Our ASO journey continues: Cracking the keywords challenge

Continuing Our ASO Adventure: Mastering the Keywords Challenge

Have you had time to review part 1 of our ASO training? If not, now is the right time.

While ASO includes many activities you can engage in, one of the main challenges around ASO relates to optimizing keywords for search results ranking purposes. Let’s dive in and see how we can optimize our keywords

Google play and the iTunes store behave differently when it comes to keywords. While Apple (through the iTunes connect) defined a keyword field, with maximum of 100 characters, Google Play, analyzes keywords based on the app description. Much like Google’s web search-engine does.

Still, keyword optimization should be done in both cases, only that keywords for ASO should be implemented differently.

The beginning: Why do we optimize keywords, anyway?

Short answer: To appear in the search results in a reasonable placement, and be found easily when relevant users are searching for an app, by its functionality.

There are few places where users can encounter your app and install it:

  1. Landing in your app’s download page following paid media campaigns, viral activity or similar. They never meant to explore the app store… the competition is not even seen in most of these cases.
  2. Running by your app while “Window shopping” in the app store – e.g., this is likely to happen when you are ranked high in a specific category (or ranked high enough in the general store) or if you were lucky enough to get featured.
  3. Search by specific name- Users type in your exact app name in the intention to download it.
  4. Users are searching for a specific functionality – e.g., camera app, shopping list, children’s music game and so forth. WE ARE HERE.

Why do we need keywords optimization? In theory, no reason. A potential user searches for a specific app functionality in the store? Your app is published in the store and has the answer? End of story! You should appear in the results. Only that in most cases, MANY other apps also provide an answer. So, the list of search results becomes 10,000 results long. Now, the game is about who will appear at the top of the list? Or, how Apple’s / Google’s algorithm decides who should be included in this list and in what order? The exact recipe is a complete black box, but we do know that it is very much related to the keywords we are using, on top of other ASO elements (described in Part 1 of the training)

The mystery

Both Apple and Google algorithms are a best kept secret. A complete mystery. You type in a search term and here are the results, listed. Nobody really knows how thealgorithm works, except for a few lucky Apple and Google employees. And they wouldn’t tell even if their life were dependent on it (but please do not test this statement).

Yep, these guys rule the world. More accurately, Apple and Google rule two different worlds, and these worlds are very different. Like tacos and pizza.

Think of the good old SEO. Very similar to the young bro – Google play ASO. You have no guarantees, but you have enough areas to improve on, such as backlinks, keywords you plant in the description, traffic, complaints about your content quality and so forth. “Follow Google’s rules”, invest enough time and money, be patient and expect to see an upward trend in your climb uphill the search results rank.

In Apple’s world, backlinks and keywords as part of the description have no real significance. There are only two places that are relevant for your keywords: The title of your app and the keywords field. And all you have is 100 characters, tops.

Welcome to Apple’s world

Let’s focus on keywords for iTunes for a minute (we will cover Google Play later on). So, Apple’s way seems limited compared to Google’s. And it feels unnatural to define your keywords out of context, but hey, let’s enjoy the simplicity of it. 100 characters they gave us? 100 characters they gave all. Let’s make the most out of it. And thanks Apple for making us the only rulers of our tiny world of keywords, that’s more of a show of trust than what we’ve seen from Google.

Trial and error

iOs keywords optimization does not mean fighting for a specific keyword. After all, how can you? You can only use a word as a keyword once (no use adding it to the list more than once), and you can’t really change your iOs ranking by adapting your description. Instead, you optimize by making the most of the 100 characters list. You replace “tough” words with easier ones make sure they are still popular, searched-for ones (“how-to” is coming). A lot of the ASO keywords tactics are about effectively hunting for words you didn’t think of.

Love gaming?

Think of it as a wording strategy game. A sometimes annoying one, but a game that keeps you occupied forever. You win only when you have played long enough to know for sure you’ve done the most, and then you start playing again, but this time you play defense. Make sure other “players” don’t take over you concurred land, and bypass you with their ASO efforts.

Forget about “one-time” effort. Welcome to the ongoing plowing of the keywords road ahead.

It’s a constant battle, against your competitors for those words we all want to “own”.

Vocabulary meets strategy

Time to call your mama and thank her for making you read so many books when you were young. The richer your vocabulary, the more synonyms you will be able to come up with, hence more optimized keywords. Hopefully, you played a lot of strategy games as a kid, cause then you can bring some strategy and management skills to the table. You will have to focus on researching your competitors and potential users both, while all along pay other people that DID PRACTICE THEIR VOCABULARY WHEN THEY WERE KIDS, to find synonyms for you.

Hunting for keywords

Ideally, you should have started your keywords research before you even launched your app. Still, since you already know this is not going to be a one night stand, you can join in whenever you feel it’s time. Better late than sorry.

