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App Store Optimization: Selecting the Right Keywords (Part 1)

This is a series of three posts, which will explain how to select the right keywords for your game and present an easy-to-follow guide. The first part will describe how to find relevant keywords for your game.

Selecting the right keywords for your app is crucial for your success. Unfortunately, there is no single tool out there that can spare you from doing extensive and tedious research. With over 1.5 million mobile apps and a steady inflow of new titles every day, app developers need to pay special attention to app store optimization (ASO), particularly keyword optimization.

In this series of posts we will explain how to select the right keywords for your app and present an easy-to-follow guide.

In the first part of this series we will describe how to find relevant keywords for your app. Part 2 will outline a basic keyword selection process, which should get you started and function as an easy to follow guide. In Part 3 we will present a more "complex" procedure to choose an even better and improved keyword list.

Whenever possible, we will provide you with real-life examples from our own project. Optimizing your keywords can have an incredibly positive effect on your downloads. Our current statistics indicate that our download numbers increased significantly with our last update. But keep in mind that ASO takes time.

Don’t wait until the last second

When you develop your first game you’ve probably not read too much about ASO, because you have so many other things to worry about (launching your game, for example, or fixing all those nasty bugs). Most developers (including us) come across ASO at a very late stage in their development cycle. We did our “keyword research” (if you can even call it that) at the very last second, right before our app submission. In the last couple of days/weeks prior to our game launch we had all sorts of other problems to worry about (fixing bugs, launching our landing page, setting up social media pages, writing the app description, contacting press, etc.). Keyword optimization has always been on our todo list, but we constantly pushed it back.

We ended up spending too little time on finding the right keywords, which probably cost us a lot of potential downloads. According to Nielsen, 63% of mobile app downloads originate from app store search queries (The Mobile Media Report). So make sure to spend enough time on researching your keywords. ASO takes time!


A Simple 3-Step Keyword Selection Process


1. Create a keyword pool

Before you can start to create a potential pool of keywords for your app, you need to familiarize yourself with some basic terms used across different ASO sites.

  • Relevance: How relevant is a specific keyword for your app and target audience. Irrelevant keywords will not lead to conversions.
  • Difficulty (Ranking): How intense is the competition for a specific keyword. A higher value generally indicates that it is very hard to rank in the top spots. Check out this great article about Determining Keyword Difficulty to learn more about difficulty.
  • Traffic (Volume, Popularity): How popular is a particular keyword, i.e. how high is the search volume.


1.1 Identify relevant keywords

Only use keywords that are highly relevant to your app and audience. Never use keywords that seem easy to rank for, but are irrelevant to your target audience.

Let’s say you have developed a math game and have identified the keyword “swimming”. The keyword has relatively good characteristics, fairly good mid-range traffic and low difficulty:


Based on the above characteristics you might believe that this keyword is an easy target, even though it has no relevance to your app.

Now imagine you are a user searching for an app to learn how to swim. A math app will pop up as one of the first ten search results. Would you download that app? Probably not. If a user is spending the time to type in a search query, she is looking for something very specific and will most likely not download an unrelated app (high barrier to conversion). Only relevant keywords lead to conversions!

But how should you find relevant keywords for your app then?


1.1.1 Analyse Competitor Keywords

To identify relevant keywords we usually start by analysing our top competitors. If you get to the point of ASO, you should already have a pretty good picture of who your potentials customers are and who you are competing with (if you don’t know your market by now, you should spent some time thinking about that first).

To get a good idea of potentially relevant keywords start by gathering the keywords of your main competitors. To find some of your main competitors, you can skim the top charts of your relevant app store categories (in our case, the categories Education, Games/Educational or Kids). Instead of manually screening the top apps in different categories, you could, for example, use App FiguresTop Apps tool, which is a very convenient way to display top ranked apps in up to three categories side by side.

In addition, search for some general, but highly relevant search terms (e.g. "math" or "math game"). App Annie has a really great keyword ranking tool that should help you identify some competitors quickly.

