Google has been testing out new updates for the Play Store, occasionally rolling out changes for users or rolling them back to make further adjustments. One important change is the update to the “Ratings and Reviews” section. It’s important to understand what this change is and how it will impact the effect reviews have on App Store Optimization. Continue reading
With more than 1.5 million apps on each of the Apple and Google app stores, building a plan for visibility for your app is essential to a return on your investment.
Since the majority of mobile app downloads come from app store search, a mobile app marketing plan should start with optimizing for organic discovery in the app stores.
App marketing strategies that include app listing metadata, optimized creatives, ratings and review acquisition and even in-app retention and engagement are collectively generally referred to app store optimization or ASO.
ASO is often, mistakenly thought of as “finding keywords” for an app’s app store listing. This limited approach is still employed by some app marketing companies, but is not the comprehensive approach needed to compete and thrive in the app stores.
What follows are the building blocks of a mobile app marketing plan that an app marketing promotion company should be required to deliver.
Build Metadata for App Store Listing for both Apple’s App Store and Google Play
The metadata in an app listing includes the app name and description, a keywords field for Apple and a short description for Google Play. These fields impact how your app is indexed by Apple and Google, which determines which search results your app appears.
The goal should be broad coverage of extremely relevant search terms.
There are three primary tool for defining and measuring what is relevant and existing coverage of these terms:
1) Historical and trending app store data
App store data provides insights to how have users searched the app stores for related apps, similar features and benefits, and what is currently trending.
We have written about this extensively, how users search the app stores is very different from how users search the web.
2) Focus groups
Focus groups can provide both quantitative and qualitative feedback on your app’s features and benefits, which resonate best with your target audience and how they would search for these features in their words.
3) App ranking analysis for relevant phrases
How your app ranks for specific search terms and phrases can tell you a lot about how the market is reacting to your app for that term.
Your app could be the very first result for “Free Zombie Game”, but if it is a flashlight app, conversions from users seeing your flashlight app result when searching for zombie games will be extremely low.
This signals Apple and Google that your app is not relevant to the search, and they will drop you in the rankings for that search.
Relevance matters to users, and is easily measured in app stores by conversion rates.
Note that there are several factors that go into not only the indexing but ranking of an app, but conversion and ranking provide clues as to how the market is reacting to how you are positioning your app.
Tested and Optimized Creatives
The icon, screenshots, video and even order of the screenshots can have a surprisingly huge impact on app installs. Testing these creatives with a target audience – ideally a focus group – should be part of any app marketing promotion company offering.
This is a chance to not only test a wide range of directions without affecting actual downloads, but also provides a channel for receiving qualitative feedback.
One design, color scheme, or text on a screenshot may perform much better or worse than others – the data tells you this.
Qualitative data provides access to why, giving the publisher (and designer) a chance to better understand their target audience and adjust designs before publishing.
Even when testing minor variances in icon design, or the text used or order of screenshots on a published app store listing, publishers can see 100%+ improvements in conversions.
Google Play provides multivariate testing to Google Play app publishers (Apple does not), which allows for experimenting with smaller changes on a subset of app store traffic to try and attain statistically significant, incremental improvements to conversions.
Produce Measureable Results
Companies have different goals for their mobile apps. No matter if your goal is a measurable ROI, more emails, better engagement with your brand, customer service or anything else, goals should be defined and measurable.
App promotion companies that deliver measurable results generally assist with defining and testing differentiating features of an app, help acquiring ratings and reviews, advise or build a strong presence outside of the app store and more.
You can read more on our approach to app store marketing here, or request a demo on how Gummicube uses app store data to grow our clients’ mobile portfolios.
Building, measuring and adjusting an app listing for the app stores is called app store optimization or ASO.
In this article we are going to introduce ASO for beginners, why ASO is important, the main topics and key considerations for an optimized mobile app.
Why ASO is important
App store search continues to be the largest channel for mobile app discovery and mobile app installs.
Despite Super Bowl spots, promotions in your Facebook feed or ads in other apps, mobile users respond that app store search is the channel used most often to find new apps.
