App store optimization poised for take-off

Large publishers and enterprises will invest heavily in ASO, but free or inexpensive tools could help even small devs get their apps discovered more readily

Everybody knows what big-league apps like Instagram, WhatsApp and SnapChat do, but if they were launching right now, the developers behind them might have to rethink some of those names. 

Much in the way no one will click on a link to a news story if they don't immediately understand what the story is about, the enormous growth of offerings in the major app stores has made being found by consumers incredibly difficult. While the goal for website creators is to appear in the first page of Google search results, in app stores there's even less real estate to market themselves. That's why app store optimization (ASO) is beginning to evolve as both an approach to making what developers create more "discoverable" and a set of tools to automate the process. 

Mobile business analytics firm App Annie recently launched its own foray into the ASO market with Keyword Top Charts and Top Keywords By App, free offerings that will tell developers which keywords their apps are ranking for, which keywords their competitors are ranking for, and which keywords have the best opportunity for discoverability. According to Marcos Sanchez, App Annie's vice president of global communications, app publishers and user acquisition managers will be able to use the tools to understand and optimize their organic search, ultimately driving downloads and user acquisition.

App Annie's free offering lets users see what's trending based on keywords.

"It's about figuring out what kind of key phrases are necessary, not only in your meta data but in the description and in the title," he said, pointing out that searches for "candy" will likely bring up Candy Crush Saga as a basic example. This attention to keywords becomes especially important as developers create more cross-platform apps across iOS and Android. 

"The category structures between the two app stores is different," Sanchez said. "A casino game in one platform might be called a match three in another."

Ian Sefferman MobileDevHQ


Opportunities for indies
It may be that large publishers or companies creating enterprise apps will be the first to invest substantially in improved ASO, but indie developers shouldn't ignore it, said Ian Sefferman, co-founder and CEO of Seattle-based MobileDevHQ, which also offers ASO tools and services. MobileDevHQ focuses on the enterprises but has a free service of its own for indie devs. 

"It's no fault of their own, but indie developers tend to put less dedicated time towards ASO than a large company does. [An enterprise] can hire a person solely dedicated to it, but indies are working on the code, the organic advertising and so on. For any size organization, though, the thinking that ASO is a silver bullet is one which generally leads to poor ASO results. The people who are most successful at it do it iteratively, where they test and refine over a period of time."

Hugh Kimura SensorTower


Hugh Kimura, content strategist at ASO firm Sensor Tower in San Francisco, agreed. He said developers should focus first on the value of the app or game they're creating, not gaming the system with keywords. 

"The biggest returns from ASO are going to come after the app is published, so building an app around ASO is putting the cart before the horse. It is a process of testing, continual improvement and adapting to the ever-changing conditions on the app stores," he said. "Some ASO should certainly be done before the app is published, but until it is tested in live conditions, there is no way to tell exactly how well it will perform."

In the Web world, aggressive use of SEO techniques has sometimes backfired, as when Google changed its search algorithm to weed out sites with content that was perceived as poor but which made strategic use of keyword research. Sanchez said it's unlikely the same situation will play out in ASO, however. 

"The reality is, there is a significantly higher barrier to entry to creating an app than just creating a website. We're not going to see billions of apps, at least not in the next five years," he said. "We might see some similar issues but on a lower level."

Proper vs. manipulative uses
Sefferman pointed out that much like hacking, SEO has sometimes been classified as "white hat" for proper use and "black hat" for manipulative use. 

"The folks who get penalized [in the SEO world] are black hat. The same will be true of ASO, where there will always be someone trying to scam the app store or use underhanded tactics to win at ASO," he said. "But the people who excel and exceed are those who put in the time not to be spammy and ultimately are really trying to help their customers the most."

In fact, developers who have adopted the startup motto of "always be launching" might want to switch it to "always be optimizing," according to the experts. "Whenever new crops [of apps] are coming in on a weekly basis, you should be checking your keywords. Maybe not on a daily basis but on a weekly basis," Sanchez said. "Your competition will be doing this as well."

It's also important to recognize ASO as a skill set developers build as much as it is a set of products and services, Sefferman added. "The data will get significantly better over time, [but] computers can only do so much," he said. "I think it will always be a creative pursuit, something that needs humans involved at some level."