The Basics of App Store Optimization: Title, Screenshots and Keywords

Written by: Reinder de Vries, May 10 2017, in App Marketing

App Store Optimization and App Marketing

App Store Optimization (ASO) are the tactics you can use to rank your app higher in the App Store. Ranking governs which apps are listed as the Top 25 and Top 100 in the App Store, both in the overall ranking and in individual categories. An app’s ranking greatly influences how many people install it.

You’ve just made your first iPhone app and published it into the App Store. Great! But… your app installs aren’t going through the roof. Now what?

In this article you’re going to take a look at the three most important factors for app ranking, and App Store Optimization – app title, screenshots and keywords. Don’t forget the bonus at the end of this article!

  1. What App Store Optimization Is NOT…
  2. Most Important: Title, Screenshots and Keywords
  3. Picking The Right App Title And Keywords
  4. Crafting Compelling App Screenshots
  5. Designing A Great App Icon
  6. What’s Next?

Let’s go.

What App Store Optimization Is NOT…

App Store Optimization is the process of improving the visibility of an app in the App Store, with the goal of ranking higher in search results and top rankings. A higher ranking means that more users download and install the app.

App Store Optimization isn’t the only thing that matters in App Marketing. A common misconception among app developers is thinking that, once you’ve built an app, you can get 100.000s of with App Store Optimization alone. This is far from true – many aspects of ideation, validation, design, development, marketing and business operations influence an app’s success.

Generally speaking, App Store Optimization means that you’re making an effort to expose your app to a bigger number of potential users, and increase your chances of acquiring those users. If you don’t have any users to start with, there’s not much to optimize, and when you’ve made poor decisions in design and development, App Store Optimization can’t save you.

Think about what “optimization” means. What yields greater results, optimizing 100 downloads a month to get 10% extra app downloads, or optimizing 10.000 downloads a month to get 10% extra? It’s the latter of course, +1000 vs. +10 downloads extra.

As a beginner app marketer, focus your efforts on:

  • Making sure your App Marketing is good enough, with app marketing strategies. This means creating a good enough App Store page, creating good enough screenshots, and using good enough app keywords. “Good enough” is key here!
  • At a later point, and on a regular basis, optimize your App Marketing. Try to get a few extra percentage points, focus on the small wins that compound into big wins, with App Store Optimization. Pay especially strong attention to your app’s keywords.

Perfect is the enemy of good. The worst thing you can do is focus too much on optimizing, when you haven’t yet created something that is getting traction in the first place.

When you’re ready to do App Store Optimization, what are the most important factors?

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Most Important: Title, Screenshots and Keywords

The aspects of your App Store Optimization efforts that determine your app’s ranking are:

  • Your app’s title and its keywords, both in the title itself and in your app’s description.
  • The app icon, which is a single representative graphic that’s used to identify the app in the App Store and on a user’s home screen.
  • App screenshots, the graphic assets that show the app’s biggest benefits and User Interface, when browsing the App Store. You can also provide a 20-second demo video.
  • App ratings and reviews, a 1-to-5 star rating, and optional textual review, which is the subjective voice of a user that’s already using your app.
  • Your app’s description, and localization, the text that’s shown in the App Store alongside the app icon and screenshots.
  • App downloads, the number of users that have already downloaded your app. You can’t directly influence, but it does influence your App Store ranking. Likewise, it’s probable that click-through rates, app install rate (installed vs. uninstalled) and several automated factors contribute to your App Store ranking.

If you had to pick any three, then these are the most important:

  1. App keywords. Keywords determine your effectiveness in App Store search, so when you use the right keywords, users will find your app more easily.
  2. App rating. Most potential app users will factor in your app’s rating when deciding to download your app, and with two equal app choices, with one having a better rating, it’s only logical to pick the app with the better rating.
  3. App screenshots. Screenshots can both describe your app with text captions, and help the user understand if your app does what they’re looking for.

The fourth most important factor would be your app’s icon. If you look at the App Store UI itself, you’ll see that for the Top Lists and Featured Apps, your app’s title, rating and icon are most important. When looking at Search, you’ll see that your app’s screenshots take up most screen real-estate, next to your app’s title, keywords and rating.

Several tools can track these factors and determine their influence on an apps ranking. Popular tools are:

  • AppAnnie, a tool that’s best used for checking your app’s ranking, ranking per keyword, and as a “lookup” tool for competitors. AppAnnie’s subscriptions are less helpful for smaller indie developers, mostly because they’re crazy expensive…
  • Google Analytics for Mobile is a tool you can use to collect user data, for instance to see which cohort of users frequently uses a particular app UI. Many tools offer the same kinds of insights, like Firebase Analytics.
  • Localytics is an indie-friendly tool for analytics tracking and reporting, conversion analytics, and increasing app engagement.

