Guest Blog | The What, Why, and How of App Store Optimization: Lessons from the Ground

This is a special guest post from David Drobik, co-founder at Rapid and business development lead for STRV.
If you’re anything like me, you might remember the good old days of mobile app development: you designed, coded, submitted to the Apple App Store or the Android Market (way back in the time, before it was Google Play), and downloads came your way.

Maybe it wasn’t easy, exactly, and still required hard work, high quality code, and thoughtful marketing, but it was nothing compared to now. In 2018, the mobile app game requires equal parts amazing UX, fast release cycles, and a strategic approach to getting your apps in front of users.

At STRV, we've built and launched over 200 apps for top brands as well as ourselves, with many becoming the top apps in their category, but we still face the same challenges all app developers do: how do you get visibility in jam-packed app stores, secure downloads, and keep users coming back?

We’ve learned a trick or two (or a hundred) to maintain our momentum, including how to use App Store Optimization (ASO) to our advantage.

With a few simple tweaks, you can make ASO work for you, too. We’re happy to share how we use various tactics, such as targeted push notifications with Visual Studio App Center and carefully worded app descriptions, that you can easily apply to your app development, store submissions, and ongoing marketing.

Breaking Down the Landscape: Apps, Apps Everywhere!

We all know that app stores are competitive, but how competitive? According to Statista, annual global app downloads have almost quadrupled from 2012 to 2017, growing from 57 billion roughly 200 billion.

At first glance, this seems great for us. But, the total number of apps is growing just as fast, if not faster. Statista's data shows the App Store went from 585,000 to 2.2M available apps, while Google Play grew from just 450,000 to 3.3M apps from 2012-2017.
statista graphic
Bottom line: The number of apps available is growing faster that the number of downloads. Developing a great app isn’t enough, you need to make sure it gets maximum exposure.

Enter ASO.

Let's look at what you can do today to make your apps successful tomorrow (based on our successful and not-so-successful ASO experiments).

Learning from Experience: A Quick Background

As I mentioned, we’ve launched several apps and reached top ranks in various categories. For example, we released Surge, a dating app for the gay community, two years ago. In our research, we see 11,000+ “gay dating” apps available in the App Store alone (iPhone and iPad apps for keywords gay dating), and Surge is consistently in the top 10 results for gay, gay dating, and gay app.

This is an achievement in and of itself, but Surge’s user base has also grown from zero to over three million. How? ASO.

App Store Optimization 101

The good thing about ASO is that, unlike factors like user reviews, you’re in full control.

Just as in SEO, ASO’s older brother, there are dozens of suggested tactics. To help you separate the signals from noise, we’ve compiled a list of the techniques, ranging from basic to advanced, that have brought us and our clients the most impactful results.

The Good Techniques of App Store Optimization

Engagement matters even more than you think. App store publishers don’t just track downloads, they also monitor how frequently users interact with an app (here's one of our favorite blogs on the topic).

To rank higher in search results, you need to incentivize your users to open your app. Delivering thoughtful, timely, and easily actionable push notifications is the most straightforward way to draw them back.

In our client apps, we use Visual Studio App Center's Analytics service to understand aggregate data about our apps and users (like language, geographical location, device type, etc.). From there, we work with our customers to identify trends and content that will appeal to various user subsets. After we form a hypothesis, we use the Push service to send notifications to either user segments or all users.

Engagement heavily influences ASO, but how do you get people to discover and download your app in the first place?

5 Ways to Get More Exposure and Jumpstart Downloads

(1) Pick a Strategic App (Sub)Title

Headlines matter. When writing a short description (for Google Play) or a subtitle (for App Store), be strategic. If you’re on a tight budget, use a platform like App Annie, Sensor Tower, or Google Trends to determine the best keywords for your app.

  • App Annie and Sensor Tower include an ASO-specific tool that suggests keywords, tracks competitors’ keywords, and shows you traffic per keywords.
  • Google Trends shows you popular search terms.
  • You want the keywords with the highest traffic, but keep in mind the “difficulty” of ranking for popular words, especially if many competitors are using a term.

Note: Apple's App Store lets you add keywords separately; don’t underestimate this. They won't appear in the search results, but will help you score higher.

(2) Translate

A localized app store listing (including description, keywords, and any text you include with your screenshots) increases the likelihood users will find and download your app. This even applies to Android apps, where all languages are listed together in the Google Play store.

Note: While Apple has localized versions of its App Store, requiring you to launch each version separately, there's just one Google Play store. Users see whatever language they use in their phone (e.g. if my Android device is set to Dutch, I’ll see Google Play search results, keywords, and app descriptions in Dutch).

What happens when you don't localize your app? Users will see it in in whatever language you’ve selected, usually English, which makes it difficult for non-English speakers to determine what your app does versus a localized version in the same category. Compared to the work you’ve put into designing and developing your apps, translating app store listings takes fairly minimal effort.

Pro Tip: When launching on the App Store, translate your app description and keywords into the 20 most used languages to boost your global ASO. When submitting to Google Play, localize your keywords.

(3) Manage Your User Reviews

Reviews affect your app’s visibility (and ultimately, your success), both directly and indirectly.

  • Directly: The App Store takes them into account when showing search results to users.
  • Indirectly (through conversion): People are inherently drawn toward apps with better reviews. The more installs you have, the higher your search ranking.

“Enjoying this app? Give us 5 stars!”

