Keyword Teardown #2 - Why Did Apple's App Store Algorithm Choose These Apps?

Ariel Ariel
Aug. 17

Have you ever looked at search results in the App Store and wondered why they're ranked the way they are? Let's get to know the algorithm better.

Keyword Teardown #2 - Why Did Apple's App Store Algorithm Choose These Apps?

Apple's and Google's algorithms may be black boxes and completely undocumented, but if you look at enough sets of results, patterns start to emerge. Today we'll look at several sets of results and explain why they are the way they are, using real keywords, real results, and lots of tips you can use to improve your ranks!

How Does Apple's App Store Algorithm Work?

Before we jump into the analysis, it's necessary to cover the basics of how the algorithms used to rank apps work, what they look at, and how they use that information to decide who to show and where.

If you already know this, skip down to the teardown.

FYI - This one's all about the App Store. In a future article, we'll do just the same for Google Play, so stay tuned.

At its core, Apple's App Store algorithm has one goal, and that's to find the most relevant apps and games to respond to every search query a user can make. To do that, it looks in three specific places:

  1. The app's name
  2. The app's subtitle
  3. The keyword list in App Store Connect.

It reads all of the words in those three pieces of text and extracts what your app is all about. In pro-speak, this process is called "indexing".

That's why ASO is important. It tells Apple's algorithm what your app is about. Users, too, of course. Now you have a (very) basic idea of how the algorithm works.

If you want to learn more about how to use keywords properly, check out the following in-depth guides:

Now, let's analyze!

Keyword #1: Video Editor

72 high 91 very high 18,785 high

We'll begin our teardown by looking at a category of apps that's seen a very turbulent last few months.

Search results for "widget" in the U.S App Store

At first glance, I see a list that's almost sorted by downloads, and even though an Apple-owned app is in the results, it isn't the first result. That you don't see every day!

Much like last week's teardown, the order of these comes down to keyword placement and ratings.

At #1, Splice (which I did a full app teardown of a few months ago) uses the keyword in its name and subtitle and has very competitive downloads and ratings. I looked through the top 10 results, and none are competitive enough, which is why it's the #1 result.

In second is Apple's iMovie, which I'm going to skip for obvious reasons!

On to third, and this one might require a double-take. Keyword in the name, check. Lots of downloads, check. Lots of ratings, check. So why isn't it the lead? See that keyword duplication in the subtitle? That's no good... The algorithm keeps the last instance, which gives the entire search term less priority.

Luni's attempt to guzzle up every bit of algorithm juice it can, by having nothing else in the name, fails for the exact same reason (hint: easy fix!), and Videoleap shoots itself in the foot by splitting the term between the name and subtitle, all on its own.

Overall, it's pretty clear what the "move" is here, and that's to not duplicate parts of your search term. I have a feeling I'll be repeating that a few more times in this teardown.

FYI - The one name you don't see in the top 5 is Capcut, the free video editor from TikTok, which has more downloads and a competitive number of ratings, and uses the search term correctly. While it has all of those, there's one thing it doesn't, and that's age. Although age has little impact on ranks, when it comes down to very competitive terms where apps have fairly similar performance, a big difference in how old an app is can make a big difference in rank. In this case, it sent Capcut to #14.

What can Capcut do? Work on getting more ratings. They surely have the downloads for that.

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Keyword #2: Emoji Keyboard

45 moderate 100 very high 3,326 moderate

It's not too long ago when emoji keyboards were all the rage. But even now, when the iPhone's built-in keyboard supports emojis fairly well, this search is pretty popular.

Search results for "emoji keyboard" in the U.S App Store

At first glance, I can already tell this is going to be an interesting one because Apple handles the & symbol weird...

Starting at the top, Facemoji managed to cram emoji and keyboard into its name and subtitle twice! Did they have to in order to rank #1? Absolutely not. But.. the app has quite a few new ratings and downloads, between those and having the term in its name, the algorithm has no other option.

Actually, wait! Duplication means the algorithm sees the last instance of the words and not the first, so technically it only has the search term in its subtitle. As we go down the list, you'll see all other apps do as well, which is why Facemoji is still the #1 result. Also, it has the term as the first keyworword of its subtitle. That helps.

The second place here also kind of makes sense. It's using the keywords correctly and has a decent amount of downloads and ratings. Not as many new ratings as the #1, which is why it's sitting pretty at #2.

