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App Store Optimization (ASO): The Next Space

It’s not something that many people are talking about in search: App Store Optimization (ASO). Apps on mobile/smartphones have transformed how consumers/people interact with brands and information. Whether we’re using it to enhance workflow/function in our everyday lives (think Maps and Tools), using it to connect socially to the people around us (think Twitter, Foursquare, Pinterest), or taking our desktops with us wherever we go, it’s the App that’s making this evolution possible.

The Guide to App Store Optimization

It’s certainly not a newsflash to anyone who’s been paying attention the last few years. It’s the big wave that finally broke onto the shore: the mobile revolution. And it’s an app-world. Over the last two years, it’s been somewhat of an Arms Race of app-building; companies and brands building apps just to build them. Just to be in the space, just to tout that they are “cutting edge”. It’s a entirely different question if these companies/brands are building apps well.

App Store Facts (Apple Apps and Google Play Apps)

With nearly three-quarter of a million apps on each of the major platforms, thousands of apps competing for the same space, how does your app get found? That’s where ASO can play a role. [Just a note:] this post will lean heavily toward Apple’s App Store. I will fill in with Google Play-specific App Store as applicable. While it’s a little like Bing and Google’s search algo’s (each being completely unique), there are going to be certain elements that are constant in each.

App Store Search

Search; it’s how people find what they’re looking for. And the app store is no different. Per Business Insider’s Intelligence Report from Q3 2011 (granted it’s over a year old and before iOS6) has searching at 63% for both Apple and Google, with WOM (word-of-mouth) a very strong second. See the graphic below.

Per SearchMan, App Store search is utilized 56% of the time when users find their app, with WOM and Ads running a distant 3rd and 4th. Ranking (or how Apple and Google’s app store algo order the results) was the #1 way users found their app.

How Consumers Discover Apps in the App Store

Image from: Business Insider Intelligence

From everything I’ve read, both Apple and Google keep a very tight lid on App Store statistics, which also explains the real lack of meaningful data surrounding ASO. Regardless, search in the App store is an important channel to consumers when they’re discovering and researching. So the question is, how do you help ensure that your app gets the best visibility possible?

The Basics of App Store Optimization (ASO)App Store Optimization: The Basics

A lot of this is really common sense. But then again, it’s common sense to SEOs and not necessarily developers (the ones who are submitting the apps to the App Store). SEOs tend to think with end-consumer in mind. We use our optimization skills to drag the consumer out of their cycle(s) and into our funnel(s). Like any website we’d touch, we’re looking to pull consumers/users through to our sites at every step they take in their process. Here too, we’ve got to do the research, study the behaviors, and get them at every step of their app search journey.

It’s important to note Apple’s acquisition of CHOMP in February of this year. In essence, Chomp is a app-based search engine (touted in their CrunchBase profile as the only one that uses an algorithm based on what the app actually does). This is important as we discuss iOS6.

App Name

With the app name you want to be as targeted as possible, describing exactly what the app is/does. Unlike the Page Title, you’ve got about 19 characters to play with (as that’s all that will display). Which means you’ve got about 2 or 3 words to get to the core of what your app is/does across to users. Not a lot of room to work with at all, but, hey, we’re marketers right?

It’s also important to note that you can’t (well, you can, but I wouldn’t) use any special characters in your app name. No ™, no ® and no ©. App Store uses the app name to create your app’s URL in the store. If you do use those symbols, Apple, in particular, will revert back to your Apple ID.

It’s also been noted by several folks that the app name doesn’t carry nearly as much weight as it used to (i.e. think EMD). There’s a great presentation on this here: Kolinko’s New Rules in App Store Search.

Summary: Be targeted and explicit with your app name. Get your targets in the first 2 or 3 words (19 characters) and don’t use any special characters.

App Keywords

This appears to be a major area of optimization for apps, in particular Apple’s App Store Algo hones in on it), but unlike web pages, you’re limited to 99 characters worth. But make no mistake, there’s still room to spam in 99 characters.

If you read Kolinko’s presentation above, and from some of my own App Store searches, Apple has gotten better with plurals, which can save you desperately need characters. It also appears that the “phrase-match bonus” is also of bygone era. It’s here that keyword research will play a role; you’ll want to hit the spectrum of consumer behavior if you can. Meaning, even though you don’t have to create phrases any longer, you still need to be working in mid-tail and long-tail phraseology into your app keywords.

