As user acquisition costs soar, mobile-game developers are looking for alternatives to getting users. One of the best ways, and sometimes most overlooked, is obtaining users organically through app store optimization (ASO). This basically means that developers have to ensure that their keywords, their descriptions, their icons, and all their metadata makes their app easily discoverable amid a sea of a few million apps.

I moderated a session on app store optimization at the recent Casual Connect game conference in San Francisco. Our speakers included Yonatan Dotan, the vice president of inbound marketing at YellowHead; Alex Malafeev, the founder of Sensor Tower; Jeet Niyogi, the marketing director at Playtika Canada; and Blake Pollack, the chief marketing officer at The ASO Project. These guys showed it takes real expertise to master ASO because every developer is different.

We had a crowded room, and that was a sign of the times. In years past, developers didn’t pay much attention to ASO or spend much money on it. But just as search engine optimization (SEO) proved to be critical to getting discovered by search engines on the web, search on mobile-app stores has now become important.

ASO has changed from a few years ago. And clearly, one size doesn’t fit all. Optimizing for app stores in China, where there are 300 Android stores, is far different from optimizing in the West. Developers should care about their organic installs as they often monetize better than paid user acquisition. That improves the lifetime value of your users, and that generates more revenue over the life of an app.

Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation. And FYI, I’ll be headed to Casual Connect Tel Aviv in mid-October, after our GamesBeat 2015 conference.

These numbers show why app store optimization is critical.

Above: These numbers show why app store optimization is critical.

Image Credit: YellowHead

GamesBeat: Tell us about yourself and how you became interested in app store optimization.

Jeet Niyogi: We’ve been ASO-aware since our acquisition (when Caesar’s acquired social casino game maker Playtika). Gaming in general has been in the early adopter stage. We’ve used Alex’s tool, SensorTower, to optimize and seen some good results. We’re very excited to be part of that.

Blake Pollack: I’m the CMO of ASO Project, a competitor of YellowHead over there. We come from the agency standpoint as well. We work with enterprise-level clients and high-end developers.

Alex Malefeev: I’m one of the two founders of SensorTower. Our flagship product is for app store optimization and mobile intelligence. ASO is something our company evolved into the core of our product. We work with a lot of folks inside and outside gaming, providing this software platform for app store optimization.

GamesBeat: Why is app store optimization significant? Why should it be on the radar for developers and other people in this room?

Yonatan Dotan: App store optimization encompasses how users actually find your applications inside the App Store and Google Play. It’s an important thing that nobody really spends much time thinking about. Big companies will spend millions of dollars developing an app that finds 17,000 users, and their only channel for acquiring more users is paid acquisition. The app store itself is not optimized.

That’s where app store optimization comes in. It’s a set of techniques that helps you acquires more users, internationalize your app, and increase your conversion rates. If you don’t care about users, app store optimization doesn’t matter. But for everyone else, it’s something to pay attention to.

Pollack: Recent studies show that 63 percent of users find apps through search. Search makes up the majority of installs for most applications. In addition to that, there’s more than 3 million apps today, with 5,000 new ones added every day. 83 percent of apps are virtually invisible in search. They can’t be found through keywords or categories, only if you’re searching directly for them. There’s a growing need and growing competition.

GamesBeat: So it’s getting harder to find your app, and user acquisition is getting more expensive.

Malafeev: 300 million searches a week come through the App Store. It’s the only marketing technique you can use where people are searching for you, similar to SEO. With paid acquisition you’re targeting an audience. If users are looking for a specific product and you show up, that’s usually very useful.

Niyogi: ASO increases the discoverability of your app to relevant users – users who want to play poker, say. They search for the relevant keywords and find you in high positions.

Customers stand beneath an Apple logo at the Apple store in Grand Central station in New York City, July 21, 2015.

Above: Customers stand beneath an Apple logo at the Apple store in Grand Central station in New York City, July 21, 2015.

Image Credit: REUTERS/Mike Segar

GamesBeat: Why does this require a lot of expertise? Can you explain some of that?

Pollack: ASO is similar to the way SEO works for websites.

Malafeev: You’re working on increasing discoverability, but also on increasing conversion, making sure that once people make it to your page, they want to install your application. That’s still growing as a part of this, but it’s massively important. A little bit unlike SEO, results with ASO are pretty immediate and dramatic. You have a sample there of a number of keywords for an app we worked with. Almost the instant you make changes, things change on the ground. At the same time, things change very quickly as far as installs go.

