Many developers don’t realize the importance of ASO (App Store Optimization) until after their app is released. By putting in some time and effort before launch it’s possible to significantly boost your chances of being found through search and that’s the first step towards getting a download or sale.

We’ve covered how to choose a name for your iOS app, we’ve taken a look at the importance of strong display screenshots, and we’ve discussed how to write a great app description, now it’s time to focus on your keywords.

What are keywords?

Keywords are the words that a potential customer types into the App Store search box or into a search engine in order to find your app.

They should be the words that best explain or relate to your app or game. You’re going to list them in the keyword field, use them in your description, sprinkle them in your promotional messages, and possibly even drop one or two into your app title.

The first rule is that they should be relevant. Before we get into talking about how much competition and traffic there is you have to focus on choosing keywords that make sense with your app.

How do I find good keywords?

To start with, you should just brainstorm some keywords. What would you type into a search engine if you were looking for something like your app or game? Start building a list using a spreadsheet, that way we can add more relevant data in additional fields later.

You can employ some easy to use tools like Google AdWords Keyword Planner and Google Trends to bulk out your list. Take inspiration wherever you can find it. You could refer to a thesaurus or try hashtag searches in Twitter to find other related keyword ideas.

It’s also worth checking out what the competition is up to. You can search for your chosen keywords in the App Store and through search engines to start to get a feel for which apps are ranking highly for your preferred keywords. Localize Direct’s page on App Store Statistics includes the most commonly used words in the app description and can be filtered by genre and language.

We’ll discuss how to filter this list down using other factors in a minute to decide what you are going to put into the actual keywords field in iTunes Connect, but don’t throw away the ones you don’t use. They may prove useful for the description, social media promotion, and other marketing efforts.

Rules for the keywords field

There are two things on your App Store page that heavily impact the search algorithm in the App Store – the name of your app and the keywords field. (Strictly speaking there are three things because the publisher name is also used by the App Store search algorithm.)

Consider the following rules:

  • Apple limits the keywords field to 100 characters.
  • Each keyword must be at least two characters.
  • Keywords should be separated with a comma, there’s no need for spaces.
  • Use single words, not phrases. Searches for keyword combinations will still return your app.

You can make a few savings in your keywords field because the following things are added automatically and you’ll get no benefit from adding them yourself:

  • If your app is free the word “free” is automatically added to your keywords.
  • Your company name.
  • Your app name.

You also need to be careful to avoid using certain keywords:

  • Existing app names or brands that you don’t have the rights to use will be removed by Apple and could get you into trouble.
  • Offensive keywords and profanity are prohibited.
  • Any keywords that are unrelated to your app or game are going to be detrimental.

It’s worth checking on your keywords after submission, either in iTunes Connect or using tracking software, because Apple may delete keywords without notifying you.

It’s time to distil

So you’ve got a long list of keywords prepared, how do you start to break that list down? There are two factors to take into consideration:

  • Traffic – how popular is a keyword in terms of search volume?
  • Difficulty – how difficult will it be to rank for this keyword? How intense is the competition?

The ideal combination is a high traffic keyword that has very little competition, but that’s not going to be easy to find. Since you’ve already compiled a keyword list it actually makes sense to start analyzing it by difficulty first. That way you can identify the keywords you have the best chance of ranking for. This is especially true if this is your first release and you don’t have an existing reputation to draw on.

Once you have identified the potentially easiest keywords to rank for you can filter that list by traffic, choosing the most popular keywords in terms of search volume.

You’re going to want to plug this traffic and difficulty data into your spreadsheet for each keyword. Trying to work this data out isn’t impossible, but it’s not going to be worth the time and effort you would have to invest compared to just using an existing service or a range of tools.

Something like Sensor Tower’s Keyword Research Module will give each keyword a score out of ten for traffic and difficulty, breaking difficulty down by iPhone and iPad, and also giving you the total number of apps using that keyword. It’s very useful, but unfortunately also expensive.

