How To Choose Keywords For Apple App Store SEO

Learn The Exact Methods I Use To Get Apps To Rank & Get More Downloads

Ever since I’ve started out in the app business I’ve become obsessed by App Store Optimization (ASO or otherwise known as App Store SEO).  I have quite a bit of experience in the world of search engine optimization and I know the power of ranking highly within search results.  While it takes a lot of effort to reach the number one position, the results are well worth it, with a potentially ongoing stream of leads, customers and revenue.

My main marketing effort since launching the magazine and my other apps has been to improve their organic search rankings.  In my interview with Chad Mureta (in  Issue 2), I was astounded to learn that he did not expend any effort on external marketing but rather he focussed on internal marketing within the app ecosystem, including of course ASO.  Before investing time in outside marketing, I wanted to optimize my search rankings as much as possible.

So the first question you should ask yourself is “does ASO actually work?”  In an article I published on my blog, I revealed how a bug in the iTunesConnect system caused most of the keywords of my first app to be wiped out.  My partner and I debated whether to defer the actual launch of the paid app, but we decided to release it and test the market.  As expected the app was a total flop… The first day we got about 8 downloads and then it petered down to 2-3 downloads a day.  This was the pre-ASO state of our app.

Once we launched the updated version, with all our keywords in place, our downloads immediately and instantly shot up.  Did we do any external marketing or have any other reason for the increase in downloads? No.  This was purely related to traffic coming from search.

before and after app store optimization
The red dot shows where the updated keywords were entered. Note the marked increase in downloads purely from search.

You can see from the graph above how dramatic this change in downloads was:  from an average of about 4 downloads per day to an average of about 20 downloads per day, an increase of over 500%!  This change meant for us a change in revenue from $84 per month from this one app to over $400 per month, after Apple’s cut.

So, yes, ASO is real and it does work.  Using my own experience and research I went on to optimize the keywords for other apps.  For example, using careful keyword selection I managed to increase the app downloads for Guitar Skills Magazine  by 100% and using just one of my suggestions, Matt Clark (internet marketers turned app developer) also managed to more than double his downloads and rank his app Ab Workouts Express in the top 20 Medical apps in the US (previously being ranked 260 in Health & Fitness).  My good friend and fellow magazine publisher, Meron Bareket, using some of my ASO tips, managed to increase the downloads of Inspiring Innovation Magazine by over the astounding figure of 700%.

ab workouts express before and after app store seo
Ab Workouts Express shot up to the top 50 medical apps in the US straight after integrating basic ASO principles.
Guitar Skills App Store SEO
Guitar Skills Magazine managed to improve their rankings from an erratic #10-20 in the Movies & Music section of the Newsstand to a steady ranking of #2-3 by implementing my specific keyword suggestions (yellow dot).

So how did I manage to achieve these results?  The purpose of this article is to outline the lessons I’ve learnt and my own workflow to determine the best keywords.  By the end you should be able to achieve the same results.

5 Important Lessons In ASO Strategy

There are a few rules that I learned about ASO strategy that I’d like to share with you.  Firstly, ASO is not a “fire and forget” method.  If you are serious about getting traffic from search, you need to constantly monitor and optimize results.  What does this mean?  When you select keywords, you are making an educated guess.  Once the results are reflected in the App Store, that’s when you’ll know if your hypothesis was right or not.  For some keywords you might not rank highly or not rank at all.  You need to pick these up early and swap them out for keywords that have a chance of ranking, otherwise you are wasting precious space in your app name and keyword fields.

Another point to note is that you really need to use one of the great ASO tools that are out in the market.  I don’t get paid to promote these products, I just truly believe in them.  If you were to manually track your keywords you would need to spend a lot of time entering queries manually into iTunes.  This not only takes a lot of time, but can also be totally inaccurate.  iTunes search results can often be quite different to the results on devices and your device is usually locked on to a particular country’s App Store.  This means that if you want to track results in the US and your device showed up results from the Australian App Store you wouldn’t get a true reflection of your US search rankings.  Do yourself a favour and invest in one of these tools.  In this and previous issues we have presented the various tools available, including MobileDevHQ, AppStoreRankings, Searchman and  My personal favourites are and and you can sign up for them for as little as $15 per month.

