Get Found, Make Money: Optimizing Apps for Search



State of App Search: Needle in a Haystack

State of App Search: Needle in a Haystack

Have you ever tried to meet someone at Grand Central Station or some other incredibly crowded venue? It sounds so doable and yet it is so not. There are too many people, too many distractions and too much stuff in the way.

App (tablet and phone applications) stores, both iTunes and Google Play Store have the same problem. Both have in excess of 750,000 files to paw through, download, try, remove and lather, rinse and repeat. It is likely true that for any problem “there’s an app for that,” but not an app to find the app.

Now I know what you’re thinking. App stores are online and I can use the handy search feature to find the app of my dreams or needs. Well….maybe.  I ran a search using keyword productivity on both sites. In the search department, Google gets extra credit for a more pleasing search results display with icons, star ratings and a nifty description. However, points off for egregious self-promotion by soaking up 3 of the top 10 slots for Google Keep, Google Calendar (a productivity app?) and Google Drive.

Apple dispenses with search entirely and favors the top-down directory approach similar to that phone book you’re using to prop open the garage door (and equally as useful). An iTunes app category landing page is as easy to navigate as airport flight information boards. I am uncertain what the organization scheme might be, although it bears a striking resemblance to the one I use for my home office. I guess that Steve Jobs never had to use iTunes search or he certainly would have done something about that display.

Chart comparing Google Play and Apple iTunes app stores.

So, if you want customers to find your app for either location, you will have to “make it so” yourself and here’s how:

On the page app optimization

As with traditional SEO, both app stores start with traditional information retrieval systems that emphasize the presence of the query terms in the body content and the placement on the page to put together a search results page. Position on this results page is based on magical thinking (for Apple) and a variety of algorithms (for Google).


Apple encourages the assignment of keywords to your application and makes it as difficult as possible. They must be using some sort of Stone Age search in Cupertino, or they all know where everything is and do not need any sort of search functionality at all.

There is a 100 character limit to the keyword field that includes the required comma separators. There is no phrase matching. If you want your app to appear for a phrase like “business news,” the keywords would appear together, e.g. business, news. Google stopped paying attention to keyword metadata a long time ago and Google Play Store is no exception.


For both the Google Play Store and iTunes, the presence of keywords in the app name is rewarded. The keyword-rich name should also include terms that reference the app’s functionality e.g. Weather+ International Travel Weather Calculator.

Apple limits the app name to 255 characters with full display on that page-o-links that serves as search results. For its Staff Picks on the Google Play homepage, app name display is limited to 17-21 (I have seen more at 17 than 21) characters (including spaces) with anything that follows represented by an ellipsis.

App icon

Icons are a very good idea and eye candy is the purpose. The icon appears on the download page as well as in the Google Play search results.

Details page

In iTunes, the details page is limited to 4,000 characters with 700 cited as a best practice. One screen shot is required with the ability to include four additional screen captures. The description of the application and functionality should be keyword-rich with a compelling call to action as customer interaction is a significant indicator of relevance. Additional components that can be included: an instructional video, customer ratings and reviews.

Chart comparing Evernote Apps in Google Play and iTunes


In iTunes the app will be listed under a primary category with the opportunity to select a second category for additional customer query option. The best practice recommendation is to use the customer pain point resolved as a guide for the second category.

Off the page factors that influence ranking

There are influences outside of download page text that can influence ranking in iTunes application search results. The primary off the page ranking factors are:

Downloads: the number and rate of downloads are key drivers of results placement.

Installation base: how many customers actually install the app.

Removals: whether customers dislike the app enough to shake off their lethargy to remove it entirely. Both Google Play and iTunes take note of uninstalls as an indicator of relevance.

Customer reviews and ratings: whether customers give you stars or actually write something down on the page. It is very important that you pay attention to the feedback from your users and respond in some way.


Optimize the application itself.

  • Make sure that the performance speed is smokin’ fast
  • Reduce the file usage weights
  • Keep the application fresh with updates and enhancements

Build and sustain support from external assets.

  • Website support: placement of a permanent download icon or graphic on your website
  • Social media support: schedule tweets with a tiny URL, post to Facebook, pin on Pinterest and don’t forget regular updates on Google+ to sustain momentum

Reach out to key influencers.

  • Contact app blogs and promotion networks to get them excited and talking about your swell new app!
  • Encourage customer reviews and ratings

Gotchas for both

You will want to submit the app to both iTunes and Google Play Store at least two weeks before release as it takes time for the files to make their way through the Apple and Google processes. To do this, Google requires that you set up yet another account with the Google Play Developers Console to upload apps. The fee for doing so is $25. At least Apple lets you play without having to pay.

Is it just me or does this sound like the early days of SEO, the way it used to be 10 years ago with keyword sort-of-stuffing, key influencer outreach, and review “acquisition”? We might as well enjoy the waning days of this Luddite approach to SEO. No doubt Google is working on Panda-app as I write this post. Look for the icon below at the Google Play store. Or, more likely, it will come looking for you.


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