Keyword analytics and tools

There are lots of ASO services and analytics tools out there. Some of them are free with registration; most of the really useful stuff is limited or inaccessible without a subscription or fee of some kind. They can be very expensive, so take advantage of free trials and give them a test run before you decide. Even if you don’t go ahead, you’ll learn some useful things.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it should provide a few good places to start:

  • App Annie offers all kinds of analytics and app ranking data.
  • SensorTower offers the complete ASO package with detailed keyword analysis.
  • MobileDevHQ covers all your ASO needs.
  • AppCodes bills itself as a Swiss Army Knife for ASO.
  • AppTweak offers ASO and detailed analytics.
  • AppFigures is an app tracking platform with powerful analytics.
  • Appnique covers ASO and your wider marketing campaign.

Singular versus plural keywords

There’s some disagreement about whether you should include plural and singular forms of a keyword. Apparently Apple’s search algorithm has gotten better at recognizing plurals, so it’s not generally necessary to include both. You’ll get more value from including a different keyword. Pick the best one based on difficulty and traffic. If the values are very similar you might want to include both.

Squeezing maximum value from 100 characters

Common sense dictates that you should also consider using shorter keywords over longer ones. If they’re equal in terms of relevance, traffic, and difficulty then always opt for the shorter one simply because you’ll be able to fit more keywords into your 100 character limit.

Using keywords elsewhere

Although Apple’s search algorithm doesn’t draw on your app description, search engines, like Google, do. That means you do need to consider using keywords in your app description as it will impact on your position in search engine results.

You also want to use important keywords in all your marketing and messaging. Consider in particular what anchor text you use to hyperlink to your app page from elsewhere as backlinks will impact on search engine ranking.

Some keywords that simply had too high a difficulty rating in the App Store to be worth using in your limited keywords field in iTunes Connect will still be worth using on social media and elsewhere.

Reviews, press coverage, and social media discussion with links to your app are all going to help you rank higher in the search engine results. It’s possible that they have an impact on Apple’s algorithm too; we simply don’t know everything that goes into an iOS app rank.

Localizing keywords

Apple makes it easy to enter fully localized meta data for your apps and you should definitely take advantage of that fact. Localizing your keywords will have a huge impact on your visibility in the App Store in non-English speaking countries.

As we discussed in the last article, it can be worth localizing your app description even if you haven’t fully localized your app. Most people prefer apps in their native language and they are much more likely to download an app if the information is presented in their native language even if the app isn’t fully translated.

If you do just localize the keywords and description then make sure that you explain the app isn’t fully translated. There is a chance you’ll get some negative reviews, but you could also treat this as a tester to see what kind of interest there is for your app in other countries. If there are a lot of downloads after you localize the meta data, then it’s time to consider localizing the app.

The same 100 character limit applies regardless of the language.

Using the free LocalizeDirect web app you can track the amount of characters allowed as well as easily translate your keywords into all popular languages.

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You can start your research at the App Store Statistics page to find the most commonly used app description words in different languages. You’ll find the majority of tools and services offer multi-lingual analysis.

Things to remember

We’ve got three R’s that you should try to keep in mind.

  • Relevance - We mentioned relevance at the outset, but it bears repeating. Make sure that the keywords you have chosen relate to your app and remember to analyze what people are actually searching for when they input specific keywords to avoid costly mistakes. This comes first.
  • Research – Examine the traffic and difficulty ratings for every keyword on your list and filter it down. Check out what your competition is doing. Weed out duplicates, favor smaller words, and avoid redundancy. It can be expensive and time-consuming to do your homework thoroughly, but it can make all the difference in downloads.
  • Revise - Remember that you are going to want to revise your meta data over time. You should analyze what is working well for you and what isn’t and make changes when you submit app revisions. As your app grows more popular it will also become easier to compete for higher difficulty keywords.

Bringing it all together

It may be surprising or even frustrating to learn that you have to put a lot of work and thought into your title, screenshots, app description, and keywords. Shouldn’t creating a great app be enough? Sadly in a market approaching 1.5 million apps you need every edge you can get to stand out.

We don’t know everything about how Apple’s search algorithm works, but we do know that the title and keywords are vitally important to get your app found, and that the screenshots and app description are what will close the sale. We know that ratings and reviews are important. We also know that apps with more downloads, regardless of the rating, always rank more highly in the search results.

It’s vital to get off to a good start to give your app the best possible chance of success, so make sure your App Store page isn’t an afterthought.

We hope you’ve found this series useful and informative. If you have tips, comments, or questions we’d love to hear them.