For instance, if we wanted to optimize a photo editing app, we probably want the keywords to look something like this:

[free,photo,editor,editing,program,effects,program,best,creator,collage,(company name)]

Under the 99 limit (assuming your company name isn’t incredibly long) and hits several consumer/user avenues in their discovery process. It’s here you’re going to win your battle in the App Store search. Be smart, do your research, and build in the best keywords possible for your app.

App Description

All the research I’ve done on this, and again through App Store searches, makes this field meaningless to the algorithm (a lot like the meta-keywords field). With the iOS6 update, app descriptions are no longer searchable or incorporated into the app card. But, like an actual meta-description, is where you have to sell yourself to get the click-through.

On a desktop, only the first 3 lines of the app description are visible to the user. If they want the rest, they have to hit the “More” button. That means you have to make those lines count. And, although iOS6 helped to slow down the search process and make users examine the apps more carefully, you’ve still got to get the “why me” and elevator pitch in the first 3. You’ve still only got about 5-10 seconds to convince someone.

That said, you want to clearly explain the “what” and the “why” up-front. Include any awards/achievements your app has won in here. Nothing says quality like an award. And, if you haven’t got that, any mentions from TRUSTED resources (i.e. NYT, Wired, WSJ, Well-Known Blogs). If you’re going to put a mention about your cousin’s blog calling you a “must-have app”, don’t. It’s razzle-dazzle time, thank your cousin with a nice email instead.

After those first three lines, hit up the benefits and features of the app. Drop in some quotes of user reviews, and add in some information on the company. It’ll help to make a nice, well-rounded app description.

App Screenshots

Here again, this isn’t weighted in the algorithm, but essential to convincing the user to click-through and download. If you’re not displaying the breadth, depth, beauty, and functionality in the first couple screenshots, you need to be. This is literally is the “show me” portion of your app. Like Google Local, you want your most important and gorgeous screenshots first.

In Apple’s App Store you get 8 screenshots for your app, and in Google you get 5 screenshots. Use them all. It may be the 6th or 7th screenshot that makes the user pull the trigger and download.

App and User Ratings

It’s hard to discern if ratings actually play a part in the algorithm in the App Store, but if I had to guess, I’d say it’s a factor. And, beyond, that, crappy app ratings are certainly going to dissuade the consumer/user from downloading it. Moreover, if you’re like me, you’re hard-pressed to rate any app (even if you like it). It just feels like a time-suck and, really, damn annoying that they blast you with a “HEY, RATE OUR APP!” at regular intervals.

But, iOS6 has attempted to circumvent the Rate-My-App process by allowing users to contact you directly. And, with the introduction of Facebook Likes to the App Store, is adds to the social marketing element. Here are some tips:

  • Fill out the iTunes Support fields for your app. If a user/consumer wants to get in touch with you, make sure they can. Not doing it will only lead to a hell-hath-no-fury review.
  • Leave contact info in your app description
  • There are app-specific tools like TapStream that not only can help you get analytics on your apps, get you more social with your apps, but also encourage users to leave your good reviews with their Review Bar.

App Store Optimization is the next space for SEOs to climb into. A few are already thereASO - Branding for the App Store (publicly), some are there privately, and for many of you this might be your first introduction to ASO. With mobile accelerating at an unheard of pace, and apps becoming as commonplace and superfluous as the desktop experience itself, the next battlefield of consumer engagement and mindshare for brands will be here. In this space. Make sure your brand is prepared and optimized.


The War on Organic Data

There’s a war going on my fellow SEOs and Search Marketers. Has been for a couple of years now. The war on organic data.

The Google War Room

It was a war that started off very covertly, almost without incidence, as noted by Jon Henshaw over 2 years ago on Raven Tool’s Blog. Google, by way of depreciated APIs, quietly pulled SERP [Search Engine Results Page] ranking data. Which then led to more and more companies scraping the results from Google and placing an extra burden on their servers. And, perhaps Google was banking on the fact, though somewhat quietly kept, Google Webmaster Tools has had “ranking data” for over 3 years now. Maybe this was Google’s evolutionary step? Nonetheless, it was the one of the first assaults on organic data; Google’s conscious and deliberate action to close off a major pipeline to SEOs and Webmasters. It registered as nothing more than a blip to most of the community, myself included, but the SEO tool companies probably had a good idea where it was headed. Maybe they decided to just “wait and see”?