We have two sample graphs here. One shows an optimization process in the U.S. It starts off at a base of thousands of installs per day. A number of well-executed, but simple changes leads to 30 percent increases. Another interesting graph—We’ll talk about localization. This is an example of an increase of hundreds of percent across dozens of different languages.

ASO is great, but it’s not a stand-alone thing. It works off your other channels. It works off what you’re already doing. Here we have an application that started with a base of several thousands and then went up by several thousands per day. On the other hand, you have an app with only a handful of downloads per day to start – three, four — that made it up into the 20s. Percentage-wise that’s great, but ASO on its own is not going to take single-digit installs and turn them into thousands of installs.

Pollack: We differ a little bit from Yonatan’s company. We’re strictly performance-based. But one thing that’s important to understand is that optimization is not a one-time thing. A lot of testing goes on. You have to test and find out what works, what doesn’t work, track what changes affect your ranking and installs. This is a client we worked with. After the first one you can see the uplift. After the second there’s a bigger uplift. After a third optimization is when we’re hitting it really hard, at least for us. You learn from each optimization.

GamesBeat: Jeet, you’re a developer. The other guys on the panel are vendors. Does this resonate with you?

Niyogi: Absolutely. At the bottom of it, it’s not just ASO. It’s a combination of things. As we learn more about the environment—You can’t just convert and see a huge jump in ranking. It’s a continuous process. It’s combined with every aspect of a good game.

GamesBeat: Who wants to throw out some examples here? We remember the age of keyword-stuffing. In this more advanced day and age, how should people think about keywords on iOS?

Pollack: Keywords, at least in my opinion, are one of the most important aspects of ASO. We were having a conversation about this question the other day. How hard is it to implement ASO in your app as a developer? The reality is it’s not hard, at least the basics – things like keywords, title, description. You can learn that in five minutes. The toughest part is figuring out what you’ll use in those spaces. We have some tricks that we use so we don’t duplicate keywords.

In iOS you get 100 characters. Android doesn’t give you a keyword field. You have to optimize the description and the name.

Malafeev: In the beginning, it was like the wild west of SEO in the ‘90s. It was about keyword-stuffing, putting in keywords as many times as possible in as many places. As time has gone on, things are getting more sophisticated – both because we’re getting more analytics data from Google and Apple, and because people are starting to move beyond simple keywords. They’re remembering that branding is still a thing. They’re looking at the conversion side. It’s getting more sophisticated.

Pollack: Say you have a game app and you put in “Facebook” as a search term. That’s not going to help you. It’s extremely competitive, but more important, that’s not the user you’re looking for. Downloads are not as important as really targeted users. You have to make sure you’re using the correct keywords. You could put in anything as a keyword, really.

Dotan: When you think about how you’re marketing your app from a search perspective—Consumers are searching for a particular sort of app. The more places you show up, the better, obviously, but it’s an optimization strategy. There’s a limited amount of terms you can show up for. It’s about figuring out the most relevant things the kind of user you’re trying to get is looking for.

Let’s say I have a mid-core title. Using the same keywords Game of War and Clash of Clans are using probably won’t work for me, unless I have a similar budget or similar level of installs already. It’s important to think about what’s relevant for you in your specific case, for the strengths of your application.

App Store apps

Above: There’s a lot of apps out there. (The number in 2015 is beyond 1.6 million.)

Image Credit: Apple

GamesBeat: It seems like you can apply a lot of common sense to ASO, but there’s also some science here. Can you talk about that, some of this new A/B testing that’s possible?

Niyogi: Where we’re different, how we’ve grown in the last few years, is that we’re able to make more data-driven decisions. As in every field, having this data and being able to test things out—With technologies like SensorTower and others, you can take a certain action in an update and see the results. As an app marketer, you know your baselines. You know which campaigns you’re running. You can see a difference in the organic installs. You can attribute part of it to the changes you make.

That’s the biggest difference where we’ve grown. Thanks to this technology, marketers can make more data-driven decisions.

GamesBeat: Do you have an example of analytics that work, things that you have to pay attention to?