Moving on, when targeting keywords you need to choose your battles wisely.  Specifically, for your new app, you are going to need to target less competitive phrases when you start out.  Since where you appear within the search results is determined by factors such as total downloads, download velocity, number and quality of rankings (for further details read Ian Sefferman’s in-depth article in Issue 4), a new app has a lower chance of ranking highly.  To get that initial momentum, pick battles that you can win and as your downloads increase and you get positive reviews, you can start targeting “meatier” search terms.

Another lesson that I learnt is that not all apps are as easy to optimize.  While games and novelty apps can definitely benefit from optimization, they are much more of a challenge.  For games, people tend to search for a specific app they have heard of or they might search for very broad terms such as “fun games” or “games for children”, which are extremely competitive.  Optimizing productivity and utility type apps are much easier in terms of targeting long-tail specific functions that users are looking for.

Lastly, another element to be aware of is that paid apps are also more of a challenge to optimize.  This goes back to the point that rankings are based on downloads numbers and since paid apps are downloaded about 10 times less than free apps, paid apps have an uphill battle to rank highly in search.  Again, paid apps can definitely be optimized, although free apps are likely to see more of a significant change in downloads.

What I Learnt About Targeting Keywords

Most of what I learnt about targeting keywords came from a very important interview with Matthäus Krzykowski of Xyologic in Issue 2 of this magazine.  For those who aren’t aware, Xyo is a search engine for apps, similar in its concept to Chomp, which was bought out by Apple in 2012.  Since they are a consumer-facing search engine for app discovery, the Xyo team has some great insights into how people search for apps within the App Store.

Firstly, 80% of people type in “category” or “genre” type searches, such as “games”, “magazines”, etc.  The Holy Grail of ASO is to identify a type of genre search which is still not overly competitive.   In order to find these types of opportunities you normally need to spot trends early – for example optimizing your apps for terms such as “gangnam style games” or “London Olympics”.

Of all searches, only 5% or less are searches for specific app titles (such as “Angry Birds”).  Targeting specific app names is somewhat “black hat”, although it certainly is a valid tactic.  A point to note here is that Apple will often backlist certain terms, especially if they are concerned you may be violating existing trademarks or copyrights.  From my experience, if you try and optimize for a generic sounding name, such as “Angry Birds”, you will normally be fine.  However if you try a target a unique name such as “Kindle” you will find that your app simply won’t be indexed within the search results.  You can still try and target uniquely named apps if you believe that achieving search rankings will result in a lot of traffic, but be sure to monitor and quickly cut out the keyword if your app is not appearing in the results.

Continuing to dwell on Xyo’s data, 5-10% of searches are “inspirational searches”, such as “great apps” or “new apps”.  Adding on these types of adjectives such as “great”, “new”, etc is important in order to target this type of search query.  The great thing about these adjectives is that they can cause your app to rank for multiple keyword permutations.  You shouldn’t throw these adjectives in at random, but rather research the individual keywords you are targeting to make sure that you have a chance of ranking (see the next section below).

Lastly, 5% of searches are “transactional searches”, where searchers are looking for a particular app function, such as “crop photos” or “download videos”.  These types of phrases are great for optimizing utility and productivity type apps.  An obvious but important point is to make sure that your app actually delivers what the user was searching for.  Otherwise you might find that although you are ranking highly for a certain term, your conversion rate will be very low.

How I Find The Best Keywords

So now this is the section that will make you money.  I’m going to reveal my own workflow for finding the best performing keywords.  But first we need to ask ourselves, what actually is the ideal keyword?

