App Store Optimization 201: Keyword Volume & Competition

In this article I’d like to address a few misconceptions and share from my experience dealing with App store Optimization.

The basic formula everyone already knows – target high volume, low competition keywords.  So this sentence means different things to different people.  What this does NOT mean is to randomly chuck in single word keywords hoping some of them will hit the mark.

This is one of my biggest peeves of training people in ASO and dealing with so-called ASO experts. So we’ll dive into some of this slightly more advanced theory.

What does a high volume keyword mean?  How do you determine this?

Also, we’ll look at competition.  How many competitors do you need to compete against?  Or do we need to look at other factors in order to judge competition? (Hint: The answer is YES).

A Closer Look At Keyword Volume

Unlike with Google based SEO, there is no one perfect tool such as the GKWT (Google Keyword Tool, now called the Keyword Planner) for ASO.  Therefore as a keyword researcher you need to take in all the objective data at your disposal to determine what type of volume a particular keyword has.

Here is a summary of the data points that you should consider when trying to estimate volume for a particular keyword:

1.       Ratings pattern. 

Number of ratings is probably one of the most reliable proxies for measuring number of downloads.

When looking at the ratings pattern, always look at the Current Reviews (not all time) and keep in mind the time since the last update.  The reason I recommend looking at Current Reviews with respect to time since last update is that some apps may have tens of thousands of all time reviews, but have very few downloads currently.  This would be the case in apps that were once popular in the early days of the apps store, but which since then have sunk into obscurity.

How many ratings are a lot of ratings?  This is individual for each country.  You can get a sense for how much is a lot by typing in something “Big” like the kw “games” into a tool like Senor Tower (my favorite ASO tool).

app store seo

You can see above that for the US app store, “a lot” of ratings is in the high hundreds to thousands of current reviews.

You can also see in the above diagram that ALL the top apps have “a lot” of ratings, which means that “games” is probably a very high volume term!

On the other hand, for the random kw phrase “boring games” look at the pattern below:

app store optimization

You can see a very different picture here.  Here the top 2 apps have only 10’s of current reviews and then all the results below that have only 1 or no reviews.  So “boring games” is probably NOT a high volume KW!

When looking at the ratings pattern you need to look at the whole PATTERN of the search results and use a bit of pattern recognition.  Even if the first result has thousands of ratings, but all the results below have very few ratings I would still class that as LOW VOLUME, since only the first result is getting any traffic.

2.       Category Rankings.

Look at the two examples above at the Category Rankings column.  This column displays if an app is ranked in the App Store Top Charts.

In the first example for “games”, you can see that every single one of the results also has a category ranking (and also that most of these rank in the Top 50).

On the other hand, for “boring games”, you can see that only 2 apps have a category rankings, so this also strengthens the fact that this is a low volume keyword.

Again, its important to look at the pattern of the top results.

3.        Sensor Tower Traffic Score.

This is pretty good for a quick estimation of traffic and to give a “score”.  The traffic store definitely gives a quick “snap shot” indication and is great to save time.

However, if you know how to look at the other parameters, it will allow you to “reality check” this score.  Also, for a lot of keywords a Traffic Score isn’t available, so knowing how to estimate traffic yourself is still important.

4.        Search Suggest.

If a term appears early in search suggest, this is an excellent indicator of high keyword volume.

Example: If I type in the letter “a” – all the results that appear here are VERY HIGH volume keywords.  Then when I type “ap”, the new terms that appear here are second tier, slightly lower volume keywords.  Typing “app” brings up third tier keywords, etc.  Also, the higher the term appears in the search suggest results, the greater the search volume.

I get my keyword researchers to categorize keywords they find using search suggest A to E.  “A” being if the term appears on typing one letter, “B” if the term appears on typing two letter, etc.

5.       Other.

There are other sources, such as GKWT that can provide an estimation of keyword volume and it is definitely a great proxy for app store search volume.

However, keep in mind that sometimes keywords that have high volume on Google might not have high volume on the App Store, since people search with different intent on these different platforms.

