Keyword Teardown #1 - Why Did Apple's App Store Algorithm Choose These Apps?

Ariel Ariel
10 minute read Aug. 10

Have you ever looked at search results in the App Store and wondered why they're ranked the way they are? In this series of Keyword Teardowns we analyze how the algorithm works and highlight tips and tricks to help you rank higher.

Keyword Teardown #1 - 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.

This one's all about the App Store, so we'll go over that. 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: the app's name, subtitle, and keyword list, which is tucked in App Store Connect. It reads all of the words in those three strings of text and extracts what your app is all about.

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 this guide on how to optimize the name and subtitle, and this guide for how to optimize the keyword list.

Now, let's analyze!

Keyword #1: Calendar

72 high 88 high 15,328 high

I'm going to kick this off by looking at a keyword many of you who have meetings have probably looked at at least once. The format is simple: we're going to look at the search results, identify what's seemingly weird, and explain the logic behind it.

Calendar is an interesting keyword that's also very popular and fairly competitive. It's dominated by Apple's own app, which comes with every iPhone and iPad, but it's also hard-coded at the top of the search results in the App Store, whether you like it or not.

Let's look at everyone else.

At first glance, I see that Google has quite a bit of downloads and the term in the app's name, which easily explains why the algorithm put it at #2. I also noticed that #3 has fewer downloads than #4. Let's have a closer look at that.

At #3 we have Calendar · by Luni. It mentions the keyword in the app's name, and we estimate it got 32.5K downloads in the last 30 days. Below it, at #4, is Calendars: Planner & Reminders by Readdle, which we estimate got close to double the downloads and also mentions the keyword in its name.

If the algorithm only cared about downloads, which is what most developers believe (and isn't true), you'd expect Readdle's app to take the 3rd spot.

So, why doesn't it?

Short answer: the algorithm is putting more weight on Luni's use of "calendar" than Readdle's because Luni isn't using any other words, which means the algorithm is giving all possible weight to one keyword, and that boosts it up the list even though it doesn't have as many downloads as other apps.

That was pretty easy and a good lesson you can take and use with your app to compete when you don't have enough downloads.

But there's one important consideration to make. When you focus so much, you leave out other important modifiers, which means ranking for them will be harder. If you're just starting out and are willing to iterate actively, you can focus on different terms for a short bit. The algorithm will remember.

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Keyword #2: Recipes

47 moderate 96 very high 9,954 moderate

Moving on to a slightly less popular yet more competitive keyword—"recipes." With a competitiveness score of 96, we know that ranking here will take some cleverness (or lots of downloads).

At first glance, it looks like something's confused. The #3 result, Tasty by BuzzFeed, has more downloads than first and second places (almost) combined. So, why isn't Tasty the #1 result for this super competitive keyword?

Another easy answer: Keyword placement.

Some companies have a thing against keywords in the app's name. I'm not entirely sure why, but I see it far too often. Including keywords in the app's name doesn't only help with App Store Optimization but also gives users who stumble across it a clue about what it does. So, not including any is kind of a lose-lose in my opinion.

But let's take a look at why the algorithm is placing Yummly (which I did a teardown of recently) and Food Network Kitchen above Tasty.

Yummly beats Tasty by including the keyword in the app's name. Remember, the name has the most impact, and the subtitle and keyword list are next.

Food Network Kitchen doesn't have the keyword in its name but does in the subtitle. But so does Tasty. Well, in addition to distributing weight differently between the name and subtitle, the algorithm also places weight differently by where in the string the keyword is.

The closer to the beginning it is, the more weight it'll get. And that's why we see Tasty at #3, with a mention of "recipes" all the way at the end of its subtitle.

If you're in Tasty's position, you have two options: the first is to include the keyword in the app's name and get to #1. The second is to move it up in the subtitle and get to #2.

Keyword #3: Puzzle

58 moderate 88 high 162,306 very high

Switching gears to games, let's have a look at a fairly generic term that's pretty popular. Puzzle is a genre of games that you'll find many who don't consider themselves "gamers" to play, which is why it's got a popularity score of 58.

At first glance, I see a few odd things here, enough to make a real list:

  1. Of the top 5, the #1 game isn't the one with the most downloads
  2. Why is #2 where it is with a 10th of the downloads???
  3. Why is the #5 game, which has more downloads and ratings than all others in the top 5, so low?

Much like what we've seen before, these all simmer down to keyword placement and weight distribution.

Let's start at the top, with Jigsaw Puzzles (which I did an App Teardown on a while back). The app has the second most number of new ratings, the keyword in its name, and is the third in terms of downloads. With the exception of #5, which we'll get to in a bit, Jigsaw Puzzles earns its #1 rank for its massive number of new ratings, and the downloads don't hurt either.

At #2 we have another Jigsaw Puzzle, and even though this one has very fews downloads and new ratings in comparison, it's the only other app to include the term puzzle in its name. Again, with the exception of #5, which we're ignoring for now.

Quick note - using the same keyword twice between the app's name and subtitle, something that's happening a bunch in this group, isn't necessary or helpful. In the best case, it does nothing, and in the worst case, it lowers your rank, as we'll see with #5.

The #3 result, Blackbox, could be the #2 result fairly easily. It's got more downloads and ratings than #2 but doesn't have the keyword in its name. Adding it will push it up, and longer-term will also help all other keywords that include "puzzle" in them. It's a net win.

Now we're getting into the confusing ones... Both #4 and #5 feel like they should be ranking higher. #4 isn't mentioning the keyword in its name but does have quite a few more downloads than the top 3 results combined. It can't climb too high without mentioning the keyword in its name, but see how the downloads slope down?

Apple's algorithm cares about trends, which it interprets as a signal for demand. An up and to the right trend = people are interested, while the opposite makes the game seem less relevant. I suspect that's what's happening here. When it comes to growth, stability usually outlives spikes. As long as it's stable growth.

And now the one that's most confusing. At #5 we have Block Puzzle, which has the most downloads, the most new ratings, and mentions the keyword very early into the app's name. So, in theory, it should be the first result, but there's one little thing that it's doing that's really hurting its chances.

This isn't something you'll hear about often, but when you use the same keyword in the name and subtitle, the algorithm has to pick one and ignore the other. It needs to do that so it can assign the proper weight to it. Guess which one it chooses?

So, by having the keyword early in the name (great) and last in the subtitle (worst), the algorithm is dropping the first and giving the keyword very little weight. That's why all the keywords and ratings aren't pushing it up.

The fix is to drop the last mention in the subtitle. Results should follow.

This one was busier than the rest. If you've ever thought ASO in 2021 wasn't for games, I hope this makes you rethink that.

The Important Takeaways

The common misconception that the App Store algorithm only looks at downloads to determine where to place your app in search results is, well, just a misconception. It'd be easy if it did, but would likely result in the same apps showing up all the time. Not something users will find useful.

Instead, the algorithm gets clever about how it sorts app in an effort to highlight what's most relevant.

In this teardown, we've identified four "features" of the algorithm you can use to advance your apps and games:

  1. Downloads aren't the only thing the algorithm uses to sort search results.
  2. Weight is distributed across all of your keywords, so fewer keywords means more weight for each.
  3. Keywords at the beginning of the string get more weight.
  4. Repetition is ignored and shifts the position of the keyword to the last instance of it in the string.

There's more to Apple's algorithm, but with just what we've covered so far, you should be able to get better results for your apps and games. Go for it. Give it a try, and if it works, let me know.

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.

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