Without an optimized app listing, you risk losing out on users searching for your app simply because they don’t see it.
How Apple and Google index apps
Both Google Play and Apple keep their indexing and search ranking algorithms private. By studying cause and effect, correlations and mining our own app store intelligence data – prominent indexing and ranking factors become clear.
Let’s start with Apple and their app store
An app listing in Apple’s App Store contains public elements like the icon, name, description and screenshots. Unique to Apple is a 100 character, “hidden” or private field for keywords – used to help Apple better understand what your app is, who it is for etc..
Apple uses the app’s name and keywords to determine which keywords and phrases are relevant to the app.
For example – consider the following fictional app:
App name: Hotel Finder – best hotels at the best rates
This app would likely be in the search results for “Hotel room deals”.
Notice a few things about how this works:
- the example search used keywords found in both the app name and keywords field
While keywords used in the app name are weighted more heavily than those used in the “keywords” field, the combination of keywords used across these elements creates a sort of keyword matrix.
- the formatting of the keywords field is keywords separated by commas and no spaces
Google Play app indexing
Where Apple provides 255 characters for the app name and 100 for the keywords field, Google limits the characters available and weighs constrained elements more heavily.
For example, an app title is limited to 30 characters, the short description to 80 and the full description 4,000.
It follows then that an app’s most important keywords/phrases be used in the title, next most important in the short description and then broad coverage for the full description.
Using the example Hotel Finder app above – the name we used for Apple’s app store is 44 characters – too long for Google Play.
If we really want to focus on “best rates” – the app title could be:
“Hotel Finder for best rates”
As you can see, 30 characters is not a lot to work with!
Determining which target keywords and phrases are most important have a huge impact on an app listing strategy – which brings us to creating the app listing.
How to create an app listing
To access organic app store traffic, identifying keywords and phrases is critical for discovery alone.
With the limited space allotted to the app listing elements, keywords and phrases must be:
- relevant to your target audience
- relevant to your app
- used by your audience when searching the app stores
- work together to create broad coverage of a specific target
In a sentence: because space is limited, we need to identify keywords and phrases that our target audience uses to find apps like ours, that provides coverage of all ultra-relevant searches.
With limited space in Apple’s keywords field, using precious characters for “free, fun, fast, social, new” etc… unless these modifiers support a more specific, ultra-relevant phrase just doesn’t make sense.
Instead, focus on the features of your app that are either essential, differentiating or both.
Competitive market research, focus groups, app store intelligence software and testing and adjusting should help you identify your best keyword targets.
Converting views into installs
A complete app store optimization strategy should also consider conversion.
The app name/title, keywords and descriptions all play a role, but conversion is largely affected by the icon, screenshots and ratings.
Creative elements should be tested with a focus group, polling or other means before being published as the difference between icon designs, screenshots designs, the order of the screenshots and even the features and calls to action on the screenshots have been shown to have a large impact on conversion rates.
Ratings and reviews are more complicated in that all of the other elements of an app listing are within your control as the publisher except for ratings.
Things to avoid in ASO
When evaluating the potential of organic app store user acquisition, it is clear an optimized app is an extremely valuable asset.
The “shortcuts” to building this asset have mostly been shut down, but here are some common “gotchas” for ASO beginners:
- Keyword Stuffing – creating an app name that makes no sense but uses every possible keyword in its name.
Apple provides 255 characters for the app name, but rarely approves those longer than 100 characters, and staying under 60 is even a safer bet.
Plus – who wants to download an app like “Cowboy Command – the fast, free, amazing, fun, cowboys and indians, horses, wild west, shootout, first person shooter, where you invite Facebook friends and create a clan to crush the competition“.
No one – that’s who.
- Paying for ratings and reviews – Apple and Google have done a good job stamping these out, and if they don’t, governments have even taken action for fraud against fake reviews.
- Using web data instead of app store data – not a hack or against the rules, just user intent is so different, keywords used in web search do not mirror or even proxy those used in app store search. Just do a search on Google then in Google Play and note the differences in results.
Apple and Google both use app store reviews and app store ratings in their app store search ranking algorithms.