In #3, Fonts shows us exactly why you need to have your keyword in the name and not split between the name and the subtitle (or just in the subtitle). Because it doesn't use the full search term in the name, its' massively larger number of downloads and even higher number of ratings are no match.

So far, so good, things still make sense. And as we dip into #4, they continue to do that. Emoji for Message only has a part of the search term visible, and I'm pretty sure the other half is tucked in its keyword list, making it the weaker of the bunch. Downloads and ratings are also not very competitive, so it can only go as high as #4.

At #5 is where we need to do some more thinking. The app has the full search term as its name. It doesn't have a lot of downloads, but we've seen before that enough ratings will make up for that, but it doesn't have too many of those either, so it's not too competitive.

But it has the full search term as its name, which in the past I've suggested will works wonders, so ?!?!?!?!?!

Well... It suffers from the cardinal sin of duplication. See that emoji in the subtitle? By including it there, the app actually loses the weight that just having it in the name earned. Without that weight and without competitive performance, it's very hard for the algorithm to reason having it any higher.

If I'm KissApp, S.L., my first order of business is rewriting that subtitle.

Keyword #3: Learn Piano

41 moderate 79 high 1,167 moderate

Music learning apps have become extremely popular over the last few years, even before we started working from home. Guitar and piano are both pretty popular instruments, but piano is a bit more competitive, so let's have a look at that.

Search results for "learn piano" in the U.S App Store

At first glance, I can see this is a pretty competitive keyword and that ratings play a pretty big role here.

Starting with the leader, Simply Piano, who has most of the ratings and downloads. But... it also has this keyword in its name and subtitle. Splitting your main search term between the name and subtitle isn't ideal, but the sheer number of new ratings really bridges that gap.

We can see why when we look at #2, flowkey, which has both words in its name and yet still ranks second. That's because it barely gets any new ratings, and the algorithm is very sensitive to that. It's an order of magnitude away, but if it was closers, having the full search term in the name would have given it the upper hand, even without having more downloads.

Need more convincing that the name is stronger than the subtitle? Sitting at #3 is Yokee, which has twice as many downloads as flowkey and five times the ratings. What it doesn't have, however, is learn piano in its name. It, like Simply Piano, splits it between the name and the subtitle, and that loses it a lot of force.

If Yokee rephrased its app's name to "Learn piano by Yokee" they'd jump to second place fairly easily. Also, app is ignored by Apple's algorithm, so it's not doing much already.

Skoove in 4th and Yousician in 5th follow a fairly similar pattern—First, it's the app that has the full search term in its name, and only then comes the one that has it split.

Three Important Takeaways

  • The name is your app's strongest piece of metadata, as far as the search algorithm is concerned.
  • Ratings matter for keyword ranks. More is better, and more can help overcome having fewer downloads (aka. when you're "growing" early on).
  • Duplication can really hurt your ranks. Don't do it unless you know exactly what you're doing.

The Tools I Use for App Store Optimization

App Store Optimization is part art and part science. The art part is what I've been talking about in this keyword teardown. The science part is where our ASO tools come in. See where your apps are ranked, track trends, snoop on competitors, get suggestions, and much more with Appfigures. Get started

What Do Popularity, Competitiveness, and Results Mean?

Scores help to identify opportunities. They're not the only thing you should use, but they make analyzing a bunch quicker and easier. In case you were looking at the scores in this article and wasn't sure what they mean, here are the details:

  • Popularity - This is a measure of how many searches the keyword receives on a monthly basis but normalized to a scale of 5 - 100, where the most searches get 100, and none/barely any get a 5. Because it's normalized, the actual values sit on an exponential curve, which means a 10 isn't half of 20 but actually less.

    This is best used in the context of relevant keywords to aim high but shouldn't be used to compare to irrelevant keywords. Higher is better, but not a requirement.

  • Competitiveness - This is a measure of how strong the apps that are currently at the top 10 results are, on a scale of 1 - 100, where 1 means not at all and 100 means extremely tough. The algorithm we created looks at the same performance metrics as Apple's and Google's algorithms do. Smaller is better here, but much like the popularity score, you should only look at it in the context of keywords that are relevant to your app or game.

  • Results - This isn't exactly a score but rather the number of apps the algorithm will return for the keyword. Most users wouldn't look past the first five or ten, but when optimizing, we can use this number to gauge the difficulty of ranking. Less is good in this case.

Tagged: #aso

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Improve your organic ranks with actionable, hands-on analysis of how the App Store algorithm works under the hood, using real keywords and apps.