Apple has its own App Analytics platform, and it is the only tool that can measure inbound traffic for your App Store app page.

When you don’t include any tracking in your app, App Analytics can still give you a decent insight into app engagement and conversion rates. Reporting on inbound traffic on your App Store page is very valuable, because it can tell you where potential users come from before they install your app.

Related: The 33-Point Ultimate Post-Launch App Checklist

Now that you know what factors to pay attention to, let’s continue to the first one: your app’s title, and keywords.

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Picking The Right App Title And Keywords

What’s in a name? The title of an app is a verbal hook your users identify your app with – a brand. It’s visible on your app’s website (outside the App Store), inside the App Store itself and below the app icon on a user’s home screen.

Ideating a good app title is an art on its own. In general, an app name should address two things:

  • Does it include a brand or product name?
  • Does it include relevant keywords?

The name of an app, together with its icon, is often the first trigger for a user to check it out in the App Store. When browsing the top lists, a user only sees an app’s icon, title and category. When searching (i.e. using the search function) a user sees the app icon, title, rating, the name of the publisher and 2 screenshots.

App Store Optimization, Keywords, Rating, App Title, Icon

Relevant keywords are words that a user uses to describe your product or service in their own words. This is very important! You may think of your Sleep Meditation app as a “sleep” app, whereas users could prefer to use the word “meditation” or “going to sleep”.

You can ask yourself: “When a user searches for my product, what kind of keywords would he or she use?” It’s often not enough to come up with a search term you think is relevant. You need to test what kind of words your target audience associates your service with.

A good way of researching that is using a keyword tool, like Google Keyword Planner or Appcodes. These tools return search results based on keyword ideas you put in. Such search queries are used by real-world users, which makes it a good representation of how a potential customer searches for your product. On top of that, many research tools can give you an indication of search volume – how many users search for those keywords?

When you’ve established both the app’s brand name and its keywords, put the two together. Keep in mind that Apple sometimes rejects apps that include a slogan or catchphrase. You can only include keywords in the title when they’re relevant for the app, or explain the app title in a more complete way than just the brand name.

Good app titles are:

  • Moleskine Timepage – Calendar for iCloud, Google and Exchange (Moleskine is obviously the brand name, but “Calendar” and “iCloud” etc. are relevant search keywords).
  • Ultimate Guitar Tabs – largest catalog of songs with guitar and ukulele chords, tabs, lyrics and guitar lessons (“Ultimate Guitar Tabs” isn’t enough, because potential customers might search for “chords” or “ukelele lessons”).
  • Sleep Cycle alarm clock (Although the product is known as a “sleep cycle app”, it’s function is that of an “alarm clock”.)

Bad app titles are:

  • US PayPal Fees (This is a fee calculator for PayPal, but it omits relevant keywords: calculator, share, etc.)
  • Iconzoomer (Unfortunately, this app title doesn’t tell one bit about what it is. And no, it does not zoom icons.)
  • mPage (This is an app for a popular online learning system, Moodle. Unfortunately, the app name only includes the ambiguous “mPage” name.)

Found a good app title? Let’s continue with creating app screenshots…

Crafting Compelling App Screenshots

With app screenshots you can give a potential user a peek inside your app, before they install it. Think like a user: when you’re browsing the App Store looking for an app, you are constantly assessing whether an app does what you’re looking for. Screenshots help in that assessment.

In the App Store, two screenshots are shown when using the search function, but no screenshots are shown when browsing a top list. When opening the app page in the App Store, all screenshots are shown (two at a time). Of course, the appropriate screenshots are shown on individual device models.

A screenshot is often an image of the UI of several in-app screens, which isn’t optimal. See, when a user sees your app in the App Store, they’re asking 3 questions:

  1. What is this app for?
  2. What’s in it for me (or, Why should I use it?)
  3. How can I use this app?

When one question results in a negative decision, i.e. “This app isn’t for me”, the next questions aren’t asked. That’s why it’s so important to have a solid app title. The question “What’s this app for?” is answered by the title of your app, and especially by the keywords inside its title.

The screenshots of the UI of your app answer question 3. A user will try to understand the user interface design of your app, and ascertain whether or not your app can be used to get to the goal they have in mind.

Unfortunately, this leaves question 2 unanswered. A potential customer has to find out on its own how they can use your app, and often doesn’t see the benefit of using your app.

Fortunately, there’s a solution. Instead of showing literal UI screenshots, create images that include the UI but also put one or two sales copy lines above it.