App Annie Keyword Rankings

Additionally, you should also have a look at appnique's Suggested Competitors list and Sensor Tower's Track Competitors tool:

Appnique's Suggested Competitors tool
Appnique's Suggested Competitors tool
Sensor Tower's Track Competitors tool
Sensor Tower's Track Competitors tool

Now that you have found some top ranking competitors, it’s time to find their keywords. A great tool to discover some of your competitor’s keywords is Sensor Tower’s Keyword Spy. This tool not only shows your competitor’s keywords, but also shows overlaps with your own keyword list:

Sensor Tower's Keyword Spy
Sensor Tower's Keyword Spy

Note: The keyword list provided by Sensor Tower is not necessarily identical to the actual keyword list submitted to the app store. It is currently not possible to directly query competitor’s keywords. Sensor Tower probably queries the app store search API with a set of keywords and guesses the app keywords according to the resulting rankings.

Another useful tool to find some of your competitor’s keywords is Straply. Straply shows you competing apps and their keywords:

Straply - Competing Keywords

Your main goal at this stage is to create a very broad pool of potentially relevant keywords. You will probably notice that not all keywords provided by the different ASO tools will be relevant to your app, so you will always have to manually pick the final candidates. The easiest way to keep track of all your keywords is to paste them into a Google Drive spreadsheet and share that across your team.


1.1.2 Other ways to identify relevant keywords

App Store Titles
Many apps include some of their most important keywords in their app title, so titles are a good starting point to get some clues. In general, it is a good idea to add high traffic, high difficulty keywords to your app title (like "math" or "game").

App Store Descriptions
Skim the descriptions of your main competitors. Some apps may include potentially relevant keywords in their app description (particularly in their feature list). But be aware that the Apple App Store algorithm does (most likely) not take the words of the app description into account for ranking purposes.

App Store Reviews
Search the top rated reviews of your app and your competitor's apps for relevant keywords. Start with 5-star reviews, because they are more likely to include positive keywords. This process is very time consuming, so we would only suggest to use reviews if you are stuck identifying enough keywords. There are tools out there that automate this process, like Sensor Tower's Review Analysis tool (only available in the enterprise version, though).

Google Trends
If you want to get a rough indication of the volume of a search query in relation to a base query, you can use Google Trends. In this example we used “math game” as the underlying base trend and compared the queries “math exercise” and “math practice”.


The search interest for “math exercise” is close to zero. This is a strong indication that this keyword will probably not be very successful. In addition, Google Trends offers you keyword suggestions.

Google AdWords Keyword Planner
A very viable source to conduct some basic keyword research. The Keyword Planner will provide you with useful information about search volumes and related keywords. There are tons of tutorials out there to use this tool.
For example: How to do Keyword Research the Smart Way: Targeting Interest and Intent

Apple App Store Related Keywords
Apple is currently experimenting with a new app store feature. When entering search queries, Apple will display related keywords (currently only available to certain users, but should hopefully be rolled out soon).


This may seem a little old-school, but if you are trying to find different alternatives to a specific keyword, a thesaurus is a good starting point. If you are lucky, you may end up with some good suggestions.


1.2 Get keyword data

Now that you have compiled a pool of relevant keywords you need to get keyword specific app store data. Many different ASO tools show you at least keyword traffic and keyword difficulty values. This step is very important, because high volume keywords suggested by Google Keyword Planner, for example, may have completely different characteristics in an app store environment (different search behaviour web vs. mobile, different ranking/ competition of websites vs. apps, etc.).

For the following steps it is crucial that you get traffic and difficulty characteristics for each keyword (e.g. via MobileDevHQ or Sensor Tower). Before moving on to the next step, you can delete all keywords that have zero traffic (or better move those keywords to a watchlist, because they may gain traffic again at some point in the future). Depending on the type of your game (iPhone/ iPad only, universal) and the information available in your ASO tool, you may also want to average your iPhone and iPad scores to get an aggregated difficulty/ traffic number.


Wrapping it up

In this first part we have showed you how to identify relevant keywords (remember, only relevant keywords lead to conversions!). Unfortunately, there is no single tool out there that will do all the work for you, but there are many tools that will help you in your research process. The key to finding great keywords is to have a deep understanding of your market. The more you know about your potential customers and competitors, the better your resulting keyword pool. ASO takes time, so don't expect to hit a home run with your first attempt.

In the next part of this series we will introduce an easy-to-follow keyword selection guide, so stay tuned.

Do you have any questions? Let us know in the comments!

Any feedback would be highly appreciated, as this is our first post on Gamasutra!

The original blog post appeared on our dev blog:

Check out part 2 of this series here.

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