App store optimization as a practice and strategy is evolving as are the app store ranking algorithms that help to shape ASO.
Because the app store rankings algorithms are not shared publically, and differ between Apple and Google, it is not possible to provide a specific weight of the quality, volume, or momentum of app ratings and reviews on search rankings.
While it does not appear there is a minimum number of ratings for top rankings in either Apple’s App Store or Google Play, it is generally accepted and understood that:
- more ratings (and reviews) are better than fewer, and
- higher ratings are better than lower
It follows then that any complete app store optimization strategy requires looking beyond the app listing and to not only building an app users love, but one that they are willing to rate and post reviews for.
Even with a somewhat cumbersome process, the best way to acquire lots of positive ratings and reviews is to build a great app that connects and resonates with its intended audience.
An amazing app is not enough.
Let’s review the actual process of rating and reviewing apps from the user’s perspective.
The process is a bit broken
Users can rate and review apps from their mobile devices in the app store app, or via the web if they are logged in.
The part that is a bit broken is that asking for a rating and review requires a user to stop using your app, leave your app, open a new app (the app store app) and navigate to the review section or tab.
While this is not ideal – there is another fairly common issue of irrelevant ratings.
Reminder: you might not look at technology in the same way as your users pic.twitter.com/mb2YiyC9Yd
— Benedict Evans (@BenedictEvans) October 1, 2015
Every marketplace from Amazon to Yelp suffers from their own issues with user reviews – so how do we make the most of the opportunity to hear from our users and influence new app installs and search rankings?
Let’s see if we can’t help our users a bit, by making it easier to leave our apps a relevant review.
Request app ratings
There are a few approaches to encouraging users rate your app that range from passive to downright annoying and disruptive to the user experience.
Add a link to your app listing in the app store in the menu
The least obtrusive to the user experience, adding a link in your app’s menu or settings directly to your app’s listing in the app store accomplishes two things:
- reminds the user to rate or review
- saves them the step of navigating to the app store and then your app
Not very proactive, but helpful. A more proactive approach would be actually asking for ratings and reviews.
Set an automated request after X days and X uses
A few years ago, a popular approach for requesting mobile app reviews was to simply schedule a popup that asked for a rating and review.
The publisher could set the popup to open on the 3rd app open (for example), or after 10 days or both.
This approach is flawed for several reasons:
- a user just opened your app – even if for the 10th time, why divert them away from using your app?
- while app opens are a good indicator of engagement, there are better times to request a rating and review
Ask for a rating and review during a high point
A better time to request a rating or review is when a user is at a high point in your app.
Maybe they passed a level, unlocked some content or otherwise just had a good experience in your app.
The ideal process
The ideal way for many apps to best support their users and create a funnel for acquiring ratings and reviews is checking in periodically on the user’s experience.
If there is an issue > funnel to support.
If the user is happy with the app > ask for a review.
This has been the approach adopted by many of the mobile app review and user management services.
Top Mobile App Review SDKs
The above example is actually from Apptentive – so let’s start there.
Offering ratings prompts and management, in-app polling and messaging and a growing list of features, Apptentive has built their business on helping publishers maintain a happy and engaged user base.
Similar features set to Apptentive, different pricing tiers and a focus on automation.
Or check out an example of a custom implementation shared in a case study from the news app Circa:
If you are thinking that there must be a more user-friendly way to prompt for ratings and reviews – allow me to throw some water on the fire.
Incentivized reviews are not allowed by either Apple or Google
“We appreciate you taking the time to rating and review our app – here are some smurfberries”.
Not allowed and your app will be rejected.
The thinking is that these offers incentivize 5 star ratings (even though the smurfberries are rewarded regardless of rating).
Buying reviews can lead to review removals, or much worse
The small task website fiverr used to be littered with offers for app reviews.
Similar to buying Facebook “likes” or Twitter followers, you could just pay a service to generate a huge # of ratings and reviews for your app.
Both Google and Apple are not only very aware of this issue but often take significant steps to deter this behavior.
The purchased reviews will be discovered and removed, and your app will likely be penalized or even removed from the app store.
