Apple Killing ASO

Apple is killing the small developer through app store search

On a daily basis the Appency team gets emails from frustrated app developers looking for help solving their app marketing problems. We have spent the last seven years fighting an ever more challenging battle for our clients against an app store that is flooded with apps on a daily basis (to the tune of 1.5 million available apps in iTunes) With every passing day success gets harder to reach for the average mid-sized developer.

One of the first things we do when an app that is already live in the app store comes to us, is take a quick peek at it in the App Store. Even a ten second glance at an app’s page can identify some fundamental issues and give us great information. We can see when it was launched, what its ratings are, how an apps screenshots and descriptions look, etc. Even an app that has poor quality app search search optimization (ASO) can be found because the developer has given us the name of the app to pull it up.

At least that’s what we thought.

Something happened to me today that was a first. Something that I feel is a dire omen that app developers need to be acutely aware of.

I went to the app store, typed in the app’s exact name…. and it did not show up in search.

I am not saying it did not come up in the top 10 or 50 search results. The app didn’t show up AT ALL.

I figured there must be a mistake. Maybe the app wasn’t live yet. Maybe it was live in other countries but not in the US app store where I was searching. I went to the app developers web page and found a direct link to the app and clicked on it. The link took me right to the app, which was definitely in the US app store. Just to double check I searched again for the app name.


I scrolled through all 100 results in the iPhone app search looking for the hard to miss icon.


Zip. Zero. Zilch. It was like the app did not exist.

Now, it is understandable that there may be over 100 apps that use reasonably similar search terms that may be doing better than this app. However this was a perfect name match search. I was looking for a specific app in the app store and I could not find it.

At least Apple had some advice for me:

ASO failure

Not sure how much more specific we can get.

“Use more specific search terms”.

Like what? What is more specific then a perfect match on the apps name? (And I can tell you that the words “Tomato” and “Pie” were not part of this apps name like search result number 95 might suggest). The 100 apps that appeared in search were almost all games – while the app we were searching for was not, it was an app for tracking a baby’s developmental progress.  It took me searching for the app development companies name for the app to finally show up in a search result, something no regular consumer would do if they were not desperately trying to find the app. Most customers would have given up long before this.

Even more interesting…. the exact same search in Google Play discovered the app in position #14. Not only that, but of the 13 apps that were shown before it, only one of them was a game. The other 12 were apps that were also related to an infant’s developmental progress.

The Death of the Small Developer

ASO is the most basic, foundational level marketing an app developer can do. If your app does not show up in search results in the app store, hardly anything else matters. This is even more important for a small app developer that has little to no money to spend on expensive app install ads, versus a large app developer who can jump start their apps life with direct download ads. Even good public relations for an app, a less expensive solution than advertising, will do little to help an app that is not appearing in search results as our experience has shown us that many downloads from a user reading a review or story online tend to come from the user going to their phones and desktop computers and performing a search for that apps name.

Any ASO expert will tell you that the most important factor in determining an apps search results is the apps name. Everything else, like keywords and app ratings are supposed to be secondary to that fundamental principle. If Apple cannot show in the first page of search results an app with an exact name match to what you searched for, then Apple’s search is broken and in need of a major overhaul. While I know that Apple has less experience in search than their main competitor Google, it seems like something this basic should be a given. There is no excuse for Apple presenting close to 100 games when searching for a baby tracking app when Google Play quickly shows you a list of apps that actually match what you were searching for.

For small app developers, many marketing efforts are hard to sustain. Public relations (PR) can help a launch, but later in an apps life without major news PR becomes less and less of an option. Advertising is expensive, and even for large developers achieving a positive return on investment is near impossible (This does not mean you shouldn’t advertise, this is only one of the reasons and I am happy to talk to you more, just drop us an note).

Fixing the Problem

Yes, this app developer has done ASO poorly. Their name is generic enough that many other apps are going to be grabbing onto the exact keywords in the name and using them as a part of their name or in their hidden keywords field. Saving Apple fixing their search, there are a few things this and other app developers in a similar situation should consider.

  1. Change the name of your app. Use something unique that will allow people specifically looking for your app to easily find you. Save the more generic search terms for a tagline that can also be a part of your app’s name.
  2. Get friends and family to download your app. Even if they don’t need it. I never understand the developer who comes to me and says “we have had zero downloads”… if you are not willing to use your own network, or simply cannot convince even the people closest to you that the app is worth downloading, then maybe you should be in a different business.
  3. Pay for some downloads. If app store search is penalizing developers with no download traffic as much as it seems they are – then the life and death of your app depends on getting more downloads, and with your app not showing up in search, you are going to have to directly point people at your app page. Advertising is by far the quickest way to do this, however it does come at a cost. Consider finding a professional in the space to help you with getting the most for your ad dollar.

Supporting the developer is the best way for the App Store to make money. As it gets harder and harder for developers to succeed, they will move to other platforms that help them pay the bills and keep the lights on. App store search is not a small problem – it affects every app in the store, and needs to be addressed before the entire independent developer ecosystem collapses.


*UPDATE 3/6/2016*

I wanted to add that the search being done is on the iTunes desktop. The app DOES show up in search when you do your search via the iPhone or iPad, in or about position #20. While I believe that there are more apps downloaded from the phone than from the desktop, I do not believe that the desktop traffic is so little as for it to not matter to the developer. Unfortunately, data on if a download comes from desktop or mobile is difficult if not impossible to find. I have reached out to to see if they might have data around this and will post an update when I hear back.

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