So, when considering if a keyword is this a high, low or medium volume keyword, you should take all of these elements into account.

A Closer Look At Keyword Competition

In iOS 6+, search results are displayed one at a time on the iPhone.  Therefore in order to hope to have any visibility, you must aim to be ranked in the Top 3 results for the keywords you are targeting.  Otherwise you are basically invisible.

That said, its much easier to optimize for the iPad, since there are 6 results displayed at any one time on the screen and scrolling is much easier, so even if you are ranked in the Top 6 results, you will have pretty good search visibility on the iPad.

(Interesting stat: Over 50% of our downloads across all our apps come from iPad users, even though iPads make up only about 20% of the total iOS devices – conclusion #1: ASO is FAR more effective on the iPad; conclusion #2 – if you’re not putting out universal apps, you are missing out on A LOT of traffic).

In general, to have any hope to rank in the Top 3 results, we need to take into account the following rules:

1) Keywords in Title have more strength than Keywords in Keyword Field.
2) The strength of keywords in the Title is determined by the following hierarchy:  Exact Title Match > Broad Title Match > Partial Title Match > No Title Match  (see point 4 under the Title section for more info).

As a quick aside, here is what I mean by title match…

Exact Match – all the KW in the KW phrase are present in the title in the exact same order.

Example:  For the KW phrase “Christmas Games”, exact match means that the words making up this keyword appear in exactly this order in the Title.   “Santa VS Elves – Christmas Games of Fun” and “Christmas Games of Santa VS Elves” are both examples of Exact Matches for the KW “Christmas Games”.

Broad Match – All KWs are present in the Title, but not in the exact same order.

For example:  “Santa VS Elves – Games of Christmas” or “Santa VS Elves Games – Great Christmas Fun” are both examples of broad match types.  Also, the higher the KW density, the higher the app will rate for that KW phrase (all other things being equal).

Partial Match – Only some of the words making up the KW are present in the title.

Example:  For the KW phrase “Christmas Games”, “Santa VS Elves – Christmas Fun” is a partial patch.

No Match – None of the KW appear in the Title (i.e. the keywords are only in the KW field).

Let’s look at the example of the term “Pinball HD Collection”, which is a popular pinball app (it is the 3rd results after we type “pinb” into search suggest).


You can see above that there are 9 iphone apps total that appear for this phrase.

The top 2 results have an EXACT title match.  Have a look at Xmas Pinball, ranked #4.

The full title of the app is:

Xmas Pinball Retro Classic – Cool Christmas Arcade Game Collection For Kids HD FREE

It has a BROAD title match for the keyword phrase “Pinball Collection HD”.  If you wanted to prioritize this keyword phrase above others and increase the chances to rank in the top 3 for this term, we should include the keyword phrase “Pinball Collection HD” as an exact match in the title.


Xmas Pinball Retro Classic – Cool Christmas Arcade Pinball Collection HD FREE

Why is Xmas Pinball currently ranked #4, when the #3 result has NO TITLE MATCH?  The reason is that game #3 (Wild West Pinball) has more download volume.

You can see though that the reason Xmas Pinball is ranked #4 is because all the other results have either NO TITLE MATCH or only a PARTIAL TITLE MATCH.

So, in order to properly assess competition, you need to look at the Title Match of the top results.

All other things being equal, if for a particular keyword phrase:

The top 5 results have NO TITLE MATCH:  You need a PARTIAL TITLE MATCH in order to beat them and rank in the Top 3 results.

The top 5 results have PARTIAL TITLE MATCHES:  You need a BROAD TITLE MATCH in order to beat them and rank in the Top 3 results.

The top 5 results have BROAD TITLE MATCHES:  You need an EXACT TITLE MATCH in order to beat them and rank in the Top 3 results.

The top 5 results have EXACT TITLE MATCHES:  You will not be able to rank in the Top 3 results.

Understanding this is very important in order to know which keywords you can effectively compete for.

