By Ben Lee: Founder of Rootstrap

Today, search engine optimization (SEO) is a bonafide field with well-established best practices, a proven track record, and a sizeable industry attached to it – but it wasn’t always that way.

In the early days of Google, SEO was a foreign term. Only gradually, once the centrality of search engines to accessing the web became more apparent, did the value of search engine optimization become clear to businesses.

With the sheer volume of results that Google kicked back for search terms, the only way to capture web traffic – and consequently, revenue – was to optimize a website to rank high in search engine results pages. The fast-paced growth of the internet and proliferation of websites made SEO a necessity for businesses that relied on web traffic to turn a profit.

Now, we’re seeing the same thing happen in a new field: mobile apps.

With more than 2 million apps available on Apple’s App Store and even more on the Google Play store, the same problems that surfaced for websites in the early days of the internet are reproducing themselves in the mobile app ecosystem.

Converting users and securing downloads requires ranking near the top in app store searches, but there are simply too many apps on the market for consumers to find them all easily. Accordingly, new mobile apps are finding they need to use a tactic similar to SEO in their mobile app listings.

It’s called app store optimization – and if you haven’t heard of it yet, prepare to see a lot of this in the 2018 digital products landscape.

What is App Store Optimization: 101

At first, app store optimization wasn’t something we gave much thought to at Rootstrap. Today, though, it’s a core part of our process and something we consider deeply during Roadmapping sessions for mobile apps.

At its core, app store optimization is SEO applied to mobile apps. It relies on many of the same core principles as traditional SEO, but it applies them to the search engines used within app stores to generate relevant results for searchers. In ASO, the mobile app’s listing in the store platform – usually consisting of a title, icon, description, reviews, photos, and technical details – acts like a website in traditional SEO. ASO about structuring the information in the listing to match the queries that your target users are likely to search for, allowing your app to rank higher in the results.

Generally speaking, there are two components to app store optimization: keyword optimization and conversion optimization. Keyword optimization involves using the text fields in your app listing to target search terms that your users searching for, allowing you to come up higher in search rankings for those terms. Conversion optimization has to do with optimizing your listing to drive as many downloads as possible – this includes using text fields, the app icon, videos, and any other aspect that improves the percentage of viewers that download.

One of the first things users see from your app is the title, and this also figures heavily into your app’s placement in search rankings. Accordingly, placing a keyword in the title is a good idea, if possible. Google Play allows 50 characters for titles and Apple allows only 30, so there’s no room to be verbose. Instead of cramming the title with keywords, try to choose one important keyword that you can incorporate into a catchy title that matches your brand.

Even more important than the title, though, is the app icon – in fact, this may be the most important part of the ASO process. App icons aren’t searchable in a literal sense, so it’s not possible to optimize them for keywords. However, app icons have a dramatic effect on conversion rates, which makes a great icon vital to the success of your app.

In designing your icon, lean towards a clear, clean, and recognizable design that would appeal to your target user. Choose colors that match your branding. And more importantly, study your competitors’ icons to see what’s working in the existing market – then, take the successful elements of their designs and improve on them.

Next, focus on the app description. This is where you have the most real estate to describe your app, explain the key value proposition, and include keywords, so having an optimized description is vital. That said, steer clear of keyword stuffing: the practice of packing the text with keywords beyond what feels natural to a reader. Instead, incorporate keywords naturally into a description that reads and flows like a normal person would say it.

You’ll also need to choose a category for your app, and this is an important step. To a certain extent, your app category will define the competition: while any similar app is potential competition, your app will mostly be fighting against apps within your category for search rankings.

Accordingly, you should consider competition when selecting a category for your app. Your category needs to be appropriate and relevant, but if you have the option to choose a related category that has less competition, it might make sense. It depends on your specific case – but be sure to consider competition when choosing an app category.

Next, you’ll need to focus on the elements of your app listing that aren’t searchable, but affect downloads and conversions. One of the most important is the preview video for your app.

Previews are short (<60 second) videos that demonstrate the functionality of your app, sort of like a brief commercial for the app. Previews are optional – but to truly optimize your app for the app store, having a preview video is vital. A preview will grab viewers attention, helping to explain your product intuitively and increase your overall downloads.
When making a preview, stay away from long-winded, technical explanations of your app functionality. Instead, lean towards making the video pop. It should be catchy, explain the key benefits of your app, and demonstrate what puts you above the competition.

In addition to previews, you can list a number of photos of your app. These are normally screenshots, but can include other design elements. Take the same approach to these as the preview video: make them clean, intuitive, and catchy. Showcase the key benefits and your competitive edge. Avoid too much text or long-winded explanations – that’s what the description is for.

