On AppStore Search Ranking Algorithms

I just got back from a four day scout camping adventure with my son. It was nice to get away from technology for a while, but while I was gone, Apple changed their AppStore search algorithm! Our sales dropped by at least $30/day, which may not seem like a lot, but it adds up to $900/month, which is a major drop in income for a family trying to make a living off of the AppStore.

We make quality apps, but have to work extra hard to be discovered on the AppStore. We started off late, so we didn't get in on day one. This situation has followed us like a black cloud over the past four years. Because we didn't get in on day one, we have lower downloads than the competition, and as rankings have become more and more cemented, we've found it harder to get 'in' and stay in the top 100 in our categories. Word of mouth is one of the biggest factors in success, so getting late the party, even with a quality app, lends to less of an established base promoting your apps for you. Because we have lower downloads, the number of ratings is not as many. (Some analytic companies used to predict volumes based on the number of ratings, so there is direct correlation.) These are a few of the effects of our later entry. And I say later, because we DID get in within the year after it opened, so it wasn't that late.

As a smaller operation of two (one dev and one graphic artist/marketer/customer service rep/blogger/accountant/speaker/etc.), we have a lot on our plate, so even when we KNOW what to do, we can't do it all. And our bootstrapping funds have recently depleted, so we had to add contract work to our list of activities so we could feed our family and meet our mortgage.

Discovery

Word of mouth and search are our biggest tools in being discovered. So this recent change in search has gotten us a bit into a panic. We can't do everything (promote, vary price, change descriptions and keywords, nor update the product), so we need to figure out which of the 4 P's to tackle first, and which will be most efficient. But no one likes to shoot in the dark, so we need to figure out (as best as possible) why search rankings have affected us so much.

From my twitter timeline, I can see we are not alone in this search rank effect. The consensus is that the name of the app and keywords have been given less weight in the new system. However, have other areas been given more weight? Or have they just become more prominent as keywords has lowered? Some think Chomp's algorithms have replaced the old algorithms.

Search Factors

Many think the number of downloads is a bigger factor now. A lot of free apps have risen to the surface—these tend to have more downloads. Older apps have also risen--more overall downloads over time. Is there an age factor to the downloads? Is it an overall number? Velocity of downloads used to affect the search ranking, but I don't have anything new or jumping right now to verify that affect.

How about ratings? Do 5 star apps get better rank? Most of our apps have 4.5 stars, with none less than 4 stars. So this must not be a factor? How about quantity of ratings and reviews? We don't have a ton of ratings, so this could be a factor for us. However, when people take the time to rate our apps, they rate them very positively.

How about updates? Do recently updated apps get a bump? I'm not so sure about this either—one travel app competitor updated their app nearly a year ago, introducing a big crashing bug (according to the reviews), and they not only hit the top of the search rank on some travel terms, but they also were recently featured by Apple.

The Little Guy Loses

The jury's still out, but the little guy seems to be the biggest loser. If the algorithm is now skewed towards downloads, the little guy who survives on a handful of downloads, across a bunch of apps, loses out. Popular apps, who already get extra downloads due to rank on the Top 300, will now show up higher in search, too, even if the search terms are not as closely matched. If number of ratings is a factor, these same apps will win. If the 'big name' apps have a big marketing budget, then name recognition will happen outside the AppStore. I've heard search on a specific name will bring up ONLY that app, but people only search for specific app names when they've heard about them outside the store. It doesn't help with discovery on the AppStore itself. Yes, it helps eliminate those who have tried to bandwagon the popular apps with search terms. However, many of the popular apps have generic names, so a simple search on logical terms will not bring up your app close to the first page of results.

Our recipe app for iPad, Serving Sizer Recipe Cards, used to come up on page 1 when searching “recipe”. Now we are on page 10. We have tough competition for recipe keepers, but when does “Sticky Notes” or “{insert food name here} Doodle” entertainment apps better apply to a search for "recipe"? If you narrow the search with “recipe box” or “recipe keeper” hardly ANY apps come up (and these were obvious keywords). As a user, if you wanted to find an app to put your recipes, what would you search on? We have a lot of happy customers who were glad to have found us, but we'll have less if they can't find them by search.

Our travel apps, Trip Boss travel manager modules, have better luck, but again, very OLD competitors, who have not updated in a long time, rank higher in search. Many of these older titles are deserted. If you type “travel itinerary” a ton of guides for places all over the world rank higher than Trip Boss. It's as bad as when these were released en masse, bumping unlucky good apps off the front page of new releases. I can see users getting frustrated in finding apps, too.

I'm not providing specifics for sour grapes. We're trying to survive here and when one small thing greatly affects our revenue, my gut reaction is to figure out why and adapt. So I'm asking your help in a few areas:

    1) If you have a data point on how your rankings are affected, please share with us on twitter. Send me a tweet @justinepratt and/or use hashtag #Search. I'll try to compile the data for correlation and I'll share. Let's figure this out together!
    2) If you own our apps, please take a few minutes to give us a rating or a review. I know you are out there, completely loving our apps, but let us know! If ratings are affecting search, we'll need your help.
    3) If you like our apps, please let others know. Word of mouth is king. The more apps we sell, the more time we can allot to adding new features and improvements. It's a win-win!

Let's figure out what has happened to search together. We indies have got to stay together or our we'll never be able to support ourselves on the AppStore, or dream of hitting it big. Instead we'll be too busy working hard at our day jobs to pay the bills, leaving little time for a 'side' iOS project.

UPDATE: Based on preliminary data sharing, one thing that is definitely happening is keywords and title words can no longer be combined when searching. In fact, there is a penalty. For example, if a user types a two word phrase, such as "recipe manager" and "recipe" is in your title, but not in your keywords, and "manager" is only in your keywords, your app will NOT show up in the results AT ALL. However, if your app is named "Recipe Manager" then your app will appear in the search results. The same thing goes for two keywords or for single word searches. As always, downloads do affect your search ranking, but now that the title/keyword weights may have changed, the download counts will most likely get a bigger piece of the pie, as it's distributed to the other factors in the algorithms. We just don't have any definitive evidence on what effect downloads has had. Also, search has not improved in all cases, just changed--names of apps have risen to the top, but generic discoverability has degraded for some cases. Our recipe app was superseded by a sticky notes app and several games, for example. A search for "wedding" affected another niche app, "WeddingHappy Wedding Planner". "DinerTown Zoo" was ranked higher in the results. YMMV.

UPDATE2: Mixing keywords and title words is back! Good to hear, as it made no sense to penalize people for this. Even a search term that only includes one match would have shown up in that case, but to be eliminated went too far. Fingers crossed that we can gain some momentum again. This whole change does highlight the combo keywords were more effective than the single keywords, at least looking at early results.

Quick note: I'll be speaking at 360iDev this September in Denver on “Applying the 4 P's of Marketing to Apps”. This conference is one of the best in the iOS community. It's well worth the reasonable ticket price. The networking is invaluable and the speakers are very informative in all areas of running a successful iOS business. From development to UX design to marketing to business, there is plenty for everyone. Be sure to get your tickets before it's sold out again this year.