The best type of keyword is obviously a word or phrase that a lot of people are searching for, yet that does not have too much competition.  So there are two variables that we need to know about regarding any keyword combination:  how popular is the search query and how many competitors are there?

Firstly, regarding competition, how do we know what is a reasonable level of competition?  For this, you need to keep in mind how search results are displayed on the App Store.  On the iPhone with the new iOS 6, results are displayed one at a time and therefore users are highly unlikely to scroll past the 10th result.  On the iPad, with 6 results displayed at any one time on the screen, users are unlikely to click on anything beyond the 30th result.  Obviously the higher up you are ranked, the more likely users are to click through on your app description and to download your app.  A study conducted by Optify regarding click-through rates (CTR) and position in search results on Google shows the importance of positioning:  sites ranked #1 in Google have an average CTR of 36.4%, #2 ranked sites have an average CTR of 12.5% and sites ranked #3 have an average CTR of 9.5%.  The CTRs deteriorate further with each drop in rank.

On the iPhone, my guess would be that the CTRs would be much higher for #1 ranked app and much lower for the subsequent apps when compare to the Google data, with the first result probably having a CTR of around 50-60% or more and sharply dropping off after that.  Remember, in Google, the top 10 results are all displayed on the first page at once, while on the iPhone users must scroll through the results one at a time, so intuitively this will results in a much, much lower CTR for all results beyond #1.

optify CTR curve
Optify study [December 2010] showing click through rates based on ranking in Google search results. Note the marked drop in CTR after the #1 ranked site.
The implication for this data is that in order to generate significant traffic from search, you pretty much have to be ranked within the top 3 results on the iPhone and within the top 6 results on the iPad.  Therefore I will generally only try and target terms where I think I can rank within these positions. This means selecting terms with very few competitors, or where most of the competitors are relatively “weak”.

The tool that I normally use to quickly check the number of competitors is  You can even use this function of theirs for free. Go to and click on “demo account” and on the next screen where it asks for your email you can just press “skip”.  In the search bar on the right, type in your search term, for example “guitar” and you will see the total competitor count displayed (in this example “110”, which essentially means there are more than 110 apps).  This tool also includes a useful stat, which is the “Max Chance” to rank within the top 16 results on the iPhone and can give you a quick indication if you have a chance of ranking in a meaningful position.  I will normally target terms where I have the maximum chance of ranking in the top results according to AppCodes (93%) and where the total number of competitors is under 10 (and preferably under 4).

How To Use AppCodes To Find Keywords For App Store SEO

Beyond just the total number of competitors, I also look at the strength of the competition.  To do this I peek at the number and quality of the app ratings and also whether the top results are paid or free apps.  If a lot of the top results have low ratings and also include paid apps, I might consider competing for this phrase even if there are more than 10 competitors because this can indicate that the competition is fairly weak.

While we need to target low competition phrases, we also need to make sure that lots of people are actually searching for this in the first place.  Appcodes again provides us with important data to make an educated decision. To get an indication of the search volume I will again look at the total number of ratings of the top apps, with the number of ratings being proportional to the download numbers.  AppCodes also pulls in data from Xyologic, displaying a download estimate on a monthly basis and overall.  For me, the more important piece of data is the previous month’s download estimate.  My “ideal” keyword will have very few competitors (under 4 as I mentioned before) and the top results will have hundreds of ratings, with previous month downloads in the 10’s of thousands, indicating high search volume. 

While I was just discussing using AppCodes here to research keywords, I also use  AppStoreRankings, which is also an amazing tool, however you will need to pay in order to access this function of theirs.

Now you know the exact workflow that I use to evaluate whether a keyword is worth targeting.  But how do we find potential keywords in the first place?

If you want to learn how to generate a list of awesome keywords to target in your App Store Optimization campaign, do yourself a favor and download MAKE APP Magazine to your iPad.  Read our two part series on ASO in Issue 4 & 5 in order to learn how to generate more app downloads, for free.

Click Here To Download on your iPad or search for “Make App Magazine” on the App Store.