2011: Google Kicks in the Door

A year after Google shut off the Ranking Data APIs, they got brazen. They gathered up the troops and kicked the down the door to the SEO house, fingers
hugging the triggers. It was akin to enacting Google’s own personal Patriot Act. They black-boxed the organic search data. “NOT PROVIDED”. Users who were signed-in or using SSL Google searches would appear as “not provided” in your organic search keyword data to help “maintain the Google's 2011 Assault on SEOsprivacy”. All under the guise of privacy. Immediately this change was said to only affect less than 10% of data in analytics. “Single digits”, was the quote from Matt Cutts.

2012: One Year of “Not Provided”

Danny Sullivan’s excellent write up “Dark Google” tells the story. Single digits? It’s hard to imagine that Matt could say it and keep a straight face. I don’t know about you, but my sites are consistently between 1o% and 15% “not provided”. And, in some extreme cases, they range near 25%. 25% shielded keyword data for a small business is pretty big, and pretty crappy. That’s an awfully large gaping hole to be missing out on. How can they [small businesses] help it that people are signed-in or starting off in “https” search? That’s a ton of valuable data that small businesses could be using to help them analyze customer behavior, to help them write better, more targeted content to their customers, and to help them expand and refine their consumer funnels to convert more and stay afloat in an economy that still moving sideways. I think of it this way: if Google suddenly lost 15% of its collected search data overnight, don’t you think they’d be pretty pissed off? Just, “poof”, and it’s gone.

Losing That Data Might Be the Best Thing For SEOs

I know that it sounds backwards, but hear me out. Also, let’s put aside the obvious here: of course this move was intended to get every business involved in Paid Search (not just the those who spend millions over millions every year). Because like SEOs, Google knows it’s the thousands of small accounts [mid-tail/long-tail] that add up. If you ensure the data that was once free has to route through a paid resource, you’re going to get a large swath of folks to jump on board and buy-in.

Perhaps it was all part of their design (can’t discount that theory), but losing organic data has forced SEOs and Search marketers to expand their tool-kit to get that data. When you can’t rely on a single source, you’ve got to employ multiple channels (i.e. social, content, CRO, etc.) to piece together the story again. I won’t lie, that’s a stretch (even to the writer). However, there’s a small nugget of truth that this assault on organic data has forced us to become better marketers.

The Organic Data Black Box

2013 and Beyond

The more Google pushes its own products (i.e. Gmail, Places, Google Drive, Insights & Trends) to its social platform (Google+) to create a fluid SUPER-DATA-HIVE, the more users must be signed in to interact. Luckily, Google+ hasn’t quite pulled off the interaction and engagement with users it hoped to (so far). Then add in Firefox moving to Google SSL search by default and iOS6 doing the same. What you get is a “black box” on organic data that is the size of Utah, and is only going to get larger and more vacuous. It is their data to do with as they please, after all. The hypocritical precedent set a year ago by Google will continue onward: “user privacy”. They clearly don’t want to be viewed under the same lens as Facebook.

I think that by the end of 2013 organic site data will reduced to drips from a leaky faucet as SSL search become the rule and not the exception. I can’t say what the end-game is here; whether its Google constructing a service to “buy back” organic data that they anonymize or making SEOs piece together the puzzle from several different platform strands. Or, just so it can be said aloud, push every business into AdWords platform to get “all the consumer data”. It certainly seems like that’s the objective with all these maneuvers: squeeze SEOs organic data into a corner so small that it becomes non-representative of overall searcher/consumer behavior.


The Machiavellian Guide To Search

Machiavellian SEO GuidelinesIn the era of “Big Data” and fast technology, it’s hard not to see HISTORY as the long chalk-smeared blackboard we want it to be. A relic of fragmented of letters. Broken thoughts and speech unlearned. We’re so intent on making up the “new rules” on the underpinnings of the “new marketing”, that we’ve thrown HISTORY to the dogs. They can’t teach us, because they don’t know.

Data-driven marketing is indeed smart, timely, and prudent, you’ll get no argument from me. We’d be foolish to abandon and squander the opportunity. But, I’ve given to thinking about data and people in the following way: like the double-slit experiment people behave differently when they know they’re being observed. Insomuch the data is blur of what’s real behavior and what’s not. Before we could ever calculate what a human interaction was worth, we were left with observation of interaction, sans data, in order to manifest strategy. It’s the one big problem with Big Data, everyone has access to it. Whether you can interpret and analyze that data is another question.