Niyogi: One area is phrasing of keywords. We’ve tracked some combinations and were able to notice in SensorTower where we were ranking before and after. We certainly saw a jump in our ranking. We saw organic uptake because we used a certain combination of keywords in our space. It’s not just the most obvious ones – free poker, best poker. You can do a ton of experimentation. When you experiment in combination with the data and technology we have, you can see measurable differences.

Malafeev: We’ve been working with a number of different tools. We also use SensorTower for both app intelligence and store intelligence, which gives you approximated data on the number of installs different apps have. One thing we do is, a few people in our ASO team are designated to research. They’re mostly running regression analyses on the app stores, trying to reverse-engineer and figure out all of these things that you read online.

Titles are important. Descriptions are important. But what does that actually mean? Does it change things if you bold words or have them at the beginning of a sentence? Does it matter if you have keywords in your publisher name? As time goes on we’re starting to understand those things and learn more specifically the impact of what we do.

On the other side of things, there are starting to be rumblings about keyword tools for app stores. These are not coming from the app stores. They’re coming from other apps that have SDKs looking at users and figuring out what’s going on there. All sorts of things are making it more scientific. Dean mentioned the A/B testing platform. Google launched that a few months ago for the Play store, where you can test icons and screenshots and all that stuff. That’s another area where things have gotten very scientific. You can say, “I’m increasing my conversion rate by 26 percent.”

GamesBeat: Can you talk more about differences between Google and Apple?

Dotan: You think of Google as a search company. But what we’re seeing as far as app store optimization—Google is ahead with things like A/B testing, but in other senses Google is far behind. Apple at least lets you designate what you want to shop for. I’m in the United States. I want to shop for these terms. You’re able to optimize the keywords that you’re ranking for your title. You have 100 characters to put them there.

Google indexes a whole bunch of things across descriptions and so on. It’s very difficult to answer questions like, “My app is about weather. Why am I not in the first 400 results for ‘weather’?” At the same time, for developers who are improvising, they’re far ahead of the game in terms of allowing publishers and developers to test different creatives on their page of the app store. People are often taking those learnings and translating them over to iOS.

In a general sense, consumers are going to pull out their smartphone, go to the search tab within the app store, and search for some sort of phrase. That’s where search-based app store optimization comes in. You want to rank in the top 10, or ideally the top two. Those goals are similar across iOS and Google Play. You want to figure out the best development terms for your app.

The app store

Above: The app store

Image Credit: Fiksu

Malafeev: What a lot of people think is, “What are my competitors using? I should use those words.” Our philosophy is, there’s a lot of demand out there. What did we say, 300 million searches a week? At the ASO level, we’ve created a technology to help find those words. Again, you still want to go for those bigger, more generic keywords, but there’s a lot of opportunity in people who are searching for something and not getting it. A lot of time you’re searching for an app and get no results. You’re not the only person making that search. There’s an opportunity there.

Dotan: Coming back to the original question of iOS versus Google, you have to look at the history of these companies and where they came from. Google comes from the world of search. They look at users and what your friends like and all those things. They scan reviews and look for keywords there. On the other hand, iOS comes from the world of music. There you can search for a title, an artist, or a genre. It’s a significantly less complicated world, where they’re saying, “Show me what you’re about. Tell me what you’re about.” Google comes from a perspective of, “I’ll figure out what you’re about.” There are ways to work with and nuance both, but that’s worth keeping in mind at the high level.

GamesBeat: How deep does the rabbit hole go here? If you’re a 700-person company, how many of them should be concerned with ASO? Or if you’re a 10-person studio, do you need anybody looking at this? Do you just call an outside consultant?

Niyogi: A lot of factors are in play. The genre, the maturity of your studio, where you are in the cycle, how big or small you are. What works for most companies, from a small developer to a moderate-sized one, it probably is not the greatest idea to do it in-house. You can go outside.

But the biggest thing people can do in marketing is raise awareness around ASO. Every marketer should be aware of what is going on in ASO. Follow best practices. Research. Get a tool. Learn about what’s relevant in the space. We try to follow what’s going on. We’re going to try to map things out using SensorTower, tracking different keywords and phrases. We’re not blindly chasing an algorithm, but we’re making it relevant. Relevance is key for conversion. However you define relevance in your organization, that is what your ASO strategy should revolve around.

