iOS App Store Optimization Basics with for the Indie Developer

Business phone. Smartphone business graph chart on a white backg

Dear indie developer

So you’ve developed an App, you believe it to be an amazing app and desperately wish to get it out there for people to use, as it will change their life, its free and ad supported, your goal is to make some money on the side. Problem is, you’ve done all the graphics, filled out all the meta-data (descriptions and keywords), published it on the app store, but you aren’t getting many downloads. So how did you go about getting downloads in the first place? You asked all your friends to download and review, you made an awesome youtube video, you started a Facebook page and you are actively building a social media community on Instagram, Pinterest and twitter. But still very few downloads, so you begin to pay for ads on Facebook, Google and other publishing networks like Chartboost, revmob, Reddit etc. That brings in some downloads, but now you are low on money as you are buying per install, and since your only revenue is through perhaps in-app purchases and ads, only a small percentage of those bought installs will convert into revenue, so you are loosing money. So you decide to stop paying, your downloads then also stop, now you are out of pocket, wasted allot of time and probably feel pretty down. Your beginning to realize that for social networks to drive downloads, you need a huge community, probably in the thousands, maybe even tens of thousands and paying for ads for a free app is a waste unless you can cover the costs with the revenue it generates. It seems anything you do outside the app store has minimal sustained effect on downloads. What is there left to do?

It seems in the app business, all you hear about is the success stories, but the truth is there is allot more failed app developers than successful ones. Why don’t we hear about it? Because no one cares, the developer has probably moved on to get a desk job. Realistically, there are millions of apps out there and only a very small physical store front to display them all on. These days the store fronts seem to be getting smaller and smaller, as user interface design tells us that users like nice big high res images with engaging content. So on any app store front, as soon as you open it, you are presented with only a few options, often between 10-20. So unless your app has one of those placements, then you will be relying on the user somehow navigating to your app, and when there are millions out there, the likely hood of any one person finding your app would be similar to winning the lotto if they aren’t using the search function.

So if they begin to use the search function the odds begin to reduce, but the competition is still fierce, specially in topics which are of high demand. You feel your keywords are reasonably good, you looked for other popular, trending apps and put together your keyword lists accordingly, you even translated them into several different languages in your demographic, to no avail.

So if at this stage you rely heavily on the search feature to drive downloads the only thing left for you to do is to put any doubt that your keywords and title is not optimized to bed. Don’t just rely on your gut, you need empirical evidence on the ranking of each keyword and suggestions on other suitable words which would perform better. This is where comes in, it is an App store optimization (ASO) tool which tracks your individual keywords, their market place rankings, traffic, competition and number of competing apps. How is this useful? Well, in an ideal world you would want all your keywords to have high traffic and low competition. However, in the real world all you can do is try to increase traffic while reducing competition where you can, or at least rank higher in the competition. You might not be able to make any major changes, but then at least you will know that perhaps your app topic is for a small acquired audience which just isn’t enough to derive an income, and perhaps it’s time to change monitization technique to a paid  app with no ads, or work on something new. If that is the case, can also be used to do keyword research, this means you could even try and find a niche market and develop an app around that, but that’s another story. For the remainder of this post I will discuss a few quick and easy ways to get the most out of

Keyword Rankings:

First of all, remove an pre-conception that using a word from a popular game like clash from “clash of clans” or crush from “candy crush” is going to give you a surge of downloads. Believe me, you are not the first person to have this idea, the key is to focus on words that accurately describe your your application. discusses this in more detail, and mention that you should treat app store search engine algorithms like a black box, you have no idea how it selects apps based on a search query. As they quaintly put it, “your search visibility is at the mercy of the algorithm”, the only control you have for iOS is your title and 100 characters of keywords. Since you have no idea how the black box works, all you can do is keep trying different keywords until they begin to rank higher. This is why, focusing on popular words will never work, most people are already doing it, hence the difficulty is far too high and the competition is fierce.

Keyword Selection:

Ok, so how do you choose keywords? Well, have certain metrics, the first metric is called difficulty score, it is a number between 1-10 which represents the difficulty of ranking in the top 10 apps for a particular keyword, where 1 represents low difficulty and 10 represents high difficulty. It is recommended for new, not yet established apps to pursue keywords with low difficulty, and more established apps (higher downloads, more user reviews) can pursue high difficulty, generally difficulty is also representative of traffic for that keyword. So as your app audience grows, your keywords will evolve, hopefully exposing your app to a broader market as you can begin to compete on more competitive words. Other scores include a traffic metric, ranking and number of apps. Highly recommend reading the definitive 3 step process for selecting iOS keywords from for the run down and process. After you have chosen your words, optimized for difficulty and traffic, all you do is keep testing and testing. It is an iterative process which can be tedious, but at least then your mind is at ease knowing that you did everything you could to increase app store visibility.

Brief example of metrics:

Bouncy Beach Ball icon

The table below is a snippet of the stats for my latest ios game “Bouncy Beach Ball“, this shows current metrics on three keywords/phrases. You can see that for the word “bouncy” is ranked in the top 100, but at this stage it is still probably quite difficult to get into the top 10 unless I get more user reviews or downloads. The phrase “bouncy beach ball” I am ranked first, how exciting! However, what’s the point when there is no traffic, but the plus side is that I am only competing with 4 other apps. And the keyword “game”, I have no hope in ranking in the top ten, there is just too much competition, in fact I don’t rank at all. So this is a good example of a few keyword/phrases that need allot of refinement.

SensorTower table

You can also use SensorTower data for your own analytics. Below in the graph is the ranking history for the keyword “bouncy” since the day of release to the day I wrote this post. It is interesting to see this graph from the developers perspective since I know certain key information which can describe what is affecting certain attributes in this graph. For instance, I initially released this game on April 1st, and for the first 6days of april, the app ranked around 20 for the word “bouncy”,  But on the 7th day it dropped off drastically. This behavior is very common on the apple market place, it’s because Bouncy Beach Ball was featured in a few places like recent releases – games and new game center games, but after 6days new games with similar keywords are released, pushing bouncy beach ball to the bottom of the pile. The keyword ranking for “bouncy” remained on a steady-sh decrease from apr 7th to apr 22nd, then on apr 23rd, things changed, there was a spike up to around rank 60. This is because on this day I did a social network wide campaign calling users to leave reviews, and I got about 10-15reviews, this drove my ranking higher.

The word bouncy

The word bouncy

How I used this tool:

I didn’t find until after I had released this game, ideally you would use it before you submit your game for apple store moderation. What I did do however, is use this tool to release my first update. Once I had updated my game (bug fixes and the like), I then used sensor tower to refine and optimize my keywords and title and I have now chosen relevant keywords which have low difficulty, but maintain a level of traffic over 2.0 (after all beggars can’t be choosers).  Below is a screen shot of the keywork optimization tool, here you are able to optimize your 100 characters for white space and long words it also gives you suggestions on how to improve your keywords, along with an overview of the current stats for each keywords. As my app begins to rank higher in these words, I will begin to change them in other updates to compete with contending words with more traffic. Sure it will be an evolutionary process, requiring a bit of work to drive downloads, but unless your app goes viral, this is the process that your business model will hinge on to drive natural downloads. I have been constantly tracking my competition, analyzing their keywords and how they compare to mine, getting ideas for new keywords.


Keyword optimization

So far I am happy with the flexibility of, my updated version of “Bouncy Beach Ball” has just been accepted and released, so over the coming weeks I will continue to monitor the new keywords and begin the iterative process to increase natural downloads. I hope this helps any indie developers out there, feel free to ask any questions. Happy Apping!