The Prince is the quintessential playbook on political strategy, and you can see its footprints and fingerprints throughout the 20th and 21st century political landscape. It altered the status quo going forward. It’s been adopted beyond the the political arena much like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War has been incorporated into business strategy and maneuvering. And, while the connotations of “Machiavelli” make you think of Evil Spock, and generally despicable-mad-genius behavior, it shouldn’t. Machiavelli had the gumption to unfold the dark-side of the human condition in a way that Shakespeare never could, and for this he’s been persona non grata in both strategic and literary circles for centuries, until his revival about century ago. So what’s the point, Tony?

All the Big Data and data-driven decisions in the world are just numbers, independent of relationship or action, without first defining a set of strategic rules in which to leverage all this data to create personas, paradigms, and models. While Chapter 7 in “The Prince” is most often referenced, I believe it is Chapter 3 that provides the greatest deal of insight. It’s this chapter that explains how Louis XII lost his hold on Italy and the five mistakes he made. These are five rules that every SEO and digital marketer can use as a guidepost to conduct search.

The Five Guidelines of Machiavellian Search

Machiavelli touted that Louis XII made five mistakes that proceeded to be the catalyst to his loss of Italy:

  1. He had crushed the smaller Powers
  2. He increased the power of a single person so that it became supreme
  3. He brought in a very powerful foreign ally
  4. He ruled his conquered land from afar
  5. He established military presence before colonies

These five costly mistakes can be transposed as rules or guidelines to help us engineer solid SEO and Search strategy.

1: Never Disregard Topical Niche Sites

While the largest hubs on the web cater to variety of people, personalities, and interests, and consequently provide the largest funnels of traffic, it’s the niche/small sites that can become your greatest champion. Niche sites serve people who are dedicated and fanatical about the topic (whatever it may be). They provide high rates of conversion, high levels of engagement, higher rates of shareability to other like-minded users. Take the time to do the research and find them for your target segments and forge relationships; they’re likely the ones peppering the first couple pages of results for terms and phrases your client wants to be seen for too. Forsaking the niche sites in favor of aggregation-esque sites may drive traffic, but won’t lend itself to long-term loyalty.

Data-driven marketing decisions are likely ignore the niche sites. The numbers would likely tell you that more wide-reaching, heavily trafficked sites bring more (but not necessarily of what matters).

1 SEO is a House of Matches2: Never Give a Single SEO/Search Strategy All the Power

It’s the common adage: “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”. If you’re locked into a single way of doing this or doing that, you had better know that it’s going to work like gangbusters. The danger of a single strategy is that it perpetuates lock-step thinking; no one is allowed to move beyond a certain space as it must be able to tie back to THE STRATEGY. Whether it’s a content strategy, a link building strategy, or optimization schema.

Diversification of SEO and search strategies, like portfolios, helps to create balance, helps to target different segments and personas, and helps to lessen the effect of a single strategy that tanks. Moreover, strategy diversification helps to foster unconventional thinking that can snowball into new strategies that can measured with data.

3: There’s No Turning Back From the Dark-Side

As an SEO/Search Marketer once you slide into the place where ethics become “flexible”, it’s difficult to turn back from that. Each step takes you a little further down the slope, and before you know it, it’s become the way.

Following Data Blindly4: Never Follow the Data Blindly

Data is the best tool you have and it’s also the worst enemy you have. As I mentioned up top, the massive influx of data points has helped engineer more laser-guided strategy. But, it’s also that influx, the tsunami of data points, that can cause hesitation, and frankly voltage overload. The moment you stop analyzing and interrogating the data, tearing it down and unpacking it, and point to it as all the proof you need, is the moment you need to stop using it. Anyone can build a story around a number, bend it however they want to (just take a look at the latest political season); it’s not going to help you create a great search strategy.

5: Core SEO is at the Heart of Strategic SEO

When I say Core SEO, I’m referring to things like technical website architecture, information architecture, taxonomy, PageSpeed, canonical domain, etc. These are the lifeblood of every single strategic SEO campaign because without solid foundation no search strategy will perform as optimally as it could. To bring it back to Machiavelli’s 5th mistake, crafting a potent, kick-ass search strategy to funnel people onto a busted site is to militarize your new found land before you have a base of people to support you.

Data is good, great even, it’s become the status quo. As my friend Hugo Guzman says,” is redefining what it means to be skilled marketer in the digital age“. But don’t be so quick forget that strategy was built long before “data” even had a definition, built off the back of hypothesis, observation, testing, and postulation. Don’t disregard historical observations and behavior just because there isn’t a percentage you can attach to it.

“I’m not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it.” – Niccolo Machiavelli

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