App Store Optimization: How the Top Apps Do It

App Store Optimization

Just like in any industry, App Store Optimization (ASO) has its own standard procedures and tricks down its sleeves. In this article, we’ll examine the best App Store Optimization strategies (even the downright sneaky ones) that developers thrust in the battlefront of app marketing. App Store Optimization: How the Top Apps Do It doesn’t discuss though the strategies used by popular brands that crossover to the app industry. Most of these brands have a strong following and uses App Store Optimization to market their product to a new market – an advantage that indie and studio apps do not have. So we will be focusing on breakout apps and the most noticeable App Store Optimization qualities about them. (Note: Because of the app store’s volatility, apps featured in this article may no longer be in the top charts after its publishing)


App title: the name that ranks

It is advised that the app title contain the main keyword. But it’s almost always not enough that it’s just there. Some developers utilize some adaptive App Store Optimization strategies to maximize the effect of the keyword.


The catch line

Intrigue, curiosity, and interest are some of the reasons why someone would click on your app. The title and the icon would be your first line of defense so the two should complement each other.

App Store Optimization: How the Top Apps Do It - Alpha Betty Saga
AlphaBetty is an excellent play on the word “alphabet”. It seems like they developed the gameplay around the title, creating eponymous characters Professor Alpha and Betty as the main protagonists together with a sidekick we will not name.


A catchy title can also help in the name recall. It could sound funny or weird that your audience can’t forget about it soon enough that it creates a buzz, gaining your app free advertisement.


App Store Optimization: How the Top Apps Do It - Plague Inc.
Plague Inc. provokes a certain reaction within the audience. There is an instant interest in the mechanics of the app. The app ranked number 1 for the keywords [plague], [disease] and [infect] among many other related words.

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Other examples are WhatsApp, Shazam, Dubsmash, aa, Zomato, Bloons, Geek-Smarter Shopping, and many more.


The subtle stuffing

Keyword stuffing is a no-no but it doesn’t mean that you can’t do it with style. You can use permutation and conjugation; this is so that your keywords will rank with every variation of the word.  This can be effectively used in the descriptions since there is more leeway in the number of words.


Let’s have a look at this app for example:

App Store Optimization: How the Top Apps Do It - Videoshop

Videoshop had been in and out of the top 500 overall ranking since 2013 but it seldom went below the top 500 overall in the photo and video category. Recently, it is constantly in the top 50-100 download ranks in popular countries.  It actually ranks for the keywords included in the title and description (iPhone data only); videoshop (rank 1), video (rank 10), videos (rank 15), editor (rank 13), and editing (rank 132).


App Store Optimization: How the Top Apps Do It - Pic Collage


This one would probably be banned in Google Play Store (it’s a June 2015 iOS version of the app) because of the keywords it uses. Even though the app isn’t really ranking for commonly searched terms like Youtube Videos, Maroon 5, Beats Music, Universal Pictures and Sara M. Lyons; this can still be considered keyword stuffing by the virtue of using these words as references. Be careful with this but Pic Collage actually used these keywords since they are relevant to the services offered by the app.


Who said that I can’t spell?

Of course, you can spell your keywords right but that won’t be the same keyword anymore! You can actually target a huge market by taking advantage of some searchers’ spelling shortcomings. A great example would be the developer Ahmed Ismail’s “Walkthrought”.

App Store Optimization: How the Top Apps Do It - Walkthrought


This is an ASO strategy in order to gain traction in a very competitive market. There are many cheats and walkthroughs out in the app store targeting keywords that are not used by competitors. Due to the “fat fingers” phenomenon, there are a lot of misspelled words that can be used as permutations of keywords. Ahmed’s keyword [walkthrought] ranked number 5 for iPhone and iPad until it reached rank 3 but only for one month (April 2015).

Another strategy is to make the app’s spelling distinctive or homonymous.  Examples include Swype, Joinz, Lyft and many more.


App Icons turned eye candy

Crossy Road – Endless Arcade Hopper’s top keyword is actually [chicken], you can tell why. App icons can create an impression that can stick into the audience’s mind that even if they can’t remember your app’s title, your app icon would represent your brand and market the product for you. Amidst many crossy road game apps, this one stands out because of the unique graphics that is well represented by its icon.


