A Hands-on Approach to App Store Optimization

ranking-in-the-app-store-badgeApp Store Optimization (ASO) is the art of making apps rank in both popularity lists and search results within their respective app stores. A key ingredient for a high ranking is the amount of people that have previously installed the app and the recent growth of this so-called install base.

So how does an app become popular and how can you influence this? Let’s explore how you can initiate the initial boost that, in turn, should attract a more organic growth.

App Popularity

Google Play shows a 30-day install trending of every app next to the app description. You can see an estimation of the total installs and it shows a graph for the last 30 days.

Here are some random examples for high ranking apps.


The first graph shows an app that received a huge boost in installs about a month ago, but it didn’t keep up a steady growth. After some time it will lose its ranking from regular popularity lists and depending on the competition it will decrease in ranking in search results.

The second graph shows a very popular app with millions of installs. It recently received two install spikes, but continues to grow steadily. Depending on the competition this app can rank for all keywords present in its description and app name.

The third graph shows an app that came out of nothing and grew fast, but install growth is already slowly declining. The current ranking in popularity lists should be used to get additional installs before the app loses its momentum.

The last graph is typical for apps in the Google Play list with popular newcomers. If it continues to grow steadily from this point it will be listed in other popularity lists and will rank for various related keywords.

All app stores (i.e., Google Play, Apple App Store, Nokia Store and Windows Phone Marketplace) work with install popularity in their ranking algorithm. All of them value the amount of installs so far and recent install growth.

To get installs you need to be visible (preferably in app stores). To be visible in app stores you need installs. You see the dilemma here? Where do you start; the chicken or the egg?

Fake it Until You Make it

The best way to promote a good app is to invest heavily in its initial promotion. Once you’ve “bought” your first moment in the spotlight, you can prove the qualities of the app to the general public and a steady organic growth is sure to follow. This keeps the spotlight burning.

Here are five example strategies for an initial boost.

1. Appvertising

Promoting your app can start by buying attention in various ways. Companies like AdMob and Adsmobi offer different possibilities from bannering and advertorials to in-app promotions. Especially popular apps that can offer their users an in-app currency in exchange for installing your app are highly successful.

2. App Review Sites

A positive review from one of many app review sites can give your app great attention. Especially popular sites like appadvice.com, macworld.com and dailyappshow.com can provide instant app popularity.

3. Special Promotion

Temporarily giving away great prizes or extraordinary discounts from within your app, make a lot of people install it. When this is only a temporary functionality those people might de-install the app short afterwards.

Google Play counts every de-install as a negative signal, but so far the Apple App Store rewards you with a more permanent ranking boost. When you get your regular audience to install the app during your spotlight moment, they will have taken over the amount of installs lost after the hype and your position is safe.

4. Popular Functionality

Apps with a very specific audience can seldom outrank more generic apps in the same industry. If the generic app uses similar terminology it will be hard for your audience to find your app. Adding some popular generic functionality to the app might be required to start ranking for the more specific functionality your audience is looking for.

A (boring) financial calculator for accountants can add a special dummy proof function for legal tax evasion, just as a popularity ingredient. Adding small games to your app also helps to create popularity. You might not be able to rank against other games, but this popularity is more than enough for less attractive verticals.

If you’re able to make a lot of money from your app, you can even buy an existing popular app to later add your own functionality.

5. Embodying a Hot Topic

Hot topics are popular in normal searches, but also in app searches. The app store competition however starts out slower than the competition in regular web search. It is often harder to build or rebuild apps to embody that topic. If you are able to include new functionality or messages quickly, that might provide the edge.

A public transport app can create a special “getting around London during the Olympics” function. A Twitter client or messaging app can integrate an Olympics icon set. A sports statistics app can integrate Olympics failure and injury statistics. A photo app can use an amateur sports photo competition for its promotion during the Olympics. And many more options become available with predictable hypes like the sports venues, but also with less predictable ones like instant YouTube icons, popular gossip, the passing away of famous people, politics and other news topics. Adding some hype functionality to your app and its description makes it rank for those keywords and reach a whole new audience.

Maintaining Your Ranking

Shortly after your popularity spike you will be able to rank for various keywords in your description and app name. After about a month you’ll need a continuing growth to keep ranking for more competitive keywords.

Top positions for less competed keywords can be based on just the amount of installs so far. If the competition is active, you’ll need to focus on new hypes each time to keep ranking or to improve it.

Unlike link building in SEO (search engine optimization), the popularity element in ASO (app store optimization) isn’t linked to a certain topic. In app stores you will be able to re-use popularity for any given topic just by changing the app description, its name and even its functionality. Hopefully app stores will find a solution for this flaw soon, before all of us SEOs start to game it.

Hands-on Approach

  1. Create an app that deserves a large install base. Even if you focus on a smaller audience.
  2. Use the right keywords in your app name and app store description. You can change them later.
  3. Launch with a hype to get attention.
  4. Use your moment in the spotlight to grow a steady install base.
  5. Keep track of the install trending of your competition and have several hypes waiting for the right moment in which they are needed.
  6. Install base by itself isn’t a goal. Just make sure your keep ranking to reach your audience.

App stores are sure to improve their algorithms when people start to game them intensively. There is much money to be made in apps and the competition still needs to wake up.

Take advantage of the current momentum. Just like in regular search “popularity grows popularity”, “the big will get bigger” and ranking is a key ingredient for popularity (and vice-versa).

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