Left to right: Blake Pollack of The ASO Project, Jeet Niyogi of Playtika Canada, and Yonatan Dotan of YellowHead, and Dean Takahashi of VentureBeat.

Above: Left to right: Blake Pollack of The ASO Project, Jeet Niyogi of Playtika Canada, Yonatan Dotan of YellowHead, and Dean Takahashi of VentureBeat.

Image Credit: VentureBeat

GamesBeat: And you’re revisiting this when you change or update apps, or when the app stores change themselves?

Niyogi: Updating apps is the best time to do it, of all the different levers we have access to today. Just like the SEO world, everything changes. What’s a key driver today might not be a key driver tomorrow. You have to be aware and on top of what’s important today.

ASO isn’t necessarily an everyday thing, where you dedicate a certain percent of your time to it. It depends on how often you update your game. Whenever you decide to make a change, you can take a look at the different levers and make a decision.

Pollack: If you have both iOS and Android, with iOS you have to change things like names and keyword on the update. Android, you can submit something and in a couple of hours it’s approved. We’re seeing quicker results from iOS than from Android, though, even though it takes two weeks for Apple to put through your changes and two hours for Android.

Some bigger companies have schedules of when they’re releasing the next version of an app. That’s when you have to get ready and figure out what you’re doing next from an optimization standpoint.

Malafeev: Two years ago, if you went on LinkedIn and looked for people that did app search optimization, you’d have a hard time finding any that even mentioned it in their marketing bio. What we’ve seen over time is a number of marketing professionals who’ve started acquiring these skills, whether they’re bringing them in-house or working with somebody else outside. We’re seeing a strong trend toward this expertise coming into companies.

A lot of companies are hiring specifically for these roles. If you go to the jobs section of any major game studio, they’ll have a couple of positions open where one of the requirements, or even the primary responsibility, is to work on app store optimization. These are the most sophisticated folks in the industry, the ones who really know what’s going on, the ones who are generating revenue and downloads. Here’s where their focus is. From an ROI perspective, these are things that make sense.

Pollack: I come from an SEO background. When we look at the most successful websites, we look at where the revenue comes from on a very successful SEO campaign. When done correctly, some of the top 100 e-commerce sites—More than 67 percent comes from SEO. Eventually, everyone’s going to realize this needs to be important. You can always pay for more installs, but the LTV is what’s important.

Two examples show the effects of better app store optimization.

Above: Two examples show the effects of better app store optimization.

Image Credit: YellowHead

GamesBeat: What are some other things you can influence, like ratings or reviews or pictures?

Malafeev: You can split that into a few different parts. Ratings and reviews, we’ve been very interested in those in the past. We did a case study on this with an app, a social casino app. At some point in time they launched a prompt to their users which said, “Rate us five stars or we’ll remove 500 coins from your account.”

Of course you can’t actually do that. Apple doesn’t give you information on how well anyone has reviewed you. But the average user doesn’t know that. The outcome that we saw there, overnight they went from three or four positive reviews to something like 600 positive reviews. Directly after that – and it’s a bit of a testament to how the app stores aren’t seeing things like this yet – this was a relatively unknown application, and suddenly it jumped on major keywords, from 150th place to second or third.

A few things can have a massive effect there. It’s going to be your actual star rating. The truth is that if you look at most of the top applications, they have between four and five stars. It’s important, but you don’t have a massive amount of room to maneuver within there. But the number, the volume, the velocity of reviews you’re getting is massively important. That gets into how you get products out as well. You don’t want to annoy or manipulate your users. There’s a bit of a fine line. It’s something we’ve started looking at more.

Pollack: Apple’s coming back on that. We’ve had apps we’ve worked with where we’ve incentivized users to post reviews. We’ve had apps kicked off the App Store until that was removed from the app. It’s a thin line. A lot of apps will still do something like a social media post where they’ll give you coins, but Apple will shut that down more and more. They want the best experience for the user, and that’s not something that manipulates their rankings.

GamesBeat: Anything about screenshots, the images you’re using?

Niyogi: It’s very important for converting people who reach your landing page. Your visuals have to have relevance. If you’ve gotten the user that far, you’d better have something to get them to install your app in the first five or 10 seconds. We’re doing videos now, and that’s working well for some publishers. The description and “what’s new” is also very important, especially with Google.