App Optimization: How the Top Apps Do It - Crossy Road
The “chicken” is actually just one of the many diverse characters of Crossy Road – Endless Arcade Hopper by the developer Hipster Whale.


App Store Optimization: How the Top Apps Do It - Clash of Clans
This guy looks persuasively intense.


App Store Optimization: How the Top Apps Do It - Five Nights at Freddy's 3
You can’t call this an eye candy but it’s quite eye catching.


App Store Optimization: How the Top Apps Do It - My Very Hungry Caterpillar
Some icons are intricate works of art.


App description that rocks

Why type when you can Swype? Right? Descriptions also need to be catchy but most importantly, informative of what the app is all about. The description length limit is 4,000 characters but most app description doesn’t reach the limit. Detailed overviews are often delegated to the release notes that are also limited to 4,000 characters. But probably the most important part of the description is the first 1,255 characters that are located in what is called “above the fold”.


App Store Optimization: How the Top Apps Do It - Waze
Providing solutions for common day-to-day problems can be a great selling point.


App Store Optimization: How the Top Apps Do It - Calorie Counter and Diet Tracker
“What is in for me?” and “Is there a better alternative?” are some of the questions that your description needs to answer.


App Store Optimization: How the Top Apps Do It - Billionaire
Catch your audience hook, line and sinker. Who doesn’t want to be a billionaire?


App Store Optimization: How the Top Apps Do It - Surgeon Simulator
Nothing draws more crowds than “massive sale” also, it sounds like so much fun.


App Store Optimization: How the Top Apps Do It - Subway Surfers
Make a call for action. This will give the impression that your app is engaging and exciting.


Bite-size app showcases


App screenshots

It is through screenshots that potential downloaders judge the quality of the app. But this can also be misleading. It’s not uncommon for some apps to show high-quality screenshots that don’t actually represent the actual graphics used in the gameplay.


App Store Optimization: How the Top Apps Do It - Monument Valley
Monument Valley’s screenshots are truly pieces of art. Aside from its breathtaking beauty, the screenshots are also of high quality and are suited for Retina display.
App Store Optimization: How the Top Apps Do It - Candy Crush Saga Screenshots
Texts can also help in showcasing the features or mechanics of the app especially if the screenshots aren’t self-explanatory.


App video preview

Video previews not only increase downloads but also ratings. Not all of your target audience would spare some time reading through descriptions; if they do, it might not be convincing enough. In this age of visual learning, anything short of high-quality video and graphics can stimulate your audience.

Sky Guide is a stargazing app and it did not fail to deliver in this video preview, showcasing the beauty of the universe.

You can use video previews to show actual gameplay and to further explain features.


Previews can also introduce a storyline that can make games more interesting.


Riding on a trending coattail


Banking on Hollywood

There is a trend wherein game themes are based on what is trending at the moment to ride into the popularity of the search keyword. A couple of these actually make it to the top, but most of the time it’s just until the trend wanes. Some of the common themes are from movies, pop culture subgenres, and controversial celebrities. Some examples include Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, Star Wars: Force Collection, and Despicable Me: Minion Rush among others.


“Emulating” established apps

Some apps, on the other hand, are based on other apps as a form of spoof or reskin. Examples are the many clones of Flappy Bird, Block City Wars – Mine Mini Game Edition based on the hit game Minecraft, and Crossy Roads based on the popular Frogger arcade game.


App Store Optimization: How the Top Apps Do It
Block City Wars actually ranks for the keyword [minecraft] and other Minecraft-related keywords.

Being indexed with the big brands

Apps for big online brands like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook do not only ride on the success of these companies but also on their names. Being indexed with these big names is almost like being on the first page of Google SERPs. Tweetbot 3 for Twitter actually ranks number 19 for the keyword and number 15 for the keyword [twitter] (both for iPhone (June 23, 20016).


Cross-promotion is the way to go

There are actually a couple of ways to cross-promote your app.