Remember, the goal is to fill in the list with related words that are more likely to result in top position in the search results. Of course, these words need to be searched for (in one or more languages but 100 characters overall, for all the words together). “Top position” does not necessarily mean #1. Top 10 is great as well. To make things more complicated, many synonym words you may come up are still likely to be quite popular. If no one searches for a potential keyword, there is no point using it… though it is probably very easy to compete for…

The level of keywords difficulty and popularity are dynamic. Out of all the words that you can come up with, using the search methods and tools I will later on describe, your mission is to eventually come up with words that are less challenging but are still popular enough. Each keywords research and analysis is based on a snapshot of that moment in time. Tomorrow everything might change, as millions of apps are constantly updating new keywords. Therefore, your list of keywords would be constantly optimized with the words that are less challenging, giving you a fair chance to be ranked high for related searches (rather than competing for challenging words and never being ranked high enough to be noticed).

Now, since keyword optimization is only part of the picture, and Apple’s algorithm considers multiple parameters (nobody knows exactly all of them and their weight), your ASO effort should include additional areas as well, such as reviews, screenshots, icon and so forth. These will be covered in following parts of this ASO training series.

By the way, the newer your app, the higher the emphasis of apple’s ranking algorithm on its keywords. Why? Simple. Because most of the other ASO parameters are not yet established (e.g. number of installs, reviews – quantity and quality). Keywords is all Apple has at this point to make a smart decision about where and how your app should be ranked.

This is also why newbie apps should avoid challenging words as much as possible (as they have no winning cards to help them pull up a fight when compared to other similar apps), while older apps can allow themselves to enter the big guys’ game and add some words that are used by strong competitors, but are also more often searched for. Pretty intuitive.

Keep in mind that being well ranked for a less searched keyword (that still gets a reasonable amount of traffic) is a much better deal than being the #99 app for “dragon”…

Roll up your sleeves

Here are the basic guidelines, including the dos and don’ts:

A needle in a haystack – You are after a very difficult combination! Words that your competitors are not using, therefore “easy” enough, but users do tend to search for, hence popular enough. It’s like mining for gold, and it’s a challenging task. Do not settle for irrelevant words. Don’t use words that are hardly related to your app, just for the sake of it, as tempting as it may be.

Gather first, analyze later – start with collecting as many related words as possible. Do not make any decisions yet, as you never know who your biggest fish is going to be, until you are done fishing. Only when you have the full potential keywords list in your hand, should you proceed to prioritizing.

Search all over – in an upcoming part of this training series I will provide a competitive analysis of the available 3rd party ASO tools. Some are free, while others cost some money (nothing crazy) but are providing bigger value. Make sure you use more than one tool / searching method. Use more than one ASO tool, and go beyond mobile app store optimization tools. It could be Google search (“related searches” at the bottom of the chrome search results screen), Google keywords tool, web dictionaries, synonyms searches (as provided in Ginger Software for instance), you get the idea. It is a research. By all means. It can’t be accelerated. It’s worth it!

Documentation – create a spreadsheet, to organize your findings. Nothing sophisticated, make it the simplest excel in the whole world. 3 columns: the word, the traffic it gets and the difficulty score. Feeling lazy? No problem. We have prepared one for you. You can download it here. You can first dig in for words using the channels I had described above. Then use one of the main ASO tools (such as SensorTower or MobileDevHQ – promise to get in to those later on) to add difficulty and traffic scores to your spreadsheet. These tools calculate difficulty by looking at all the apps that have defined those keywords.

Sorting – Now you can use excel sorting to sort the sheet by difficulty level (low to high) and then add a sub sort layer (“then by” popularity – high to low), those who are less difficult but most popular present the best potential. You are not done yet so just mark my words, do not draw any conclusions yet. Why? Continue reading.

Calculate your chances – How can you now estimate your potential to be ranked high enough for a given word (even considering its difficulty level)? I mean, let’s say you found quite a few words with nice popularity and relatively low difficulty level. Still, you may decide to search further as those words are still too difficult for you, specifically, to compete for, because of the ASO assets of other apps that are also using these words. What to do, then?

Spying – One way is to estimate your chances for each of the potential words you have identified, by spying on the competition. 3rd part ASO tools (Sensor Tower for instance) can present apps that are ranked high for any given search word. Now, you can investigate each of these apps, to see what kind of assets they own (their rate, number of reviews, day of their initial publish, estimation of their installs based on their Google play version… those are just few examples). Here’s a question: How is your app you doing compared to these apps? If you are overall ok, and you believe that you can pull up a fight, then go ahead and use those keywords. If you are way back, or very new, better to continue searching. You know what? Add another column to the spreadsheet described above, with the title “my chances” and the values, high, medium, low. Or just download the template here.

Past Experience – second way to estimate your chances is based on your experience. Is your app published for long enough? Just look at your own data. Check on your existing keywords rank, see what scores bring you to the top 10, and go hunting for words with the same or lower difficulty level. (BTW – this is what I mean when I say this is an ongoing optimization process)

Initial list is ready? Perfect. Here are some guidelines on how to proceed:

Commas, not spaces – When you have only 100 characters (that’s even less than a Tweet), you can’t afford to have too many spaces. This is why Apple recommends not to use spaces at all, but only commas.