App Store Optimization Screenshots

(Note in the above image the clever use of the three dots, in the caption, that “forces” your eyes to the second screenshot to finish the sentence.)

You may have seen it before: an image that shows an iPhone with the app’s UI, and above it tells you something about the app itself. Including key benefits as text inside an app screenshot allows you to explain your app and sell it’s UI at the same time.

When deciding on what text to put above the app screenshot, keep the following heuristics in mind:

  • Use your keywords. By now you know what words a potential user uses to describe your app, so make sure the same keywords are visible in the screenshot text too.
  • List benefits of your app, not features. Many apps use texts like “Store unlimited to-do’s” or “Play over a 1000 levels!”. Such messages don’t answer the “What’s in it for me?” question, they only bluntly list features. Instead of features, list benefits: “Cashflow planning for startups”, or “Intuitive task management that gets out of your way”, or “See your account balance at a glance”.
  • When using extra graphics in the image, don’t distract the user from the main message. Use solid color background, not photographs, and do not include extra graphic elements such as fancy text boxes or icons.
  • Wrap the screenshots in a device image, like a photo of a physical iPhone. Some apps prefer the flat iPhone illustration, other apps prefer the actual physical iPhone product photos. Avoid using photos with perspective, and keep it flat.

You can include one video too. It’s shown alongside the app screenshots and it’s a great way to portray the functionality of your app, and build trust with the user. In your video, include the key benefits of your app and use a voice-over to explain them. Again, don’t distract the user with too much graphics and keep it under 20 seconds.

App title: check. Keywords: check. Screenshots: check. What’s next? Your app’s icon!

Designing A Great App Icon

If the app title is the most important textual hook point for a user, then the app icon must be the most important visual hook. The icon of your app is used everywhere, both inside and outside the App Store. Just like a logo represents a brand, your app icon represents your app.

Graphic design is an art and industry on its own, but within the realms of App Store Optimization, take note of the following app icon heuristics:

  • Use one centered graphic element, that has no overlapping pieces. iOS app icons can’t include transparent elements. Keep in mind that Apple occasionally changes the rounding parameters of app icons.
  • Keep it simple: don’t use complex, photo-like graphics, and keep to simple surfaces and basic colors.
  • Use conventional and recognizable iconography. Think about the universal “Save” icon, the floppy disk. Although people born today don’t know what it is, they know it saves stuff. Do the same for your app icon, don’t reinvent the wheel. The good app title examples above all have good icons too, respectively a notepad icon, a guitar pick, and a clock icon.
  • Use a duo-tone or tri-tone color setting. That means: two or three complementary basic colors. Many good app icons use white as the base color, because the App Store app itself is white.
  • Stick to the trend. Back when iOS 6 got replaced by the flat-design iOS 7, iOS 6-style app icons immediately stood out as old and obsolete. During that time app icons that appeared to “pop out” were popular, these days almost all well-performing app icons are flat duo-tone illustrations.

If you have trouble designing an app icon, consider these resources:

  • Start a design contest on platforms like 99designs. At best they give you a ready-for-publishing app icon, at worst you end up with ideas for app icons. You can then hire a graphic designer to iterate on a particular theme or style.
  • Use a graphic template from platforms like GraphicRiver. Often, you can choose a simple $10 vector graphic, change its colors, put a background behind it – and you’re done.

One more thing: your app icon also represents your app on a user’s home screen. Keep that in mind during its design, and make sure you pick an app name (below the icon, on the homescreen) that captures your app’s function in one word.

What’s Next?

So… now you know: App Store Optimization matters. Here’s what you learned:

  • It doesn’t make sense to completely rely on App Store Optimization to bring in downloads for a poorly designed, poorly developed app that no one really wants.
  • Focus your efforts on creating a good enough App Store page, by picking a good app title, researching keywords, and crafting compelling screenshots.
  • A good app title includes 2-3 keywords. A good app screenshot includes a caption, and is simple. Good keywords… you can only find those with a keyword research tool. And your app’s icon? Make it stick!

Done with optimizing your app? Find out how you can improve your app experience with customer service: Great Customer Service for Indie App Developers.

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Written By: Reinder de Vries

Reinder de Vries is an indie app developer who teaches aspiring app developers and marketers how to build their own apps at LearnAppMaking.com. Since 2009 he has developed over 50 apps for iOS, Android and the web, and his code is used by millions of users all over the globe. When Reinder isn't building apps, he enjoys strong espresso and traveling.

Got a killer app idea?

Grab the App Toolbox 2017 to learn how to save time building your app,
and how to 10x your app installs in the App Store. With the toolbox, you'll immediately know how to move forward to build better, more profitable apps.

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