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App discovery: How to master search and browse to get downloaded

Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is account manager at PMG

By Jonathan Hunt

We are well into the era of the mobile application. Since the Apple App Store opened its doors in 2008, it has seen more than 60 billion apps downloaded. In fact, Gartner estimates that 102 billion apps were downloaded across all global smartphones in 2013 alone.

To say that the mobile marketplace is a crowded one is certainly an understatement. That is why the biggest issue facing mobile development and distribution is, was and will continue to be discovery.

How does a single app stand out in a crowd of millions? When it comes to the mobile marketplace, the answer generally starts with rankings.

When navigating App Store discovery, it is important to understand exactly what we are talking about when using the word “rankings,” because it can mean several different things. 

In general, mobile app rankings can be divided into two very different categories: Browse and Search.

Each of these categories will have their own sub-categories and structures, but Browse and Search will stand out as the two main ranking types that mobile users will employ to find your app in the very crowded marketplace.

Search result rankings
Marketplace search rankings behave on most platforms much like you would expect normal Web search results to behave. 

A user will perform a search query within the store, just like searching for an item in Google or Bing. The store will return a list of results based on the search keywords.

In general, these in-marketplace searches behave much like on-site search engines seen across standard Web sites. They tend to rely even more heavily on strict keyword construction than the larger search engines, and have less powerful understanding of semantics and context.

Browse rankings
Browse rankings are a different beast altogether. These are the rankings you typically see when you first open an app store’s homepage. 

You will see developers brag that they are “#1 on the App Store.” When they say that, they generally mean among the browse rankings.

At Google I/O 2013, the head of search and discovery at Google Play, Ankit Jain, gave a fantastic presentation on the different types of search and rankings within the Google Play store. The session is available in its entirety on YouTube and is well worth the 40-minute runtime.

In the video, I was a bit surprised that he claims that most apps rely on search for their installs. Then I realized there was a major caveat to this. He said, "Average app." 

Maybe I am looking into his choice of words too closely, but based on my experience, the average app generates something in the area of 1,000 to 2,000 total downloads over its lifetime. 

The average app pales in comparison to download numbers generated by top performing apps, and this appears to be true across both Android and iOS.

For apps that break into the top 100 charts of their given app store, the majority of downloads end up coming from the Browse category of installs, not Search. 

The degree to which this shift occurs varies by category, of course. 

Games tend to be very heavily reliant on top charts. Productivity and educational apps also receive most of their installs from browsing, but to a lesser degree.

The division of investment in Browse and Search Rankings really depends on your circumstances and varies greatly from app store to app store.

Nobody does it better
When it comes to revenue, Apple is still the reigning king of the mobile marketplace. 

Sure, Android app installs have long surpassed Apple’s, but recent holiday numbers from IBM suggest that iOS accounted for 23 percent of all online sales, while Android only provided 4.6 percent. 

Traffic from iOS devices also outdid their Google rivals, by accounting for 32.6 percent of all Internet traffic against Android’s 14.8 percent.

The majority of app installs on iOS occur through the browse rankings, especially Top 10, Top 25, and New & Noteworthy lists available from the App Store app, directly on the device. 

The algorithms for building these lists are complex, incorporating a wide array of factors, including but certainly not limited to:

 Total installs
 Length of installs
 Number of reviews
 Aggregate rating
 Time since initial launch
 Time since last update
 Install rate (installs per 24 hours)

While browse rankings definitely appear to be where the biggest apps get most of their mojo, we cannot entirely discount search rankings, even on iOS. 

The average download total for an iOS app is in the area of 50,000, but that number is very misleading. 

Apps that are able to push their way into the browse ranking lists generate a substantially higher download total, sometimes exponentially so. 

These apps “blow the curve” by skewing the average download total much higher, and can often lead to unrealistic expectations when launching a new app. 

The apps that do not make these lists can expect a far lower amount of downloads: somewhere in the area of 1,000 to 3,000 over the course of their lifetime. 

Most of these downloads are generated through the App Store search, highlighting the importance of search rankings for iOS apps.

Performing well in search rankings works very much like SEO best practices applied to a Web site. Focusing on items such as app title, description and keywords will be the driving factors for pushing your app higher in the rankings.

Android cleans up its mess
On Android, the biggest issue has always been the wide array of markets. 

Unlike Apple, which is a one-stop shop for all things iOS, Android marketplaces are legion, popping up left and right wherever you look. 

Google, Amazon, most major carriers, and various device makers all have their own marketplaces – completely segregated from one another.

By 2011, this was becoming a clear problem for Android. Despite building a market share advantage over Apple in terms of active devices, Android continued to lag far behind in the numbers that really matter: mobile traffic and mobile revenue.

Enter Google Play, the redesigned Android app marketplace built specifically to rival Apple’s iOS App Store. 

While Android still has a lot of ground to make up based on the holiday numbers from IBM mentioned earlier, Google Play has definitely helped close that gap.

It has also been suggested that due to Google Play’s algorithm for calculating browse rankings, they end up not playing as large a role as on iOS, thus bestowing more importance on search rankings.

At Mobile Marketer’s Nov. 5 Mobile Women to Watch 2014 Summit, OpenTable executive Iryna Newman was quoted as saying:

“On Android, ranking is not affected by velocity of installs, it’s affected by long installs, installs minus uninstalls … It is pretty much impossible to influence it through marketing spend … Search is much more important on Android … Title is the most important real estate.”

This first-hand account of mobile app growth from a top performing Android app certainly sheds some light on the different tactics necessary to achieve success in both major mobile marketplaces.

WHEN IT COMES down to it, messaging your apps to perform well in marketplace searches has its benefits across both markets. This comes down to crafting and executing many of the same SEO best practices that you would perform on your own site.

SEO certainly has a place in app discovery, but just like marketing a Web site, it is only one piece of a complex digital strategy needed to succeed.

Jonathan Hunt is account manager at digital agency PMG, Fort Worth, TX. Reach him at .

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Related content: Columns, Jonathan Hunt, PMG, search, browse, applications, app discovery, luxury marketing, luxury, mobile advertising, mobile commerce, mobile marketing, mobile

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