With user acquisition costs steadily rising, many in the industry are looking to recreate what user acquisition is all about – from Cost Per Engagement models replacing CPI, to ever more involved analytics – everyone is looking for a new angle that works. However, that oft-touted statistic that 63% of all downloads come from search is still very much valid. This makes App Store Optimization, far from being the poor cousin of paid acquisition, ever more appealing. The ugly, misunderstood duckling of the industry, if you will.
And it’s that misunderstanding that seems to be creating problems. As I see it, ASO straddles the misty no-man’s land between app development and app marketing. Marketers are keen to avoid it – I suspect because metrics are pretty thin on the ground – and developers see it rather like a Rubik’s cube, they’ll do it one day, but ultimately it’s too complex. And anyway, that’s not their job, goddammit!
One of the most confusing elements to both developers and marketers appears to be the differences between the two main stores, iTunes’ App Store and Google Play. Regardless of whether you’re a developer or marketer, I’m hoping this article will clarify the differences between the two stores, and if nothing else, prove that there is a legitimate reason to approach them as separate entities.
Is there a real difference?
So, I guess the real question here is “Can I just put the same stuff on both stores?” And, of course, you can, but it will do little to help promote your app. A lot of people do it, but a lot of people don’t meet their success criteria either. That is what it’s all about, after all, isn’t it? The secret here is in the name: optimization. You can’t very well optimize for everything, can you? In my little daydream moments, I like to think of iTunes and Google Play as being vegan and meat-loving house guests, respectively. You may be able to serve them some of the same food, but to keep them both happy, you’re going to need to spend a little more time planning your meals than you might otherwise.
You can sift and weigh the opinions, studies and figures as much as you like, but as it stands now, iOS monetizes better for in-app purchases than Android. If you gave any app marketer the choice of a life-long user, they would invariably choose to have one on iOS over Android. The reasons for this could be anything, from Google’s ad-revenue culture to the frictionless payment method preferred by Apple, or a combination of many factors, but it doesn’t seem likely to change soon.
In short, if you’re looking to monetize your app with the highly lucrative freemium model, iOS is the place to do it. Of course, simply bundling into the store with a freemium model, regardless of the quality of your app, is going to lose you a bunch in revenue. Freemium can be a tricky place. Give away too much for free and users won’t pay for anything, but give away too little, and they lose interest fast. Worth knowing, I would say.
This is a massive differentiator between the two app stores. It affects my day-to-day work as an App Store Optimizer more than anything else, I would say. The way Google and Apple display apps varies enormously. In broad strokes, Google is, understandably, all about search, while Apple has a bigger focus on discovery and curation.
What this means in terms of how your app gets downloaded is that you need to set different objectives for each store, and go about achieving them differently. Depending on the device, you can be page one on Google Play with a ranking above 25 (an order of magnitude better than rank 50), but on iOS, that same ranking means users may have to scroll 24 times. An uncommon occurrence.
Seen like that, and with the awareness of the respective monetization differences, you could – broad strokes again – look at iTunes as being a significantly more challenging opportunity, but one with higher rewards. This is one of the reasons, and I can’t emphasize this enough, why quality is such an important element in your app. In essence, high quality, stylish, ground-breaking apps have a much higher chance of getting featured, which, obviously, has a massive impact on your downloads. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s sensible to sacrifice solid growth for a few hours of featured time, but that featured time really does help.
A little bit of Apple love not only increases downloads on the day, but it can also put your games forward as curated, trusted and worthwhile apps. This is nice now, but as the business matures, trust will undoubtedly become ever more important to users.
I think of keyword research as being the wheels of ASO. Without at least passable keywords, nothing else works. I have seen some truly dreadful examples of keywording in the past, but the industry as a whole appears to be getting a little tighter. The key tenets of relevance, competition, traffic and search divergence (having a mind toward the different ways in which people search), are all still absolutely valid across both stores, but you need to direct your efforts in different places.
In Google Play, for example, it’s essential to have human-friendly optimized copy. Keyword stuffing in this day and age reeks of insecurity, and if there’s one thing that will automatically turn users off, it’s security issues. However, far more important (anything up to around 200 ranks, in fact) is your app’s title. Making a comparison to the more widely understood world of SEO, if your app description is your on-page copy, your title is your URL. Again, human-friendly, but keyword-optimized is the way to go for your title. As far as keywords go, that’s about your lot for Google Play.
iTunes makes all things keyword a little more complex, but also a little more flexible from a optimizer’s standpoint. You have your 100 characters of nominated keywords here, as well as your app title (which has much closer weighting to your nominated keywords, by the way), but you also have both in-app purchases and some small crossover between stores.
