A lot of people discover apps by searching in the App Store. If your app doesn’t show up for relevant keywords, you are leaving a lot of money on the table. I asked Ian Sefferman, Co-Founder of MobileDevHQ to give us some tips on how to those top rankings. Please read the interview below.

Tope: Hi Ian, Can you give us some background on why you started MobileDevHQ.

Ian: At MobileDevHQ, we create a product that we call an App Store Optimization Product which is SEO for mobile apps. So we want to help app developers get more downloads by helping them rank higher within app store search.

We think that search is a critically important and underutilized channel within the app stores for app developer distribution.

We started as a company called AppStoreHQ about three and a half years ago and AppStoreHQ is a consumer app discovery site. So we help users find apps. We were able to get to about over a million unique visitors a month, had some traction, had some really interesting products there. But one thing that we kept noticing was that we would always get developers reaching out to us and saying, “Hey, I want to know how I can promote my app better in the app store,” “Hey, I want to know how I can show up in search results,” “Hey, I want to know what are people searching for,” …

So what we did was we realized, “Hey, we’re actually sitting on a treasure trove of data here about what is being searched for in the app store, how the app store search works.” We had the whole catalog of both iOS app store including iPhone and iPad as well as Google Play for about three and a half years and we really have a lot of data in there.

So what we did was we put that data on its head. Instead of exposing it to consumers, we exposed it to developers and we launched this product about five and a half months ago – well six months ago now and we’ve really seen an amazing uptake and awesome traction since then.

Tope: Developers believe that app discovery comes from being in the top charts, being in the featured section or getting reviews on mobile sites and you have this data that you have gathered for a couple of years now. Do people really search? How many views can one expect to get from users searching for terms in the app store?

Ian Sefferman: Yeah, absolutely. So, top charts are obviously going to drive a lot of traffic especially if you’re just in the top 25 overall. That’s going to be huge amounts of downloads of course but people do search. Everybody searches. So there was a study recently that was on how to – it was by Nielsen and it was how people find apps.

“Sixty five percent of those that they surveyed said that the primary way that they find apps is searching the app stores.”

So some of that is a branded search as I call it, meaning I tell you, I say, “Hey, did you know that there’s a Skype iPhone app?” Then you go to the app store and you search for Skype. That’s not necessarily crazy hard search there, right? That’s not, I’m looking for video conferencing.

But video conferencing is a widely searched for term and it’s the same thing with the web. One of the top two or three most searched for terms on Google is Facebook. But obviously people search for a lot more on Google too.

So I think that the very high level is that if you focus on search, it can drive a good percentage of your downloads and more importantly, it can help you with all of your other channels. So if you do well in search, then you have a better shot of doing well in the top charts. You have a better shot of people telling their friends about you and so on and so forth.

So all the channels used together are really, really effective. Any channel used by itself is probably not going to be as effective.

Tope: So it’s kind of like a domino effect, right? So if you have like a good search ranking, then that also helps you get more downloads and then more downloads gets you more visibility in the charts and stuff like that. Is that what you’re trying to say?

Ian Sefferman: Totally, exactly, 100 percent.

Tope: How does the algorithm work? I know Apple is very secretive when it comes to the algorithm. But from your experience, what are the factors that these depend on?

Ian Sefferman: So let me give you the analogy to web search because I think that people understand web search moderately well right now. In web search, there are two main components, right? There’s the on-page SEO and there’s the off-page SEO.

Where on-page SEO means making sure you have the title tag correct, making sure you use H1 tags, making sure you have both follow and no-follow links, all of that type of stuff. The off-page SEO are things that – link building is a good one, getting people to link to your site or another good one now today is social. Like getting a lot of re-tweets will actually help your search and so when you think about the app ecosystem, and the app stores, there is what I call sort of “ON” metadata and “OFF” metadata.

And the “ON” metadata is your title, description, keywords… all of that sort of stuff. What is your icon? What’s your category? What do your screenshots look like? All of that sort of things that will help you in both search and in conversions and then there’s the off-metadata things which are things like how many downloads you have. How many downloads per day do you have? What is the rating of your app? How many reviews do you have? That type of stuff as well.

Tope: Oh, OK. So this is actually very interesting to know. Can you give us a quick example? If for example, I have an app for iOS developers. How do I know what keywords to target and how do I know what title to call it? Let’s go with a concrete example so that people can understand how this works.

Ian Sefferman: Right. So the first thing to do is to find out what are the search keywords. We have a tool to help you figure out what search terms you should even care about. So where’s the search volume and things like that.

This tool is based on data that we’ve had for a couple of years now and we also partnered with a couple of other third party app stores to get their search data and what we realized is that we now have a pretty good model for what is actually happening within the app store.

So you come to us. You basically say, “This is my app. These are my competitors’ apps,” and we will tell you these are the top 10 keywords by search volume and relevance for your app.