Using cross-promotion networks

Chartboost is a cross promotion network created by app developers. Here you can either promote your own apps or publish ads for advertising apps. Candy Crush, DirtyBit, and Rovio are just some of the developers that made testimonies about this network’s efficiency. Other alternatives are Playhaven, AppFlood and TapForTap.

Your apps promoting each other

There’s this handy icon at the upper right hand side of Candy Crush Saga that not only informs you of new games Candy Crush Soda Saga and Candy Crush Jelly Saga but also gives you a direct link towards the game if it’s already downloaded into your device; not to mention the animated ads at the lower right hand side of the screen promoting other King games.

App Store Optimization: How the Top Apps Do It - Candy Crush Saga Screen Grab

This is actually a nifty strategy. You aren’t just advertising your other apps but also convincing the downloader to patronize your brand.

App bundles

According to a report from App Annie in mid-2014, 98% of Google Play Store’s income comes from freemium apps. Convincing someone to buy your app needs a push in marketing but when they do buy your app and actually enjoy it, you can actually convince them to buy your other apps in bulk.

App Store Optimization: How the Top Apps Do It - Toca Toy Box

Toca Boca AB actually has a couple of bestselling apps. What they did in this bundle though was group the least popular apps with the most popular so that their exposure will increase, together with the downloads. And since you can save 40% in buying the bundled apps, it’s safe to say that one app is actually a giveaway, a good deal if you ask me.

Make the most out of your brand

Once you established both you and your app’s reputation in the app store, it’s easier to market consecutive apps – especially if it bears the trusted name with it.

Create sequels

Grand Theft Auto is quite a successful franchise. Rockstar Games made 26 apps out of this series and even has bundles.

App Store Optimization: How the Top Apps Do It - Grand Theft Auto
Grand Theft Auto’s mechanics and theme allow for almost infinite sequel options.

Expand your app monetization scheme

Aviary is a photo editing app acquired by Adobe.It  now extended its reaches beyond in-app purchases. Aviary now sells licenses for the incorporation of their UI in  apps. An app developer can download the Aviary SDK and become a “partner”.

How to Boost Organic App Downloads

Incentivized app downloads can go a long way but only organic downloads can sustain the growth of your app. Here are eight ways to boost organic app downloads:


  1. Good ratings and reviews.

    Ratings are often used as a basis for an app download. Most users won’t even give apps with below 3.5 rating benefit of the doubt. Often, poor ratings are coupled with isolated review/complaint about a technical problem. You can avoid these type of reviews/ratings from surfacing by providing in-app feedback and great support for your app. Not only does poor reviews/ratings affect organic downloads, it can also be a sign of user dissatisfaction.

  2. App previews.

    Apps get to have their own trailers too! Introduced in September 2014 by Apple, App Previews gave an opportunity for app publishers to showcase and market their apps in a new dynamic approach. Show how your apps work and the screen flows. Users are more likely to download apps that they know works according to their expectations. In the end, it’s all about impression. The app with the best impression gets downloaded most.

  3. Regular app updates.

    Regular app updates help in keeping your app visible in the app store. It also assures users that there is an active technical support for the app. Bugs and other technical issues are often the subjects of negative reviews so it ties up with other factors that boost app downloads. Regular app updates do not only increase the app’s user base, it also increases retention and contributes to app ranking.

  4. Viral loop through social media and other channels.

    A viral loop is a marketing strategy in which users become the product’s own marketers through the power of social sharing. It starts with a call for attention that then encourages users to share information about your app. It soon becomes a cycle, something that keeps on giving. About 77% of app users downloaded apps recommended to them by friends or family.

  5. App localization.

    We’ve discussed app localization before. App localization is a driving force in increasing app downloads. It enables an app to extend its reach to a previously untargeted market. With localization, there’s much room for scaling.

  6. ASO for every iOS update.

    For almost every iOS update, there’s also changes in the App Store algorithm. This is especially true with iOS 9’s deep linking and search capabilities, ASO practices need to also upgrade in order to adapt. Optimizing content and not only the app’s copy is now the forefront of ASO. It’s not only about visibility in the App Store anymore.

