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Mobile Marketing

The Anatomy of a Top App

Ashley Sefferman  //  April 7, 2016  //  7 min read

App Store Optimization, or ASO, is a way of ensuring your app meets all of these ranking criteria and rises to the top of a search results page. We’ve written quite a bit on ASO recently as it continues to be top-of-mind for mobile marketers as a smart alternative to costly customer acquisition campaigns.

But keeping up with changes in the app stores can be challenging. In the fast-paced world of mobile app marketing, changes in app store algorithms are rolled out regularly, and many mobile marketers scramble to keep up.

To help our readers understand how apps tend to rank at the top of the charts, we combed through the top 100 apps in both the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store to identify a few optimization trends common along the top-ranked apps. From our research, here is what the anatomy of a top 100 app looks like:

Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 2.46.28 PM

Let’s look at each piece of a top-ranking app in more detail.

1. A bright and compelling icon

Top apps grab people’s attention by offering a compelling icon right away. Your app’s icon is one of the first major points a user will see as they debate whether or not to download the app, so making a good icon impression is key to driving a high number of organic downloads.

When approaching your icon design, it’s important to note that the App Store and Google Play vary in their approach to, and rendering of, app icons. Both stores have preset standards for the ideal size, geometry, and color scheme of app icons, designed to match the rest of the OS.

Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 2.55.33 PMFor iOS icons, the most important thing to note is that icons should be sized to at least 1024×1024 pixels, the dimensions required by the App Store. From here, the Apple OS will resize your icon for any other applications, including app icons (180×180), navigation icons (66×66), and tab bar icons (75×75). Your image must therefore be designed with the meticulous detail of a 1024×1024 icon and the simplicity necessary to still look good scaled down to the smallest size.

Additional resources: iOS 9 Design Guidelines and iOS Icon Sizing Reference Chart

Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 2.55.52 PMWhen designing an Android icon, the only difference is that Google Play requires a 512×512 icon, rather than 1024×1024. While not required, Google recommends designing app icons in accordance with its material design guidelines, which details everything from icon anatomy to lighting and shading.

Additional resources: Android Material Design Guidelines and Android Icon Sizing Reference Chart

2. At least a 4-star rating

Let’s face it: Apps that don’t have high ratings don’t rank in the top 100. We recently asked 350 smartphone owners in the US about the “minimum star rating they’d accept in order for them to consider downloading an app.” Roughly 60 % of respondents said that they “usually or always check ratings before downloading an app,” and the data from our survey speaks for itself:

Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 3.00.46 PM

In order to boost your ratings, it’s important to prompt customers to rate your app—but only at the right time, at the right place, and to the right group of customers. For example, if a customer is prompted at an interruptive time (e.g. when they’re attempting to complete a purchase), they are very likely to ignore your request to have them rate the app to get back to the original task they were trying to accomplish. If they had been prompted once their purchase was complete, they would be much more likely to spend time rating the app as they (hopefully) had a pleasant experience through the check out process and now have time to give back to the brand they just purchased from.

We talk more in-depth about how to choose the right time, place, and person to ask for ratings in a recent Mobile Moments video, which you can watch here.

3. Contextual keywords

Once upon a time, keyword stuffing was a great way to rank highly in the app stores. But the app stores caught up to this black-hat tactic, and keyword stuffing is now punished in ASO in the same way SEO keyword stuffing was punished years ago. As a best practices, it’s important to stay away from keyword stuffing in your app’s title and description, and instead, provide readers with the content that will give them the best experience in deciding whether or not to download your app.

With this in mind, everything consumer-facing in your app’s product page should be designed not for an algorithm but for the customer. If its description is a hodgepodge of contextually irrelevant keywords, that coveted rank will become meaningless, as your wordy description will struggle to entice customers to take the next step and download it. For best results, write for the customer first, and make small edits for keywords next—remember that the ranking algorithms take both keywords and conversion metrics into account.

