ASO - App Search Optimization: The Quest for More Downloads with Keyword Optimization

App Store Search - Temple Run

Every app developer needs to think about App Search Optimization (ASO). You need to think about how other people perceive your app, and you need to speak their terminology for how they might describe it.

The competition is fierce on the App Store. Thousands of apps are being launched every week and many of them don't know about keyword search optimization. It's similar to Search Engine Optimization (SEO), but you have much less control. On the Apple App Store we are at the mercy of Apple's search algorithms and discovery features.

Before you can continue reading my post, I have two things I want you to do.

1. Take a moment and write down 10 terms that you believe describe the app. 

You want to think about short words that you might use when you give a 30 second elevator pitch to anyone you might meet.

2. Ok, now I want you to write two sentences that explain your app to a 5th grader. What words are you using to explain it? Write those down too!

This is a brainstorming exercise which should help you open up the vocabulary and the way you can talk about your iPhone app. Different people use different words when they search for something. We need to uncover what relevant words can be used to describe your app idea. When we work on apps for so long, we sometimes forget how to relate the concept or essence to other people. The keyword search is where you learn about new words, ideas, or phrases that may be more descriptive to your users. These are potential words that people will search to find your app on the App Store.

The goal of this exercise is to get into the head of a potential customer, figure out what they might search on the App Store, and then leverage that keyword so you can appear in the list of apps. A good icon is important, since that’s going to help you standout in the search, but we’ll discuss icons in a separate post.

Limited Keyword Slots

There are only X number of slots for keywords for your app, and you need to make sure that you only use keywords once. Apple will use plural/singular forms, so you shouldn’t have to add unless you find less competition for one. It is important that you don’t just take my word for it. Go out and test in your app, it’s the only real way you can get data to show you what you should be doing.

App Store Submission Page has limited space for keywords and your App Name.

App Store Submission Page has limited space for keywords and your App Name.

The goal of your keyword search is to uncover new words that are relevant to your app or game, and then use those. These are words that will be less common, but they will still get traffic. 

  1. Not every word that gets traffic will boost downloads. Sometimes when people search for a keyword they’re looking for a specific type of app, and if your app doesn’t appear to fit that category they may skip right over it.
  2. You can’t compete for keywords that are popular in a new app. Unless the app goes viral, you will have to build up download traffic by choosing keywords that you can use to get new users. Keyword ranks are directly correlated to download and usage, new apps have neither, so you’ll have to build some traction.
  3. We want to have our keywords rank in the top 10. Ranking higher than that will decrease the number of views your app will receive when a user searches on the App Store. How many times have you searched past 50, 100, or 500 apps when doing a search for a new app or idea? It’s similar to Google search page results, from my own experience I almost never go to the second page of results, and I hardly ever go beyond that page.

App Store Today

The current version of the App Store places all of the focus on the keywords in the title, and then the keywords in the 100 character keyword field.

There are 5 rookie mistakes when selecting keywords, and I know because I’ve done them before.

  1. Don’t use spaces, only commas. 
  2. Don’t use phrases, Apple creates phrases for you.
  3. Don’t use words in the title in your keyword list. Keep them different.
  4. Don’t use popular keywords if your app gets no downloads.
  5. Don't repeat a keyword!
Sensor Tower Keyword Suggestions helps you remove duplicate keywords for the limited 100 characters.

Sensor Tower Keyword Suggestions helps you remove duplicate keywords for the limited 100 characters.

Bomb Dodge Preliminary Case Study on App Store Optimization for More Game Downloads

I haven't found any good guides to using keywords, titles, and App Store Optimization (ASO). To provide insight for other indie game developers or new iPhone and iPad app developers I am going to post about my experiences and take aways from trying to find better search ranking results with my games keywords. If successful I may explore changing keywords in my more popular photo app, Photo Table.

Bomb Dodge is a fun game (for me) that I have been working on with a friend (Mike Lyman). We wanted to build something that used finger drag gestures and had lots of explosions. That turned into a game where you try to protect a bomb, Bombee, from blowing up. There are obstacles that you need to avoid like fireballs and explosions. We launched our first version under a different name and updated it once.

Our latest version 1.2 is going to be live on the App Store soon, and it contains new animations, sound, music, art, and gameplay elements. We also revised the scoring system so that it is more fair and added some stats for competitive players.