Pollack: You can get to the top of different searches, but the reality is that if no one’s converting—Icons and screenshots should all be considered an optimization technique. We can get you up there, but if people don’t see you, they’re not going to convert.

Malafeev: A lot of companies have gotten advanced enough to realize these things, but still, every once in a while you’ll go through and see a major application where their first screenshot is just their login screen. These are basic things. You’re adding calls to action, marketing messages, making them look aesthetic.

An A/B testing platform for iOS came out with an interesting statistic showing that users are split into two groups, half and half. There’s what they call instant decision-makers, people who make it to your store page and right away hit the install button or right away ditch. The other 50 percent are explorers. They’re going to look through your screenshots or look through your description, although very few people actually go that far. You have to cater to both. Screenshots, if you’re not putting the time into them, it’s something you’re just leaving on the table.

Pollack: An app I worked with did just what you mentioned. Their first screenshot was the login page. After we changed it – without changing keywords or anything else – they still ranked in the same position, but their downloads went from about 300 a day to 2500. It was a massive increase. That’s straight conversion. It’s extremely important.

Dotan: To add to that, Apple recently released an analytics product where they show conversion from the App Store page to downloads and installs. We have access to a ton of data from developers and publishers, so we aggregated it and saw some dramatic changes between different folks. Some might be converting at 40 percent while others are converting at only six or five percent. Not only does this all affect organic users or users coming from app store optimization, but it’s also affecting all your repeat acquisition campaigns.

These things are all dynamic and changing. When iOS 8 came out, you had two screenshots side by side. We saw a lot of companies try to play with making the two screenshots work together. It’s important to react to changes in the app stores.

GamesBeat: What about localization? That’s my last topic for you.

Malafeev: Within apps, and particularly within the world of gaming, the reality is that it doesn’t matter where your user is located for the vast majority of applications we deal with on a daily basis. You don’t need to speak English to get along with the application.

That being said, if you look at users in, say, Denmark–People in Denmark speak excellent English. They won’t have any problems using your application. But it may well be that they’re searching for whatever you offer in Danish. If you haven’t invested in that, they won’t find you. App store optimization, particularly in gaming, is making it easier to go global with relatively minimal effort.

It’s way different from the world of SEO, where you have to get an agency to translate and culturalize your website. It’s not just translation. In app store optimization, you have to do keyword research in those languages. You have to figure out what people are looking for. There’s still expertise and time and all that. But it’s an easy way to get more market share.

Some of the applications we work with, when we start off we see that 85 percent of their installs are coming from the U.S. Besides that it’s a bit of the U.K. and Canada and Australia. After the localization process, we see that go down to 50 percent, 40 percent, because they’ve opened the doors to the rest of the world.

Dotan: Localization isn’t that expensive on this scale. Your app isn’t a book. It’s one of the quickest ways, if you’re not localized, to get to a bigger audience. If you look at the data on the top-performing applications, whether it’s Clash of Clans or Candy Crush or anybody, it’s not like it’s 2012 where 80 percent is in the United States. It’s spread all over. That’s because they’re putting effort into localization.

Niyogi: It depends very much on the genre of your game. Do you get enough traffic to make it worth localizing the game? But from all experiments, if you’re localized and culturalized, and you’re localized on the ASO side, it works very well. Poker doesn’t need a language, but in most cases localization on the ASO side is only a benefit.

YellowHead shows the kind of results you can get with ASO.

Above: YellowHead shows the kind of results you can get with ASO.

Image Credit: YellowHead

Audience question: You were saying that you can update on Google right away, but you sometimes see results from Apple faster. Google’s store doesn’t fully index everything for about 30 days. How long should I [wait] after a change to judge the effect of a change?

Pollack: We like to optimize no more than once a quarter. There’s a marination period. Even though iOS makes changes pretty quick—Once you put in keywords, you can see changes quickly. However, until people start adding more reviews again – your reviews reset on iOS every time you upload a new version – we like to see a marination period where the reviews are back to where it was and the keywords come in place together. So I’d say once every three months. That’s what we do.