The next element affects much more than ASO, but it’s still relevant here: monetization. Whether you choose to monetize your app with paid downloads, in-app purchases, or a subscription model will drastically impact the profitability of your app, but also impact ASO. Choose your monetization strategy carefully and with an eye towards pleasing your target user demographic.

And finally, one of the most important – but hardest to control – parts of app store optimization: reviews. Reviews are vital to both your app’s ranking in search results and conversion rate, so generated 5-star reviews is vital to a successful app. That said, you have to be careful. If you ask users to review the product too many times, they may get annoyed and stop using it entirely. Choose the moment your review prompt comes up wisely, and monitor your reviews regularly to spot any problems with the app and fix them as soon as possible.

The Best Tools for App Store Optimization

As with SEO, there are a number of powerful tools on the market for ASO. Most of these tools act similarly to SEO tools – they help you track your rankings for keywords, provide analytics and ROI metrics, suggest keywords, and allow you to track competing apps. Here are a few of the best ASO tools on the market in 2018:

Generally, most ASO tools work on a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model with a free and premium tier.

How to Use Keyword Optimization for the App Store

We’ve covered what it means to use the text fields in your app listing for keywords – but that’s only half the battle. First, you need to understand which keywords to optimize for.

That requires market research.

In reality, the first step in ASO is understanding your target user demographic. This is the group of consumers that are most likely to want to use your app – the people with the problem your app solves, the people who’ll play your mobile game again and again, and the ones most likely to hit the download button as soon as they find your app.

The first step is to make educated guesses by constructing a user profile. This is essentially the process of creating a fictional “archetype” for your target user – a caricature that represents the type of person you’re trying to reach. User profiles are a part of what we do during Roadmapping sessions at Rootstrap.

Get specific when constructing a user profile. Include as much information as possible, and do everything in your power to make this represent a niche group of people. There’s a wide range of information you could include in a user profile, but here are a few of the most important variables:

  • Name
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Location
  • Income/Socioeconomic group
  • Likes & dislikes
  • Motivations
  • Hobbies
  • Favorite media applications
  • Websites they frequent
  • Public figures they follow or look up to
  • How they spend their time online
  • Most-used apps

Chiefly, the goal of the user profile in ASO is to show you which keywords to target in your optimization. Use the profile to extrapolate and imagine what this person would search for when trying to find an app like yours – these will be the keywords you optimize your app listing against.

And there’s one other element of both keyword optimization and app store optimization as a whole to keep in mind: test everything. Testing every variable is the only way to know what’s effective in your app listing and find out what your target users are really looking for.

In truth, ASO is a process of continuous refinement. You may start off with educated guesses based on your user profiles, but only through testing can you confirm these hypotheses or revise them.

Final Tips and Tricks for App Store Optimization

Before we close out, there are a few more tips and tricks to keep in mind for ASO.

ASO will look different for Android vs. iPhone apps – and in particular, there are some iOS-specific elements you’ll need to take care of when optimizing an iPhone app.

One is your app’s subtitle. This is a feature on the iOS platform that allows you to include a 30-character subtitle underneath your title to provide a bit more context for your app. Think phrases like “Easy Free Graphing Calculator” or “Five Addictive Minigames.” The subtitle should quickly summarize your value proposition in a catchy, easy-to-understand message. Importantly, subtitles are visible in search results – so write them carefully and make them count.

Another iOS-specific feature is promotional text. This is a 170-character message that appears above the app description. You can change this text at any time – which is different from the description, which requires a new update to change. Promotional text is a great spot to add marketing offers, mentions in the press, or communicate specific value offerings. It isn’t indexed in the App Store search engine, but it does affect conversion rates.

Finally, the App Store allows you to choose keywords for your app. You have only 100 characters in the keywords field, but you can pack as many keywords as you can – separated by commas – into those 100 characters. Try to take a balanced approach to this, including both high-volume, high-competition keywords as well as niche terms. And, as always, be meticulous: depending on how you allocate the character count, you can target more, shorter keywords or fewer longer ones.

But again, perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind in app store optimization is that testing is everything. No matter what variable you’re optimizing – whether it be target keywords, app description, app icon, or iOS app keywords – testing is the only way to guarantee results.

Testing your ASO strategies may be time consuming, but in the end, it’s worth it. Only by continuous testing and iteration can you create a fully-optimized app listing that helps you rise to the top of search rankings and attract your target users.

Rootstrap is an agency serving companies of all shapes and sizes throughout the US. Whether you’re looking for mobile app developers in Houston or NYC, we’ve got you covered.

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