4. Dominant keywords in the title

Speaking of keywords, it’s still important to have your dominant keyword in your app’s title if you want to rank highly in the app stores. This may seem like a no-brainer for most, but many app marketers still debate whether or not to include the keyword they’d link to rank highly for in their app’s title. Based on our research, it’s always a good idea to make sure it’s included when optimizing for organic downloads.

In fact, our friends at TUNE recently conducted a study of the top 25 ranking positions and found that apps with a relevant keyword in their title ranked, on average, 10.3% higher than apps without a title keyword. Take a look at what happened when a company they studied added relevant, well-placed keywords to their app’s title:

Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 3.11.35 PM

One last point to note on keywords in your app’s title: To ensure that your app can be clearly identified, keep the actual name short and sweet. You can augment this short title with nonessential keywords after the name, typically preceded by a dash or vertical bar, to associate your app with select keywords.

5. High download and MAU count

This tip is relatively simple to understand: If more people are downloading and using your app regularly, you’re going to rank higher in the app stores.

Downloads are the number of people who have downloaded and installed your app on their device.The most accurate way to track downloads is directly from the app stores. Based on our recent research, 95% of the top 100 Android apps have over 1M installs, giving them the advantage they need to rank highly. While downloads alone don’t paint the whole picture of success, they sure do help. Measure this metric directly from the app stores. Third-party tools like AppAnnie and AppFigures can help you crawl the app stores to get the most accurate download data.

Usage is also a huge trust signal that the app stores take into consideration in the top charts. Monthly active users (MAU) counts the number of unique users over the course of a month. To calculate, count the number of unique users during the previous 30 days to understand how many users have been active in your product.

6. Updated regularly

Top apps are updated regularly, with many being updated at least once a month in order to provide customers with new content, features, promotions, experiences, and more. Keeping your app’s content fresh is also a great way to re-engage users and drive retention, which is important to keep in mind as you plan your app’s update schedule for the upcoming months.

To come up with a general recommendation for update frequency, we scoured the 500 top-ranked apps and found that the average update frequency was between 30 and 40 days. Keep in mind, however, that each time you update an iOS app, your ratings reset — and with that, your rank temporarily plummets. As a result, frequently updated iOS apps experience slightly higher app store rank volatility, while frequently updated Android apps experience reduced volatility.

Of course, releasing the update is only half the battle. The next step is to encourage existing customers to download the update. To help sell your next update, try these three strategies:

  1. Entice customers within your app (such as a note prompted at login, a push notification, or an update link prominently displayed in the main navigation) notifying them of the new update and what improvements they have to look forward to.
  2. Update the app description and the “What’s New” field in your app store product page to outline new/improved features with a compelling call-to-action.
  3. Maintain a large volume of five-star reviews for your app, and especially its latest version. Our 2015 Consumer Survey revealed that one-third of existing customers check an app’s ratings before downloading an update. Maintain a positive rating for an easy win.

7. Recent 5-star reviews

Similar to ratings, reviews are a huge trust signal when people debate whether or not they’d like to download an app. From our research, 58% of people usually or always read one review before downloading an app. Additionally, 33% of people usually or always check reviews before updating to a newer version of an app, and 36% of people usually or always check reviews before making an in-app purchase.

Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 3.27.15 PM

If you app does not have recent, highly-rated reviews, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and improve your customer feedback channels (and implementation strategies).

Wrapping it up

By understanding the tactics behind what makes the top apps rank highly, you’re able to improve pieces of your app that can lead to a huge rankings boost. Each tactic we covered might not make sense for every app, but for most apps across all categories, there is room for improvement in all seven areas.

Remember that ASO is an ongoing process that responds to regular changes in rankings algorithms in the App Store and Google Play, so no matter what app you’re marketing, be sure to always be on the lookout for changes.

See you at the top of the charts!

About Ashley Sefferman

Ashley Sefferman is Head of Content at Apptentive. A digital communication and content strategy enthusiast, she writes about multichannel engagement strategies, customer communication, and making the digital world a better place for people. Follow Ashley on Twitter at @ashseff.
View all posts by Ashley Sefferman >

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