Your name’s included– Your app name shouldn’t be added as keyword. Spare the space. I will later on relate to keywords optimization for the app title. For example, if your app is called Angry birds, no need to list the word “birds”, nor the word “angry”. As for the word “bird” (the singular form of birds), that’s a different story that demands another check: What is the traffic for the word “bird”? If the traffic is attractive enough, still, and the difficulty level is ok, than yes, it might be worth adding it. Here again, the question is, what is the difficulty vs. popularity of the other potential words? Show all the cards and I will chose which ones I prefer.

Long words – Hmmm, two things to consider here. Users are usually reluctant to type in longer words, so better focus on shorter. Also, if a longer word can be replaced with two shorter words, occupying the same space, the question is who would generate more traffic overall? One long or two short? Another headache, I know…

Advanced tactics – if you find couple of words that are searched for separately, but are also searched for together, as phrases, that’s double scoring!!! You’ve won twice. Think about it. You’ve used the space of 2 words, but earned two words and a phrase… good for you!

The main don’ts:

  1. Not using the whole 100 characters you are entitled of. It’s like leaving money on the table. It’s unthinkable. Seriously.
  2. Wasting precious keywords space with your app’s name or company name. Come on. Just imagine your 100 characters list has a hidden extension, flexible enough to include all the words that appear as part of your app and publisher name.
  3. No spaces, no phrases. Just,single,words,one,of,separated,by,commas,kapish?
  4. Easy keywords yes, but no-traffic keywords no. even if super easy (and by the way, of course they are easy, nobody searches for them, no competitor wants to use them)
  5. Don’t overestimate yourself. Do not compete for words you have no chance to be ranked for. Ha, but you want to… Ha, you are begging for empathy… poor you… well I DON’T CARE HOW, FIND WORDS THAT YOU CAN COMPETE FOR. Thank you.
  6. Try to avoid hysterically long words that just waste all your precious space and usually are not searched for by anyone. Like refrigerator, or encyclopedia.
  7. Choose between plural or singular versions of the same word, unless they are both as popular…

Keywords optimization for the app title

Please note: The “App Name” field in iTunes connect is the name that will show on the App Store. The “Bundle Display Name” field is the text that shows under the app icon, on the device itself.

Just so we are clear, we are talking here about the optimization of the app name field. While you have 255 characters limit for the app name, only 25 will be presented in the search results. Use these 25 characters to best describe your app, meaning to present its biggest value – So everybody gets it, in a glimpse.

Why use keywords in the title anyway? 3 main reasons:

  • These words contribute a lot to ASO, as keywords in the title have more weight than “regular” listed keywords. Yep, these are upgraded keywords.
  • Keywords in the title come on top of the “regular” keywords, de facto increasing the overall keywords you can use. Therefore you should not include the same keyword in both your title and the keywords field. In other words, your overall space for keywords is 100 + 255 (at the most)
  • Descriptive title contributes to quick understanding of your app’s core value! Hence more clicks.

You already know how to come up with the set of keywords. Here are some specific rules for the title:

  1. Create a well built, logical description of your app’s core functionality. Merge the keywords in, without compromising on the quality of the description. Think of it as a well-planned elevator pitch.
  2. No need to spend all your 255 characters (it might not look good), but sure, try to make the most out of it. Never forget that the user sees only 25 characters in the search results, including your name, therefore start with what’s most important for you to communicate to potential users.
  3. If most of your competitors are using some specific words in their title, these words might be extremely difficult to compete for, even with the added weight of including them in the title. Try to find other (or more, on top) words, that are not that widely used

Nice start. I would try:

“Roamer- Link any SIM with your local number and enjoy low cost roaming calls. Never feel foreign again”

(Managed to stuff in additional keywords like “local”, “low cost”, “roaming”, “calls”, without giving away any of the already existing ones)

Google keywords optimization

While Google too considers words in your app title, it is known that Google does not use a dedicated keywords field. Rather, Google scans your app description and tracks the main keywords that are taking part. Therefore make sure your app description includes all of your keywords (yes, those are the same words that you found on your research, as described above). Each keyword should be repeated 3-5 times (do not repeat too little, but do not repeat too much as well!).

Still, make sure the app description is appealing and descriptive enough. It is not a shopping list of keywords!

The Google ranking algorithm is based on MANY parameters, and it is less sensitive to volume of installs (though it considers this parameter too) compared to iTunes. BTW – this is why burst campaigns are usually not that effective in boosting app ranking on Google Play.

Google, like Google, likes to have a bird’s eye view of all the relevant parameters, including the app’s website and social pages visitors. Rumors say that they especially look at Google+…

So, besides investing on the keywords (our main business here), you should consider your icon, video, screenshots and reviews. As long as it’s an Android app, you must not forget your “out of store” presence as well – website, content marketing, social pages and so forth. It’s all seen and considered.

Wrap up and coming next

This is it for now. Coming next is a real use case that will show you exactly how this is done, as well as competitive analysis of the main ASO tools and service providers that are available today.

As long as you work systematically with your ASO efforts, you should be ok. Be patient, avoid the common mistakes (the don’ts), and keep in mind that this is an ongoing process, and the benefits are not immediate. But hey, it’s a low cost tactic that you can do yourself. Startup heaven…