Then you can go back and you can say, “OK. Now I know that the number one search term for iOS development is –”

The thing to remember is that you should always be refining. This is not a one-stop thing just like SEO is not a one-stop thing. You’re always building links. You’re always trying to do things. App store optimization is the same way…
– Ian Sefferman

Tope: Yeah, I think iOS development is probably like a bad example. Like for your more consumer app, let’s say photo sharing, something like that …

Ian: Yeah, exactly. So photo sharing is a good one. I think that you would find out that “photos” is probably the super high search term there.

So you would say, “OK, interesting. I know that maybe I should call my app ‘photos’ something,” or at least in the title it should maybe say photo sharing or something like that. That way you get the keyword into the title. You obviously don’t want to spam. You don’t want it to be like photo, photos, photographs, photography. That’s not going to do you any good in the long run.

One or two keywords is a really good way to do that.


Then you would want to do things like ensure you have all the right keywords in the keyword field. Again, those should be similar keywords and then you want to make sure you get your category correct.

So category is interesting because you want a category that a lot of people see but that there’s not as much competition. So for instance, it would be very hard for many people to get into the top three for social networking. Those are generally Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, Twitter, Skype or wherever it is.

Tope: Yeah. So how do we determine competition? Does your tool also tell you how much competition is for those keywords?

Ian: We can tell you how competitive is a particular keyword based on how much competition that keyword has as well as how popular those competitive apps are and, thus, how hard it will be for you to rank for that keyword.

Tope: All right. OK.

Ian: Those are the beginning steps that I would take and then the thing to remember is that you should always be refining. This is not a one-stop thing just like SEO is not a one-stop thing. You’re always building links. You’re always trying to do things. App store optimization is the same way.

Tope: So I guess you have to track this over a period of time. So if you do a couple of changes, then you track probably what your rank is. So how do we track that for example?

Ian: You tell us the keywords that you want to be tracked for and you can even give us your competition so that you can say, “I want to make sure I’m always tracking above them,” and we will track that everyday and we will even send you email updates every single day and we will let you know exactly how you’re doing. You don’t have to log in or anything like that. You will get a simple email and saying you went up, you went down, you stay the same.

Tope: OK. So it sounds like your tool actually does a lot of what people need to do. Let’s just say someone wanted to do that on his own, kind of like a DIY developer. I’m very DIY. If I wanted to do that on my own, how will I go about doing that?

Ian: You want to make sure that you choose the markets then the regions that you care about, whether that’s the United States, the UK, wherever, and you go every single day and you just see what position you’re in and maybe create a spreadsheet and go from there.

Tope: All right. So basically log in in a different country in iTunes for example and then do the searches basically and then track that using a spreadsheet?

Ian: That’s right.

Tope: I was going to ask which of these factors are out of our control, which ones can we influence? Because basically we have a lot of factors that affect the ranking or the number of downloads, reviews and everything.

Ian: Yeah. So I think that the number of downloads is obviously important. It’s a little bit harder to influence especially if you don’t have an ad budget but things that are actually easier to influence than you might think.

Rating is probably the biggest one there. So there are tools out there right now. One is called Apptentive and Apptentive is great. They have simple tools to help engage with your customers and by that, I mean that they will make it easy for your customers to rate your app.

But if your customers don’t seem like they’re actually enjoying your app, rather than having them rate it, it will auto pop up and say, “Hey, why don’t you write some feedback so that we can help you?”

What that will actually do is it will help you to build a better app because you’re getting feedback but it will also help you to get a better rating because you’re only asking those who are having a positive experience to rate your app. So you’re able to influence it.

Tope: Yeah. So you’re kind of like avoiding the one-star reviews. When someone is about to give you a one-star review, it basically tells them to leave some feedback so that you can fix it.

Ian: Exactly.

Tope: Number of downloads is a big factor in the ranking, right? And free apps are downloaded more. I mean lots more, 10 times more than paid apps. So if I have a paid app and I’m competing with someone that has a free app with in-app purchases for example, so does that mean the playing ground is not more level because he will have more downloads or how would that work in that case?

Ian: That’s a really good question. It’s something that we don’t have conclusive data on yet but I can say that it does look like free apps are rated higher in general and ranked higher in general in app store search.

So it leads me to believe that yes, if you have a freemium model, you’re more likely to rank higher in search.

Tope: OK, that’s a good tip for people out there. It may be better to make your app free and then find a way to convert people to buy an in-app purchase.

Ian: Definitely.

Tope: Yeah, yeah. All right. Well, thank you very much for all the information you’ve given us. I think that’s a lot to digest for now so we will leave it at that. If people want to ask more questions or find out more about MobileDevHQ or more about you, where can we go?

Ian: Yeah, MobileDevHQ.com and there’s the Contact Us button at the bottom. You can follow me on Twitter. I am @iseff. You can tweet at me anything you would like there.

I want to say a big “Thank You” to Ian for giving us so much information on that interview. I hope you have gained a lot from it. If you did, please tap the screen and open the comments bar to leave a comment thanking Ian. I’m sure he would appreciate that.

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