How many times have you seen this message pop up in an app at the most inopportune time? You’re trying to check the weather, read the headlines, or view your boarding pass, when you’re abruptly prompted to review the app. If you’re anything like us, you’re annoyed.

While blindly asking users for ratings may seem like a quick way to get positive reviews, it's one of the worst things you can do.

People are usually keen to share negative feedback, while they keep the positive to themselves. This isn’t a new problem, but there are tactics to improve your negative-to-positive ratio.

  • Give people an alternative way to provide negative feedback: “Found a bug? Let us know at Anything you'd do differently in our app? Let us know in our live chat!”
  • Ask for a review when you see a highly active user or when users are likely feeling positive about their experience. If you’re a gaming app, you might prompt users after they complete a level.
  • Experiment with when and how you ask. Remember, while you can't ask for any specific number of stars, it's perfectly fine to say “How’s it going? Would you like to leave us a review?” While Apple recently introduced updates to regulate the number of times you can request reviews per year, Google Play has yet to follow suit.

Many one- and two-star reviews are related to minor bugs that you can easily fix. Don’t let these small problems affect your long-term success. When you spot an issue in your apps (via your crash reporting service or a user review), fix it immediately. Easier said than done? Not necessarily. We use CodePush, which allows us to push updates to our users’ devices without submitting a new version to the stores. Boom, the bug is gone!*

*Editor’s note: Check out Guest Blog | Fixing Disasters ASAP with Instant Updates to see how PocketLeap uses CodePush to solve issues before they affect users.

When you get a review, whether negative or positive, respond to it! This might sound time-consuming, but it’s worth it; we’ve even added a team member who’s dedicated to monitoring user ratings and replying to our store reviews.

(4) Optimize Your Screenshots and Icons

In our experience, the right icon can increase downloads by as much as 20%. We ran an experiment with our Dot to Dot app, which was downloaded over 1.7 million times 10 weeks post-launch, giving us a fair sample size:
eiffel mona
The statistics proved that the New Mona (right) is the most effective icon we have (8.1—19.9% more downloads than the original Eiffel Tower icon):

Once we knew Mona Lisa's face worked better than the Eiffel Tower, we started testing different versions of her:

Play around and test to see which icons are best for your app. Google Play lets you upload several icons and run experiments by automatically rotating the images so you can see conversion rates for each.

We’ve done tons of experimentation, and our biggest takeaway is to use faces whenever possible. Is the face smiling with visible teeth? Even better.

Screenshots are a bit more intuitive. Visually appealing, realistic, and informative shots show off your apps features and help users know what to expect, making your app more appealing than those with limited or vague screenshots. We suggest selecting a contrasting background color and including text to briefly describe the displayed feature. When submitting to the App Store, make sure your screenshots are recognizable in thumbnail form, since users will only see small versions in the initial search results.

(5) Pay to Play

If you want to boost downloads fast, paid promotion, particularly on social media, is your best bet. When we launch apps (either our own or for STRV clients), we combine Facebook Ads, Instagram Ads, and promoted Tweets.

Tempting Techniques Aren't Worth It

App Store and Google Play administrators are fast to detect developers attempting to skirt guidelines, and they’re even quicker to ban developers from publishing their apps once found out.

To save you from accidentally using a “forbidden” tactic, we suggest avoiding the approaches below.


  • Throw social media contests to get reviews. This means no, “Give us a review and win!” Facebook posts.
  • Offer something in return, whether it’s a free monthly subscription or a few extra credits.
  • Leverage push notifications to remind users to rate your app. You can prompt users in-app to provide a review (as noted earlier).
  • Pressure your coworkers rate your app or host a meetup and request attendees provide positive reviews. While it’s not immediately detectable, it looks suspicious, and several five-star reviews from users who install and don’t return at least once within 48 hours? The reviews are thrown out anyway.
  • Ask for five stars. If app stores allowed developers to explicitly request the highest ranking, users would see an onslaught of “Give us five stars!” notifications and pop-up messages. Users would get annoyed and quickly abandon apps or give a five-star rating by default and inflate the app’s quality and ranking.
  • Buy fake downloads or reviews. If you exchange money, there’s no grey zone. You’re out.
  • Ride on the coattails of another popular brand or app name. For example, don’t name your app “Flappy” just to attract some attention from users searching Flappy Bird.

Make ASO Work for You

No matter how many apps exist in app stores today (or five years from now), sharp design, neat code, and solid writing will always play a crucial role in helping your app make a difference in the world.

However, there will always be ways to give your app a little nudge to increase your impact ensure users don't miss it.

Based on what we’ve shared, pick the ASO tactics that work for you. Whether it’s fine-tuning your keywords, experimenting with icons, proactively offering a feedback alias for your users to report issues, tracking user and app behavior, monitoring for crashes, or pushing over-the-air updates with Visual Studio App Center, whatever you choose will have a positive impact.

Trust us, we’ve been there. And, if you find a new technique that we didn’t include? Return the favor and share it with the community!
If you haven’t already, create your Visual Studio App Center account, connect your first app, and start shipping better apps now.

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About the Author

David Drobik is the co-founder of Rapid, launching in early 2017. Prior to his work with Rapid, David lead business development at STRV, Silicon Valley’s go-to software development partner. He’s enthusiastic about sharing his rich experience in tech and startups with the world through his blog and frequent community meet-ups, hackathons, and more.

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