ascertain whether or not your app can be used to get to the goal they have in mind.
Merely using screenshots of your User Interfaces won’t help the user discover why they should use their app. A UI only conveys so much; what’s the real benefit of using an app?
Fortunately, there’s a solution. Instead of showing literal UI screenshots, create images that include the UI and also put one or 2 lines of sales copy on top.
You’ve seen this before: an image that shows an iPhone with the app’s UI, and above that it tells you something about the app itself. Including key benefits as text inside an app screenshot allows you to explain your app and sell it’s UI at the same time.
When deciding on what text to put on top of the app screenshot, keep the following heuristics in mind:
- Use your keywords. By now you know what words a potential user uses to describe your app, so make sure the same keywords are visible in the screenshot text too. Help them recognize your app.
- List benefits of your app, not features. Some apps use texts like “Store unlimited to-do’s” or “Play over a 1000 levels!”. That won’t answer the “What’s in it for me?” question; it only plainly lists features. Instead of features, list benefits: “Cashflow planning for startups”, or “Intuitive task management that gets out of your way”, or “See your account balance at a glance”.
- Don’t distract. When using extra graphics in the image, don’t distract the user from the main message. Use solid color background, not photographs, and do not include extra graphic elements such as fancy text boxes or icons.
- Use a device image. Wrap the screenshots in a mockup of a physical iPhone. Some apps prefer the flat iPhone illustration, other apps prefer the actual physical iPhone product photos. Keep in mind that skewed/perspective graphics reduce the amount of detail that’s visible in the UI screenshots.
You can include a video, too. It’s shown alongside the app screenshots. Viideos are a great way to portray the functionality of your app, and build trust with the user. In your video, include the key benefits of your app and use a voice-over to explain them. Again, don’t distract the user with too much graphics and keep it short.
App title: check. Keywords: check. Screenshots: check. What’s next? Your app’s icon!
Designing A Great App Icon
If the app title is the most important textual hook point for a user, then the app icon must be the most important visual hook. The icon of your app is used everywhere, both inside and outside the App Store. Just like a logo represents a brand, your app icon represents your app.
Graphic design is an art and industry on its own, but within the realms of App Store Optimization, take note of the following app icon heuristics:
- Use one centered graphic element that has no overlapping pieces. iOS app icons can’t include transparent elements. Keep in mind that Apple occasionally changes the rounding parameters of app icons.
- Keep it simple: don’t use complex, photo-like graphics, and keep to simple surfaces and basic colors.
- Use recognizable iconography. Think about the universal “Save” icon, the floppy disk. Although people born today don’t know what it is, they know it saves stuff. Do the same for your app icon, don’t reinvent the wheel. Something like a notepad icon, a guitar pick, and a clock icon.
- Stick to the trend. We went from skeuomorphic to flat design between iOS 6 and 7, and now with Big Sur, we’re going back to flat + skeu again. Keep an eye on the trend, and avoid standing out as obsolete. Or… make your own trend!
If you have trouble designing an app icon, consider these resources:
- Start a design contest on platforms like 99designs. At best they give you a ready-for-publishing app icon, at worst you end up with ideas for app icons. You can then hire a graphic designer to iterate on a particular theme or style.
- Use a graphic template from platforms like GraphicRiver. Often, you can choose a simple $10 vector graphic, change its colors, put a background behind it, and you’re done. This isn’t perfect, of course, but perfect is the enemy of good (so far).
Don’t forget that your app’s icon also represents the app on the user’s Home Screen. You’ll want something that stands out there, too. Pick an icon and an app name that captures your app’s function, and helps the user recognize what this app is for.
App Store Optimization helps users discover your app in the App Store. We’ve discussed the basics of ASO in this tutorial. A quick recap:
- It doesn’t make sense to completely rely on App Store Optimization to bring in downloads for a poorly designed, poorly developed app that no one really wants.
- Focus your efforts on creating a good enough App Store page, by picking a good app title, researching keywords, and crafting compelling screenshots.
- A good app title includes 2-3 keywords. A good app screenshot includes a caption, and is simple. Good keywords… you can only find those with a keyword research tool. And your app’s icon? Make it stick!
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