App Store SEO: The Inbound Marketer's Guide to Mobile Part 1

App Store SEO: The Inbound Marketer's Guide to Mobile Part 1

Mobile App Growth Continues to Explode

Let's start with a quick overview of the app ecosystem.
The ecosystem as a whole is very young, with the iOS App Store launching 12 years ago in 2008. Generally speaking, over the last five years, it has quickly become a two-horse race, with iOS and Google Play being the main competitors. No doubt, there are other viable contenders playing for third, such as Amazon, Microsoft, and RIMM, but iOS and Google Play are clearly leading the pack.
Both iOS and Google Play are very close in the total number of downloads, with iOS surpassing 50 billion total downloads and Google Play surpassing 48 billion in May. With exceptions, the general rule is that iOS apps produce far more revenue than Google Play apps. Internationally, the game can change quite drastically depending on your country. For example, in developing countries such as India and China, we see other Android platforms and app stores coming up quickly. Here's a great look at the international market share in mobile.

App marketing has matured tremendously, just as the ecosystem as a whole has. It started with very simple channels such as CPM banners in other apps (these were basically the equivalent of, "Honey, I shrunk the web banner"), then came more complex, but less user-friendly channels such as incentivized installs ("Out of poker chips? No problem, get 10 more just by installing this other app"), and then quickly moved towards better-paid channels (CPI - Cost Per Install, video, and so on). App marketing is now moving towards a better blend of paid and organic channels, such as app store search, social, and more. Sound familiar?

How Do Users Find Apps?

Unlike the web, there's no great way to determine exactly where your downloads come from. Instead, app marketers rely on studies, anecdotes from other marketers, and data from platform owners (Apple, Google, etc.) to find out what the most effective and used channels are for app distribution.
Two big studies which many ASOs point to come from research firms Nielsen and Forrester (click through to see the full study results, rather than my edited versions below). Both studies show that inbound, organic channels in the app store are the biggest drivers for downloads. In particular, both agree that search in the app store is the single largest channel, with 61% of consumers finding apps through app store search.

 Moreover, some of the best data, if not fully complete, comes from the platform owners themselves. Google Play's Head of Search and Discovery, Ankit Jain, recently shared a wonderful quote about the magnitude of app store search in his presentation at Google I/O:

 Percentage users search app via different channels

 Percentage users search app via different channels, Source: Nielsen.com and Forrester.com

Just like on the web, organic app store search is only one component of Inbound App Marketing. Inbound in the app ecosystem comes in many different flavors, including search, social, top charts, web-to-app, and more. One, in particular, to note that is different from the web is the Top Charts in an app store.

Distinct from app store search, the Top Charts can be an incredible driver of downloads for your app, especially if your app is a general consumer app. Getting into and managing your Top Charts position is an art and science in and of itself, one which could warrant an entire series of blog posts. One of the most interesting facets of the Top Charts is how you can use paid marketing as a lighter fluid for inbound marketing, by essentially buying your way into the Top Charts.
Be careful, though: Apple doesn't like those who blatantly game their system, and could try to find a way to reject you from their store (think Panda or Penguin for apps). Additionally, I believe that the Top Charts are a short-term game in the app stores: they were moderately interesting with 100,000 apps, they're bought by marketers at a couple of million apps, and they'll be useless with 100,000,000 apps.

How Does App Marketing Differ From Web Marketing?

In many aspects, app marketing is significantly different from web marketing. It's important to recognize which of your skills will translate and which additional skills you'll need to learn.
First, the app ecosystem really is a two-horse race, and those horses couldn't look any different. In the web world, if you're thinking about search, there's really only one contender most SEOs look at (sorry, Bing). In the app ecosystem, however, you have to make a very specific decision as to which platform(s) you want to focus on based on developer resources, marketing resources, and so on. Each platform works in a completely different manner (especially in search), so it's important to know that you'll really have to focus on each one independently.

The horse race of the appThe horse race of the app, Source: Proreviewsapp.com

The web and app ecosystems differ because there is no attribution in the app ecosystem. By default, the app stores are gatekeepers, and it's very difficult to see where your installs come from. This can depend on which platform you're on (and is certainly more the case in iOS), but it exists in both platforms. So, while on the web you often get to see where your visits come from (even if Google is hell-bent on user privacy and increasing the (not provided) keyword), it is the norm in the app stores to never know where your installs come from, even at a high level. There are some tricks to this which I'll outline below, but just remember, attribution in the app stores is hard.
Lastly, it's still Day One in the app ecosystem. That means we still have a lot of growing up to do. In particular, the long tail is still growing and learning what it will take to build successful businesses. I often equate the app ecosystem to the web in the late '90s: search algorithms are still being created, and the money is still concentrated in the head publishers. This provides a great opportunity for those willing to take the plunge and be around early on in the process, but it requires an understanding and willingness to put in the time to try to help mature the entire ecosystem through education and evangelism.
Here's a graph I often draw of how I see the app ecosystem landscape: a few publishers make a lot of money, while the majority make very little, with almost no middle. Compared to the web ecosystem, where there is a fat middle of businesses who make an interesting amount of money, the app ecosystem needs to continue to grow and push this curve out to look more similar to the web. I believe this will happen, just as it happened with the web over the years.

The revenue of free app and paid appThe revenue of paid apps and free apps, Source: Proreviewsapp.com

How to Optimize for App Store Search Engines

Let's dive into search in the app stores, and how the search engines differ based on the platform.
First things first; remember I mentioned that the app ecosystem reminds me of the web in the mid-to-late '90s? Keep that picture in your head when you think of search. App store search hasn't been "figured out" in the same way that Google "figured out" search on the web. Simply put, we're still in AltaVista mode in the app ecosystem: something better than Yahoo's directory provided, but not incredibly sophisticated like Google would become in a few more years.
Just like the web has on-page and off-page SEO, apps have on-metadata and off-metadata ASO. On-metadata ASO includes factors totally within your control and is often things dealing with your app store presence. Off-metadata ASO includes factors that might not be entirely in your control, but which you can still influence. Here are a few of the most important knobs and levers that you as a marketer can turn to affect your search performance, and some quick tips on how to optimize them.