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App store optimisation: create your own app, part 6.1

When it comes to app stores (be it the Google Play Store or the Apple App Store), ranking has a huge influence on the success of an application. And this is fairly logical really: Applications that reach the top spots on an app store’s ranking pages are seen much more often than those apps that find themselves at the bottom of the search results. Unsurprisingly, this correlates strongly with download figures as well. As a result both iOS and Android app designers should be weary of their ranking on the respective app stores at all times. The good news is that it’s possible to influence your own ranking. And this will be the topic of the sixth and final part of our series on creating, developing, and marketing your own application.

In the previous editions of our article series on creating your own app, we’ve discussed how to plan and design an app, the best software to use for developing your app, and how to carry out extensive and efficient app testing. The latest two articles, parts 5.1 and 5.2, were concerned with the publication of an Android app on the Google Play Store and the creation of an iOS application on the Apple App Store.

This final chapter of our series will look at the definition of ASO (app store optimisation), and how it can help to change your ranking in the official app stores of Google and Apple. This article, the first of a two-parter, will focus on Android app optimization, while part 6.2 will look at how to optimise your iOS app for the App Store.

What is app store optimisation (ASO)? A definition

Most users find new applications by using the search function within their chosen app store. This is where app store optimisation comes into play: ASO aims to improve the ranking of native apps in the search results of a given app store – so, in other words, it should help make your app appear near the top of search results. This is directly linked to the correct assumption that an app with a better app ranking will see higher download figures than apps with a lower ranking.

So why do we just assume that a better ranking should automatically mean more success for an application? First of all, the ranking of an app has been proven to have an effect on the perception of the app. Shop visitors often make the assumption that apps listed as the top hits in the app store ranking pages are the best applications offered on the store. And when users open Google’s app store - without having a specific app or brand in mind – and search for an app with a particular function (like ‘torch’ or ‘alarm clock’), ranking really becomes a key factor: apps that appear near the top of the app store search results page are downloaded much more often than their counterparts at the bottom.

There are a number of different measures that can be taken to help push your app towards the top results in the app store. These strategies, known as ASO methods (app store optimisation) are actually pretty similar to traditional search engine optimisation methods (also known as SEO for short) – and so, like SEO, there are also two different areas of app store optimisation that can have an influence on ranking.

  • Onsite (similar to onpage in search engine optimisation): all measures that are taken directly on the app store page of an application can be considered to be onsite app store optimisation. This includes the name of an app, the description of its content, and the visualisation of this content in the form of an app icon and screenshots that are displayed on the app store page. Onsite factors can be actively edited to give apps a major boost in their ranking potential.
  • Offsite (similar to offpage search engine optimisation): offsite ASO includes all influencing factors that can’t be directly edited on the app store. This includes values like the number of downloads and ratings an app receives as well as the reviews left by users. Unlike onsite ASO measures, offsite indicators aren’t in your direct control – they can only be influenced. This can happen indirectly by ensuring that the quality, usability, functionality, and marketing of your app are all optimised. These factors can then help determine how often your app will be downloaded and how positive user feedback will be.

It’s difficult to precisely measure the influence that onsite and offsite factors have on app ranking – neither Google nor Apple (the two biggest app store operators in the industry by a distance) have released official statements about their ranking criteria. But fortunately many online marketing experts have shared their knowledge on the subject and offered insights into the function mechanisms of the ranking algorithms for each app store.

The general consensus is that the following aspects have an impact on an app’s ranking on app store results pages (these aspects apply to both Android and iOS apps):

  • Onsite criteria for app ranking:
    • Use of appropriate keywords (precise and clear terms used to describe app’s content) in the app’s name and the details page for the app on the app store
    • Use of an optimised app icon
    • Upload of app screenshots to illustrate the content of an application
    • Upload of a video to illustrate the content of an application
    • Use of and response to in-app usage statistics
  • Offsite criteria for app ranking:
    • Number of downloads
    • Number of installations
    • Number of uninstallations
    • Number of reviews
    • Average user rating
    • Development of download figures (particularly used for determining if an app is trending)
    • Development of app ratings (particularly used for determining if an app is trending)
Tip

Of course, even offsite ranking factors can be actively influenced to an extent (e.g. by leaving reviews or boosting downloads yourself). But measures like this are deemed to be in breach of app store regulations, so it’s not recommended to do so. These practices are known as black hat ASO, a name taken from the more common term online marketing term of black hat SEO. So if you take the gamble of trying out black hat ASO methods, be warned that Google and Apple may punish you with negative consequences (like removing your app from their app stores or deleting your developer account).

Rise and influence of ASO indicators

The two major app stores don’t really offer much more help besides providing the indicators mentioned above. Other than the number of downloads an app has and its user rating, there’s almost no information about how an app is performing. Neither Apple nor Google’s app store offer visible information about the number of clicks and page views of an app’s details page.