  7. App indexing.

    In iOS 9, ASO emphasis falls on in-app content indexing. An app content index may include events, screens, and even user-generated content. App-related search triggers are now more common. Therefore, app content is would a common sight in mobile SERPs.  A high ranking  in mobile SERPs is also believed to produce the same conversion rate that web pages enjoyed in the heyday of SEO.

  8. App Website.

    A website for your app is important, not only for support and promotional purposes but also for ranking in mobile SERPs. Google also crawls content from an app’s website. As a result, more app website content rank in SERPs. It is important to design your app website so that it is mobile-friendly. Provide a description, screenshots, previews and download links to further convince the site’s visitors that your app is fit for download.


Mobile Search and App Visibility

Does Mobile SERPs Matter for Apps?

The Significance of Mobile Search

Apps appear as “App Packs” in mobile search results. This type of result is triggered more often as more searches occur in mobile than on desktop. Mobile search is even attributed as the main method for discovering mobile content.  And with the emphasis on mobile-friendly content and app content deep linking capabilities on both Android and iOS, more apps will appear higher in the mobile SERPs – pushing organic mobile search results lower on the page.


Mobile App Indexing

Before, only the web content from an app’s official web page appear in search results. But now, indexed app content can appear as app packs or individual mobile search results (like in iOS devices). This is made possible through deep linking within apps. Google claims to have already indexed 100 billion app content links. App indexing was initially designed as an incentive for businesses with apps. It  offers functionality with implications on the app’s downloads and re-engagement.


With deep linking capabilities, Google can retrieve information from within the app and provide a link to the user. The user receives either a link that would redirect to the app (if the app is already on the user’s device) or the app’s download link. App listings certainly change both the SERPs environment and provide another opportunity for app discovery.


Google indexes both Android and iOS apps and just recently, iOS 9 Search was introduced. This mobile search capability has three APIs. The NSUserActivity object is used to index in-app activities and app states that users can return to as applicable in their search. The CoreSpotlight framework enables you to index app content (including user-generated content) and then manage this on-device edit. Then there is the Web Markup API. It links the app to related web content and ensures that search results from the app’s website content open using the app (if installed already).


Apple’s app indexing is different in a way that there is an effort to protect user privacy.  Apple provides a private indexing option. Device Index’ main function is to index content that is only accessible to a single user ID. Google has a generalized restriction. An XML file inclusion , noindex.xml in order to specify links and URIs to exclude in the index.


How Apps Rank in SERPs

But how can apps land a spot above the fold where it matters most? Ranking factors may differ between Google and Apple but a combination of ASO and traditional SEO practices are at play.


Ranking signals are different for apps. Google determines the authority of app deeplinks through the Firebase App Indexing API or SDK. The use of the app indexing API itself is a positive ranking signal. Google search also share several ranking signals with OS-specific app stores. This means that apps that rank high in specific search queries in the app store would also appear in a SERP App Pack for the same search queries.


SEO also plays a big role in app SERPs ranking. Google considers app metadata like title and description as title tags and on-page text. App titles with exact-match keywords are often in the first six results in the app pack. Keywords like “app” and “download” appear in Google search queries but not in play store queries. Keywords from user reviews also serve as ranking signals. These keywords are an accumulation of sentiments from users and somehow serve as a gauge for the app’s quality and reliability.


App rating is also a strong ranking signal. The minimum star rating of apps in app packs is 3.5. Google sometimes places the app pack at the bottom of the mobile SERPs or in the middle of organic results. The latter happens if there are only a handful of apps in the pack or if the app’s ranking is low. On the other hand, apps with high star ratings can overtake other apps with exact-match keywords in their titles.


Ranking factors for Apple search is a different matter but the basic framework is the same.

Ranking Signals for Apple Search:

  • Apps already installed in the device rank higher.
  • The authority of the associated web URL.
  • Click-through rate of the specific search result.
  • Structured data implementation.
  • App screen engagement as determined by session analytics.
  • The rate of user engagement.
  • Association of screens to either a single user ID or URL of different indexing methods


There are also factors that can negatively affect the app’s ranking:

  • Over indexing.
  • Low engagement of indexed app screens.
  • Keyword stuffing, especially if the keywords are irrelevant to the indexed content.
  • High bounce rate.
  • Interstitial ads that may prevent the direct access of content.