One interesting element of iTunes is that while the keyword weight of in-app purchases is low, they stack and, interestingly, aren’t limited to their own app store. By way of example, the Norwegian word for coin is mynt, right? Everyone knows that. If enough of your Norwegian in-app purchases have the word mynt in them, you will start ranking for the word mynt in the US store. Useless, of course, in this example, but an interesting insight into the iTunes algo.
Similarly, and there is a legitimate reason for this, Spanish keywords rank in the US store. This is obviously because of the important Latin demo in the US, but it does provide optimizers with a new avenue to explore. I’m not recommending optimizers use this to game the system by any stretch, but I do wonder if this is part of a strategy to weight keywords based less on the country in which you’re using the app, and more about the region or demographics.
Google Play only lets you upload one video, but iTunes currently doesn’t feature them. I’m fairly sure this will change in the future, as the video format is a useful and important way of giving users a clearer idea of what your app is about.
Being part of the Google mega-conglomerate, videos on Google Play come from YouTube, which opens a little door into another avenue of optimization. As a rule of thumb, you get about eight seconds to impress potential users and influence their downloading decision. This means that unless they’re really, really quick with their clicking, much of your video is unlikely to have the impact you expect. Optimizing video is a whole other world, but with the wealth of tools and information out there it’s not hard to find the right direction.
Cross promotion is quite easily done through YouTube with call-to-action overlays, for example. Similarly, you can optimize your thumbnail to give the best impression of your app, before the user even clicks on the video. With the host of analytics built into YouTube itself, it’s even possible (and easy to boot) to A/B test videos, and squeeze as much optimization as possible out of your video as possible.
The only real question is when iTunes will start featuring video. The capacity for Apple to do so is obviously there, but I guess it’s just not their thing right now. They do something similar with highlighted games, but as a widespread feature of the app store, it’s not there. Yet.
[Edit: Apple announced video for iTunes App Store for iOS 8 at WWDC 2014]
Reviews can be a really tricky subject. They can also be your greatest boon, or worst nightmare. In my dealings with the individual teams, both at Wooga and elsewhere, there seems to be an idea that all bad reviews and ratings are based on crashes and bugs. Of course, this is a big issue. If you have a buggy app, you’re going to get poor reviews. However, there is a lot more to look at when it comes to reviews than meets the eye.
One of the biggest differences between Google Play and iTunes is that Google Play allows you to directly respond to reviews and connect with users. This means a number of things, and offers a wealth of opportunity, particularly when it comes to ongoing development. Reviews are probably the least used resource around when it comes to ASO, yet they’re one of the strongest forms of engagement you get from users.
From a “pure ASO” point of view. In Google Play, you can directly affect your ratings. This is a powerful tool that I don’t think many in the industry are using. What’s more, it scales inversely. The smaller your app, the more benefit you can get from it at a lower cost. If you only have five or six reviews per week, of which, say two are sub-optimal, it’s easy to deal with them specifically and directly. You get to throw your retro-active PR/customer satisfaction vehicle into top gear, showing not only the one reviewer, but everyone else reading the reviews that your app (and customer service) is amazing, and getting better. This is good practice for smaller apps, and at least worthy of assessment for bigger apps. Just as a point of interest, on average, apps that get 4.5 stars see around 30-40% monetization than those that score between 4 and 4.5 stars. There is also about a 15-20% difference in downloads. Big numbers.
However, you can also influence your app store ranking with review mining. Whether you use a pre-created tool, build your own, or just manually mine for data, the information you can glean from review mining is invaluable. I like to think of it as a vast bank of customer survey data that users are giving you for free! Free market research with genuinely engaged users. Who in their right mind wouldn’t bother using that as a resource? In essence, by mining reviews, you can get a much clearer idea of the specific problems with your app, then deal with them and advertise the changes you made.
If you’re at the pre-launch stage, you can also mine other, competitor apps for all the information you’ll ever need about the flaws and main strengths of their apps. With just a few hours and a solid review mining tool, you can build a detailed idea of what these engaged users love, what they want in the future, and what they dislike about your app.
The ASO process isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it idea. It’s ongoing. However, even in that regard it’s sensible to consider the differences between the stores. Google Play uses lifetime data to establish rank, while iTunes primarily uses the last 30 days of data. What this means is that Google’s algo is slower in recognizing trends than Apple’s. This may be something worth considering if you’re looking to create buzz, or increase your marketing spend. Knowing about that slower lead-in and later drop off may help you to maximize your budget.
I hope readers come out of this article with a better understanding of the nature of the two app stores, if not a more solid idea about their ASO strategy. If I had to give advice to someone taking on multiple-store ASO for the first time, it would be to give it as much time as it needs. ASO is currently not hugely complex, and it can be incredibly fun. Honest.