When it comes to recognising and exploiting these factors, many app store marketers turn to additional ASO tools offered by external providers. Two of the most popular app store optimization tools are provided by SensorTower and AppRadar, but these both come at a price. Fortunately, there are also plenty of free ASO tools (including the app analytics programme App Annie), though these naturally offer less in the way of statistical tools and features than their fee-based competitors. But, crucially, none of these tools have access to actual data and values from Google or Apple’s app stores. App store optimisation programmes are just designed to offer guidance on externally controlled factors, like the typical keyword volume for different search terms. This means that data acquired from ASO tools should always be treated with caution and never taken as gospel – although they are certainly useful in helping you to improve your app’s ranking, even if they just help you to gain a better understanding of what the offsite values listed above really mean.

The degree to which the positive and negative factors in the app store ranking affect your app’s positioning on the app store search results page will vary from platform to platform. For this reason, it’s important to differentiate between the different app stores when analysing the effects of onsite and offsite ranking factors. We’ll focus on the Google Play Store, before turning our attentions to the Apple App Store in part 6.2 of our series.

Improving Android app ranking on the Google Play Store

Google has never publically listed its criteria for ranking on the Play Store. But despite this, ASO for Google Play should presumably be similar to search engine optimisation for Google’s flagship product, the Google Search Engine. Unfortunately, the Silicon Valley company doesn’t really offer anything in the way of an official statement as to how ranking on their search engine works either. Most of the information about ranking factors comes from external parties who have conducted experiments and analysis on Google’s search engine algorithms.

The same is true of app store optimisation on the Google Play Store. Even though it can’t be 100% proven, the general consensus for most experts is that the onsite and offsite factors listed above have a big effect on the Google Play ranking of an Android app. We’ll take you through the most important factors you need to consider in order to achieve a better Android app ranking on the Play Store.

Keywords

Keywords play a similar role in the field of ASO as they do in SEO. But, unlike in search engine optimization, there’s only one page for you to include keywords on the Play Store – the details page of your app on Google Play. Here, you have the option for keyword optimization in the following fields:

  • Keywords in the app title: building keywords into the name of your app represents the biggest opportunity for influencing your Google Play Store ranking. So if you’ve created a gaming app, you should try to include the genre or theme of the game in the form of a keyword in the title (like ‘puzzle’ or ‘football’). It’s also possible to include several keywords in your app title, but you should make sure your title doesn’t become too lengthy (recommended title length is normally a maximum of 20-25 characters), because otherwise the name of your app will be cut off on mobile devices with smaller display screens. One important factor for brand management of an application is to come up with a unique brand name that can feature in your app title (or use your current brand name if you have an existing and established one). It’s a good idea to promote your brand in the name of your app if it’s a recognisable one, but the truth is that many apps are one-time products, and brand loyalty tends to be less of a feature for many app store users. Instead, they’re much more likely to choose their app based on current needs for particular content or functions, like wanting a new puzzle game to pass time on their daily commute or a stargasing app to enjoy the constellations. But if your app is directly related to your brand, it’s a good idea to feature the brand name in the title. It can also be tricky to decide on whether to use a catchy name or a more descriptive tagline in the app title section. Some apps choose to combine both – a formula which is proven to be effective if kept within the confines of 25 characters. In these cases, the following pattern is common: Actual name of the appSlogan/information about the app (with relevant keywords too of course)
  • Keywords in the app description: the app description offers you the most room to add keywords. Here, you should explain the content of your app and what it offers your potential users. The Play Store has two fields for app description – you should prioritise keyword optimisation in both, making sure you get all the appropriate terms into your text. You should be aware that the first few sentences of the first box are the most important, so try to give the reader as much information as possible here to save them needing to scroll through the app details page. If you can ensure that page visitors get all the essential information they need at a glance, they’ll be more likely to download your product. Further down on the app details page, you’ll find a second box for a more detailed description. This should still contain plenty of keywords, but is less likely to be read by visitors so should offer additional information. Be sure that you’ve read Google’s developer guidelines before completing either description box.

When it comes to checking that your chosen keywords have a search volume at all (i.e. users do search for your keywords), you can simply use the quick and easy auto-suggest function from Google Play. When you type the keyword into the app search feature on the Play Store, letter by letter, you’ll receive suggested search terms. The terms that appear here are the most common searches and so can be used as an indicator as to whether a single keyword or long-tail keyword combination has a high search volume. But there are also a number of ASO tools that offer functions you can use to help you to find the right keywords for your app.

Visualisation, introduction, and categorisation of an app

Without powerful illustrations of the app interface or appealing screenshots, your Play Store page will struggle to stand out from the crowd. Since the app details page is designed to arouse the user’s curiosity, it’s very important to make sure that everything on the page is reader-friendly. This means presenting a number of images of the app and (if possible) a short video demonstrating its features. It’s also important to be aware that applications are organized into categories on the Google Play Store. While it’s not possible to say exactly how much of an effect good presentation and sensible categorisation have on an app’s Google Play ranking, it certainly helps your app come across as more professional and attractive. And these two things should help lead to a higher percentage of app store visitors downloading your application.