Dotan: We look at a lot of titles that taken an opposite approach on iOS and update very often. They’re able to get new reviews very quickly because they’re larger apps that have a lot of users. They have a bi-weekly release cycle. The thing they may do, though, is that they might only change for a couple of countries in Europe, not everywhere all together. It’s a lot of work and effort if you’re doing a complete rehash. But with iOS you can only change when you update to a new version, so you might as well take advantage.

Question: I’ve heard various things from sources that aren’t totally reliable – like, with Google, you should use a certain keyword five times in a description, but not more. You have to separate them. You should use words in reviews people leave. Is there any truth to any of that?

Dotan: There are lots of tactical things you can do. Shorter descriptions on Google, that’s one thing. You don’t want to have 5000 characters in descriptions. There’s a whole bunch of studies out there with various conclusions. Really, the number of tactical things you can do is very long.

Pollack: As far as we’ve seen, it’s not a numerical thing – five times, eight times – but it’s a keyword density thing. If you have a 200-word description and 30 of the words are a keyword, that’s not going so well. What I would suggest is, do your keyword research, know what words you want to use, and then use them in the text in a way that—They’re there, but it’s still natural. It doesn’t feel overdone.

Question: We’ve started diving into this in a big way, but we’re finding that there are keywords that are very well-searched. And yet there are also keywords that are searched for a lot, that aren’t in any of our apps, and very few apps are using them. We’re taking an approach for doing up relevant keywords. My question is, when will everyone figure out that they don’t have to use the particular keyword that every competitor is using and find a word that’s very similar but that no one is using? And when will this all level out, where Apple will eventually figure it all out? And isn’t Apple weighing this with the frequency of downloads for your app as well?

Malafeev: For the second question, the way that we see an app’s ranking for any particular word is just—We call it strength times relevance. Strength is how many downloads you have, sales you’re getting, ratings, reviews. On the other hand you have the relevance side. If you haven’t optimized for something you’re not going to be there.

For the first question, that’s a great strategy depending on what you are. If you’re going for smaller keywords, at some point you’ll hit a ceiling. At the same time, if you’re a small application, you’re not going to be ranked no matter how well you optimize for those top keywords.

Question: Do you see ASO being less effective over time as more people get into it? How soon do you see that being potentially an issue?

Pollack: I don’t think it’ll be less effective. If anything I think it’ll get more important. It will just be more complicated. It’ll start encompassing other factors. Right now keywords and such are very important. Google has a very sophisticated algorithm on the web. Eventually they’ll be just as sophisticated on mobile.

Notan: As it becomes more complicated and more companies are doing ASO, if you’re one that’s not doing it—It’s going to be a bit of an arms race. It’s moving toward an equilibrium, but if you’re not paying attention at all, you’re falling behind everyone else.

Question: Is there any tool that gives us visibility into how often a certain keyword is searched for?

Pollack: The short answer is no, not directly. The app stores don’t release that information. But tools like SensorTower use a lot of different information, including the Google keyword planner and the number apps that are found for a certain thing, to try to estimate. There are things that aren’t quite fully baked yet, but there are all sorts of keyboard apps, for example, that have SDKs indicating what users are searching for and then start to figure out aggregated data for that. Those are ideas that are only half there so far.

Dotan: Full numbers haven’t been released by Apple and Google so far, but everyone’s working on using the best proxy signals to get to that.

Question: Can you speak to different pricing strategies between different vendors in the space?

Dotan: We work on a monthly retainer, on an ongoing basis.

Pollack: We’re strictly performance-based. We come up with a baseline of where the organic is and then we charge on a per-install basis.

Question: What are the primary differences between the Apple and the Google algorithms? How often do you see them being updated, and how big are those updates?

Pollack: Google is constantly going to be changing it. Sometimes you’ll see an algorithm release from Google that they announce, but they’re probably updating it on a weekly basis or a monthly basis. That’s how they are on the web, and I’m sure mobile will get to that point. For iOS I’m not sure. It doesn’t seem like they’re anywhere near as sophisticated.

Dotan: There used to be quarterly releases after Apple acquired the Chomp team, but they seem to have slowed down. There’s not an ASO shakeup happening every quarter.

Niyogi: Being on top is one thing, but choosing algorithms is really—If you want to convert and retain and monetize users, you need to create a landing page that’s relevant for the users you’ve defined in your strategy sessions. Do all these things that people are doing, but just chasing that—It’s just like the SEO world. Apple and Google are going to catch up.