Note: some very high volume keywords, e.g. “racing games”, even though the top results don’t have an exact title match, due to the very high download volumes of these games, there is no chance to rank in the top 3 results.  For this sample term, you can see some exact match result further down the list (spots 12 onwards) and you can see how they don’t rank in the top 3.

Note:  Sensor Tower makes it easier to spot EXACT TITLE MATCHES by marking these results with a red triangle at the top right of entry.


Also, in order to see the full app title, you can press on the Keyword Spy symbol at the right of the entry.

UPDATE (3rd December 2013):

I got some important feedback from readers of this blog, which I’d like to share here and was not made clear enough in the article.

One of the MAJOR factors in determining where you rank in the search results is the download volume / velocity and ratings.  Major publishers BUY a lot of traffic and this is a major factor in their high search rankings.

This article is aimed at indy developers, who typically DON’T have a budget of tens of thousands of dollars to spend on paid advertising campaigns.  The section on competition is given that all other factors (i.e. download volume, etc) are held constant.

Paying attention to proper placement of keywords (title vs keyword field and exact title match / high density title match) cost nothing and can result in a very high ROI, so it is definitely worth doing!

Author: David Janner

David Janner is a former M.D. and the Editor-in-Chief of MAKE APP Magazine. His passion is app development and app marketing. You should follow him on Twitter and Facebook and Google+ in order to get the most important industry related news, hot off the press. If you would like to arrange a 15 minute app marketing session to discuss your App Store Optimization strategy, contact him here.

1,053 thoughts on “App Store Optimization 201: Keyword Volume & Competition”

  1. Maybe I’m missing it but is there a date on this article? Just reading through this and loving the content, just wanted to make sure this info is still up to date? Great stuff David!

  2. Man I was in the middle of writing an article exactly like this, though you cover a lot more topics than what I had in mind. Great article 😀

  3. Hey Nile, thanks. Do you have any more input on this? I'm finding it really hard to train my researchers in the exact methodology that I use, because so much of it is pattern recognition. It is very much a combination of art + science + validated learning…

  4. Hey David,

    Thanks for your articles on the ASO. Though I figured out most of this info and tricks myself playing with keywords in SensorTower, it’s great to see that my conclusions are supported by other people’s observations. I have a couple of comments:

    1) I tried Google Keyword Planner and the results correlate very well with Traffic volume in Sensor Tower. Actually, their traffic is a logarithm of Google’s Avg. monthly searches. For example, “games” has traffic 7.1, while the Keyword Planner gives 16,600,000 Avg. monthly searches – log(16,600,000) = 7.22 – very close. It means that traffic 6.0 is 10 times larger than 5.0 and 1,000 times larger than 3.0 (3.0 – is just about 1,000 avg. monthly searches). I’m sure that Sensor Tower applies additional filters, and word “angry”, for example, has higher traffic in the App Store than in Google, but for 99% of words, the formula is the logarithm shown above.

    2) You can get traffic number for all words in Sensor Tower. It often writes “Calculating…” and it means what it means – wait a couple of minutes (sometimes longer), enter the keyword again and you’ll get the traffic value.

    3) I don’t believe in “the search on the App Store suggestions” approach. For me, it usually gives titles of existing apps. If they are hits, it’s hard to compete with them and people are searching them due to aggressive marketing, not due to well-chosen keywords. At the same time, people may search for terms for which no apps exist. One example, Sensor Tower gives solid 5.5 traffic for the word ‘rhododendron’ and there are yet no apps using this word in their names or keywords. Type “rhodod…” in the App Store search, and unsurprisingly you see nothing. It’s a great keyword (though a bit too long), and I would use it if it were relevant to one of my apps. There is no competition and I do believe that some people are searching for apps about rhododendrons.

    4) In my apps, I choose keywords based on traffic volume, low competition, short length, relevance. The length of words is important. Usually, I have 13-15 words inside those 100 characters, but for my new app I prepared a list of 19 words – not bad.

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