  • Images, video, and the app icon: there’s a very straightforward formula when it comes to visual presentation – the higher the quality of the visual elements, the better the app page will be received by store visitors. On Google Play, you’re actually required to provide several images in order to successfully add your app to the app store (at least four screenshots, one introductory graphic and an app icon). But it helps site visitors if you provide additional in-app images (which help your prospective users to better visualise the main features of the app) as well as informative graphics to give a clearer idea of how the app functions. The app icon plays a special role: it isn’t just displayed in the search results pages of the Play Store, it also becomes the start button for the app on a user’s device after installation. For this reason, the app symbol should be recognisable even at a very small size and should also look the part. It’s equally important to make sure that the app logo fits to the rest of the design for the app as a whole – in particular when it comes to colour and shape design.
  • Choose the right app category: when you create your app on the Google Play Store, you’ll need to select the category heading under which your application will be listed. The first basic choice the type of app (you can choose between simply ‘Apps’ and ‘Games’), after which there’s the option of many different categories to choose from to represent the topic of your app. Be sure to get this right: If you choose an incorrect category for your app, it’s likely to confuse and subsequently deter users from downloading it. And it stands to reason that a gaming app won’t be found by users if it’s categorised as something other than a game. So getting your app classification wrong will lead to the loss of many potential users.

Generating backlinks to your app’s app store details page

External linking plays a similarly important role in ranking on Google’s app store as it does for Google’s search engine. Unlike on the Apple App Store, the Google Play Store attaches a great deal of importance to backlinks when it comes to ranking apps. But this isn’t especially surprising given that it’s one of the main criteria for indexing websites on the Google search engine. It makes sense for Google as well – they have strong algorithms in place to measure and analyse number and quality of incoming links to a website, so applying the same ranking factor to the Play Store ties the two together well.

On the whole, backlinks appear and grow organically for popular applications: an established app will soon find itself mentioned and linked to on websites, blogs, forums, and more, as these give the reader added value and allow them to see the app being discussed first hand. If a Play Store details page has a lot of apps with these backlinks, Google takes this as an indicator that the app is popular. And popular apps naturally receive a bump in the Google Play ranking. Unfortunately, this ranking factor is considered offsite and can’t be easily influenced actively by an app designer (unless you resort to black hat ASO methods). The best way to influence external linking and improve your reputation on the Play Store is to form partnerships with websites that regularly link to Google’s app store, such as review sites, app blogs, technology magazines, etc.

Good ASO is the key to a strong Google Play Store ranking

The app store optimisation measures mentioned above are useful and applicable to every app on the Google Play Store – app ranking affects all Android apps. Good app ranking on the Play Store will mean your app is found more quickly and easily by visitors, and that it’s taken more seriously by users. This in turn has a positive effect on download figures for Android apps.

To achieve this as quickly as possible, you should be sure to focus on your onsite optimisation – making every improvement you can to the details page of your app on the Google Play Store. Some of the simplest but most effective measures you can use to achieve this include the strategic use of appropriate keywords and a good presentation of your app via screenshots and an attractive app icon, as all of these are proven to have a positive effect on Google Play ranking.

Offsite factors (aspects that you can’t control and influence directly), on the other hand, are closely connected to the content and functionality of your app. But marketing also plays a big role here too. Indicators like good or bad ratings and reviews, number of downloads, number of installations, and number of uninstallations can be used to show you how well your app is performing and will affect your ranking. Successful marketing will help make your application well-known and should lead to increased download figures. And the quality of your app will be the final decision-maker in determining whether users are happy with your product or not. If users find your app frustrating, difficult to use, or simply not worth keeping hold of, you’ll soon see bad ratings and high uninstallation figures appearing. And Google will respond to these negative indicators by dropping you down the Google Play ranking for search results in future. So producing a high quality app and marketing it thoroughly outside of the Play Store can actually play just as big a role in determining your app’s ranking as what you do on the details page of the Play Store.

Conclusion: ASO is important for app ranking, but it’s not everything

Onsite and offsite ASO factors are undoubtedly important when it comes to determining where your app ranks on the Google Play Store, so you certainly can’t overlook them. But optimising your Android application on the details page of the Play Store isn’t enough. You’ll need to deploy a mix of classic marketing strategies externally as well. Whether you decide to use advertising, marketing campaigns, partnerships, or other strategies will depend on the type of app you’ve created and how it’s performing.

Lastly, there are a mix of different factors that affect the success of your application more generally. The quality, content, user friendliness, and stability of your app are all just as important as the marketing measures you decide to adopt. This is true of Android and iOS applications. However, app store optimisation for the Apple App Store does differ slightly from the Google Play Store. We’ll examine the key areas to look out for when it comes to ASO for iOS apps in part 6.2: Apple’s App Store ranking factors, the last in our series on the development and marketing of a mobile native app.

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