If you decide acquiring mobile app reviews and ratings is an important part of your app marketing, avoiding the above restrictions and using examples in this post will help you get started.
Building and optimizing your app listing to tap into the massive organic traffic searching the app stores daily takes the right app store optimization tools.
While this list is not in any particular order, a good place to start is with working with your target audience.
Screenshots, the app name, the icon, even the description all have a huge impact on how your target market perceives your app.
1 – test and receive feedback on a wider range of variations
Small changes to the color of an icon can have a big impact on conversions (from app listing views to installs), but focus groups allow you to test big differences – with one design direction failing to resonate while another shows great promise.
Mobile app publishers and designers can get an idea of what resonates with their audience by looking at competing apps, but outside of that guidance, there is no way to really know what will drive your target audience to install your app without asking them.
2 – feedback is quantitative and qualitative
As with most A/B testing platforms and in Google Play experiments, you will be able to see which design, description, screenshot order, icon etc.. converted best and whether the results were statistically significant, but you won’t know why.
Focus groups provide an opportunity to experiment boldly and then garner qualitative feedback from the test subjects.
Why did they pick icon design #2 over 1, 3 and 4? Why was the app name confusing or misleading? Which screenshots best explained the most important features of the app to them and why?
While focus groups are unique in the quality of potential feedback, running ads to a poll, or polling your existing lists (email or social media) are two other ways to test listing elements prior to publishing.
Ratings and Review SDK
Ratings and reviews have an impact on app store rankings in both Apple’s App Store and Google Play.
Even bad ratings seem to be better than no ratings – which appears to be some broken measure of engagement.
While there does not appear to be some magical minimum number of ratings required for top rankings, more ratings is generally accepted as better for app store positioning.
Rating apps is not easy for users. It takes multiple taps and leaving the app to rate or review an app – a tall order even if you (the user) love the app.
Because the best indicator of user satisfaction tends to be retention, engagement or lifetime value (or some mix of the 3), if it were not for the impact on rankings, many app publishers would not prioritize app store review prompts.
But alas, while ratings matter, publishers are encouraged to find ways to request ratings with the least impact on the user experience.
Publishers can set up ratings and review prompts with a custom implementation or use a proven model for customer support and ratings acquisition by partnering with services like that offered by Apptentive.
While ratings and reviews are important for app store rankings and app optimization, prompting for reviews should always account for the impact on the user experience to ensure you are not chasing ratings at the expense of revenue.
Similar to the above, review mining is actually a tool for competitive research.
What features or functions are your competitors’ app users complaining about, requesting or commenting on that your app does better?
Review mining helps guide app listing strategies from which keywords and phrases to target to which features to highlight in screenshots.
Consider a top ranked photo app that allows for adding text to user photos. The reviews complain that posting to Tumblr does not work well or at all. Your photo app works great with Tumblr.
You may have thought this was your 12th most exciting feature, but it could well be your app’s top differentiating feature and worth prioritizing in the app listing.
App Store Data / Intelligence
As the saying goes, “where there is mystery – there is margin” and there is a ton of mystery in the app stores.
App store data and intelligence services span topics from monetization models and estimated lifetime values of competitive apps, to which SDKs apps are using to estimates on what specific apps are paying for new users by geo.
It is hard to say how accurate many of these tools are, but many services are popping up to carve out a niche and provide just a little more insight to help their clients improve their results in the app stores.
When it comes to tools specifically for app store optimization, features publishers should look for include:
- mobile app store search terms – data on the keywords and phrases the market is using when searching the mobile app stores.
- evaluation of how the app name and keywords or description fields work together for broad coverage of relevant search terms (the “keyword matrix”).
- suggested keyword and phrase targets by category, trending, current traction and competition.
In previous posts, we have explained why app store data and web data are very different. It may not be obvious but several app store optimization tools use the free Google keyword planner built using web search as a proxy for app store search volume and related phrases.
If you would like to see how Gummicube approaches ASO and the proprietary tools we have built for optimizing app listing for organic app store search, you can request a demo here.