Version History

  • Version 1.0: December 20th 2013 
  • Update 1.1: February 11th 2014

Lifetime Bomb Dodge Stats through May 31st 2014

Downloads have been slow, and that was what I expected. I haven’t done any marketing and I really just wanted to get some initial feedback before we relaunched the game with all of the art and music that we’ve been working to finish.

  • Revenue: $9.80 
  • Paid Downloads: 4 (2x $1.99 and 2x $4.99)
  • Free Downloads: 821
  • Total Downloads: 825
Bomb Dodge gets few downloads, but a festival booth gave us a nice bump in downloads.

Bomb Dodge gets few downloads, but a festival booth gave us a nice bump in downloads.

We had a huge jump in downloads in the beginning of May from the ImagineRIT festival where we had a booth, 4 iPads, and 250 business cards with Bombee and the website for the game. Downloads are way slower than my app, Photo Table (447,000+ downloads).

ImagineRIT a festival booth made an impact on our keyword ranking. 38 up to 23 for the word "fling"

ImagineRIT a festival booth made an impact on our keyword ranking. 38 up to 23 for the word "fling"

Over the past 60 days we had 334 downloads. I’ll exclude the ImagineRIT boost of ~108 downloads on May 3rd-4th, which gives us at 226 downloads. 226 downloads / 60 days is 3.77 downloads/day. It’s pretty slow and these numbers are something that you can expect for a new game or app without any promotion (Even with promotion it'll be slow if you don't know what your doing).

Let’s Try to Get More Downloads with Keyword Search Optimization 

I’m exploring to research new keywords and ranks. Previously I had used but I never felt like I had good actionable insight from the data. It was hard to read and there wasn’t a lot of help. Sensor Tower has a really nice blog and their tools look much nicer from a usability and design standpoint.

My first step is to turn our original titles and keywords into a new set of titles and keywords to test. We’ll be doing some scientific method to hypothesize what changes we can make for the title and keyword. Later we’ll look at optimizing our icon (very important!) and screenshots (less important).

Downloads boost ranks for keywords. It might not seem obvious, but if your app isn’t getting downloads it’s not going to rank higher for a keyword like “fling”. Our goal with keyword optimization is to find keywords that your app can rank for, and to use them as new funnels for new customers to find your app. If those downloads boost your app downloads, then you can start to look at keywords that have more traffic and competition.

On May 4th and 5th we had a big boost in downloads from a booth at RIT’s ImagineRIT festival. Look at the impact on the keyword rank for “fling” a keyword in our app title. We put the keyword in both the title and the keyword field, but we should have only put it in one according to the current best practices from Sensor Tower. 

Version Titles and Keywords

I don’t have all the data, but we’ll start to keep track of it from now on. You can see the titles and keywords that we started with, and next we’ll look into what keywords we can transition to.

Version 1.0

Protect the Bomb - Don't Explode! Smash Bombs, Dodge Explosions, and Avoid Fireballs


Version 1.1

Protect the Bomb - Don't Explode! Fling Bombs, Dodge Explosions, and Avoid Fireballs


Version 1.2 Keywords?

Now we’ll begin the journey of trying to follow best practices with our keywords using brain storming and Sensor Tower data.

I’ve started to compile a list of keywords, but I’m going to back to square one. I thought I had a good list, and that reusing keywords is a good thing, but it turns out you shouldn’t use a keyword that’s in your title as well as your keyword list.

We need to capture the essence of the game with keywords. To start the journey we’ll be brainstorming a lot of new ideas without any filters. I’ll post my starter keywords and then in the next post you’ll get to see my list of keywords after brainstorming. After that we’ll take a look at reworking the title to incorporate the keywords that we think we can boost the most. Title keywords have a bit of a preference over keywords in the list.

1.2 Keyword Ideas Revised and Revisited

Original 1.2 Keywords


Keyword Brainstorming Session 1

bombs,avoid,fireballs,explosion,explosions,fire ball,defense,defend, bomb,device,explosive,mine,missle,projectile,rocket,bombshell,grenade,ticker,atom,hydrogen,nuclear,charge,,dodge,plan,plot,scheme,strategy,,protect,defend,cover,preserve,safeguard,save,shield,shelter,secure,stonewall,watch,keep safe,stand guard,guard,watch over


  1. Start a keyword list
  2. For each word search to find new keywords or concepts that you didn’t think about
  3. Don’t filter anything that you think could be related, just write down word associations. We’ll filter next time.
  4. If you have an app idea it’s important that you start thinking about how people can find your app. Write down those ideas!

Keyword Resources