Keyword Teardown #7 - The Most Important Signal!

Ariel Ariel
9 minute read 9/21/21

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 #7 - The Most Important Signal!

Apple's and Google's algorithms may be black boxes and completely undocumented, but patterns start to emerge if you look at enough sets of results. I actively research search results to reverse engineer how the stores decide which apps to rank and how to rank them and share what I find, including tips, tricks, and secrets, here for you to learn from.

How Does Apple's App Store Algorithm Work?

App Store Optimization splits into two major parts: keyword optimization, which is how you'll get more people to find your app, and conversion optimization, which is how you'll be able to turn more of those views into downloads.

The former, keyword optimization, is what you should focus on first and involves selecting the right keywords and placing them into your app's name, subtitle, and keyword list/description in a way the algorithm will understand.

This article is a hands-on analysis of current keywords, but if you're interested in learning the strategies and techniques first, check out our ASO guides for keyword optimization.

Keyword #1: Karaoke

54 moderate 88 high 1.9K moderate

Do you like to sing? I sure do, and judging by this keyword's popularity and competitiveness scores, I'm definitely not the only one. Let's see what you need to do to rank here.

At first glance, I see what looks like a flipped top, but it's really all about the ratings.

Starting at the top, we see that first place result from Yokee is beating the more popular one from Smule. Yokee has fewer downloads but more new ratings than Smule and its rating average is higher. It commits the sin of duplication, but that's not hurting it because after it's removed, the name + subtitle have fewer words, and thus, more weight is given to the keyword.

If Smule wanted to claim the top place, a shorter subtitle, and even better, name, would make that happen.

In third place we have The Voice, which doesn't have the downloads but beats the rest on ratings. Apparently, that's enough here.

You'll notice the downloads trend cuts off mid-way. That's a result of Apple limiting ranks charts starting 9/1, which limits our ability to generate estimates for apps with a rank lower than 200. It's not great, and we're looking for workarounds, but for now, that's all we have.

Gismart, at #4, has quite a few downloads. Why is it no up higher? No ratings... And the ones it does get aren't great (a 2.51 average). The algorithm is very sensitive to ratings as we've seen time and time again. The other thing that isn't going for Gismart is that the keyword, while first in the name, drowns in a very long name and subtitle.

Side note: Using as many characters in the name and subtitle is a best practice, but that really depends on the keyword(s) you're targeting. As we've seen before, focus trumps breadth, especially for high-popularity keywords.

in 5th we have Karafun, which doesn't have the downloads or ratings to challenge any of the apps that rank above it. It duplicates the keyword, and its new rating average is pretty low, which isn't helping.

In case I wasn't clear here -- Ask for ratings. Thanks!

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Keyword #2: Notes

68 high 100 very high 15.8K high

On to a category that's even more popular than I expected. If you've been reading my teardowns, you know I take a lot of notes and that I don't like the native Notes app... (Bear's my choice).

At first glance, I see a great example of a few of the secrets we've uncovered throughout this series, including placement, ratings, and placement again.

Apple's native app is the #1 result. While it might be the most popular app to download from the store (even though the app comes built-in...) I suspect it earns its top spot not by following the rules. So, I have to skip that one.

In second first place, we have Microsoft's OneNote. Although it only uses the keyword in its subtitle, it wins in a very important area: ratings. That allows it to rank high without even having the keyword in the name. And in case you're curious, the algorithm isn't splitting "OneNote" into "one" and "note" as a human might. So the only instance it can see is the one towards the end of the subtitle.

Google's app comes in 3rd, and earns its place not because it has a good number of ratings, but rather it has some ratings and the keyword in its name. It repeats it into the subtitle, which loses a lot of value... and opens the door for #4 to challenge it.

Here's how - n+otes, the 4th result, has more ratings than Google, by an order of magnitude, but only mentions the keyword in the subtitle. That's not enough to get rank, obviously, so the "fix" here is to include the keyword in the name. It might get tricky with the app's name being "notes" but with a + shoved in the middle, but I'm sure it's possible.

In #5 we have a bundle. I know! We've only seen one bundle rank in 7 keyword teardowns, so to say they're not common would be an understatement. Bundles follow some of the rules we've looked at before. In this case, the bundle is from Microsoft and includes OneNote (#2) as well as other popular apps, so it makes sense that they'd have good enough performance to make the list.

By the way, Inspector now highlights bundles.

I'm not sure if the algorithm decides when to include bundle or if it's more of an editorial choice, but according to Explorer, there are only 208 app bundles in the Productivity category, which might have something to do with that decision.

If I see more bundles in search results, I'll do some more digging.

Fun fact: One of the apps I was expecting to see in the top 5 is Evernote. It isn't, but comes in at #9 even though it has the keyword in the name and without any duplication. Weird right? Well, it doesn't have all that new ratings, and those ratings aren't very positive, which is, in my opinion, the reason for the lackluster performance.

Keyword #3: Chess

67 high 83 high 4.2K moderate

Lastly, let's get back to games. We've looked at a few keywords relating to games already, but this time we're getting to basics.

At first glance, I finally see a list that's optimized so well that the order the results are in follows the number of new ratings they get. It might just be the first time we've seen that in this series!

FYI - Like the Karaoke apps we looked at earlier, all of these apps are called "chess," so I'll refer to them by their developers.

In first place, we have It uses the keyword in the app's name and without duplication. It has the most new downloads of the bunch but what really works for it is the number of ratings (3.8K) and quality of ratings (4.78 average), where it's the leader.

#2, Optime (which I actually have on my phone), also only has the keyword in its name, no subtitle, and no duplication. This is a very focused approach. But, the #1 has so many more downloads that it's hard to outrank with just keyword placement. Its ratings follow with 2.2K new ratings and an average of 4.6 stars.

Vinta, the #3 result, also optimizes properly, but new ratings are about half of Optimize at 1.3K with an average rating of 4.65. If it were any closer in total count, it could overtake 2nd.

Vintolo almost does the keyword placement part right but duplicates the keyword into the subtitle... Fixing it probably won't help because at 356 new ratings is too far from #3. It's worth noting that an average of 4.72, while nice, also isn't enough to push it up since the count is a lot lower.

At 5th place, we have Chess Online+, which could overtake 4th by removing the unnecessary duplication and getting a handful more new ratings.

The Important Takeaways

The algorithm uses a cascading set of rules to decide how to sort search results. While keyword placement is (usually) the main signal it considers, ratings play a very important role in the way results are sorted. We've seen it week after week, and if you think about it, it also makes sense.

How much weight is derived from the ratings vs. keyword placement and focus depends a lot on the competition.

Where apps aren't all optimized the same way, the order is a result of both. "Notes" is a good example of that. When all apps are optimized the same, more or less, the ratings become the main signal the algorithm has. A good example of that is "Chess".

So, you need more ratings. Regardless of how big your user base is, your first optimization should be to ask that user base.

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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