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App Developers Fight A Saturated Market

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ASO discoveryAlthough Apple’s App Store is seven years old and has a worthy competitor in Google’s Play Store, the app store search and discovery ecosystem is stagnant, say many app store optimization (ASO) platforms.

“When we look at the landscape, we see it like the early days of Internet, when search and discovery were a mess,” said Dave Bell, CEO and co-founder of the ASO firm Gummicube.

Gareth Price, technical director at the digital agency Ready Set Rocket, also compared ASO to the days when search engines could be effectively gamed to surface lower-quality content.

“Apple and Google are very guarded about how they talk about their algorithms, and rightfully so,” said Bell. “And they’re incentivized in different ways from developers.”

For instance, Apple and Google both want to increase the number of apps available in their respective stores, a metric often used to compare the two (Google has 1.6 million apps available for download, Apple has 1.5 million).

This volume exerts an enormous competitive strain on app developers, who don’t have marketplace options beyond Play or the App Store.

Plus, Android and iOS operating systems compete by adding built-in functionality with each iteration. “There’s so much more out there, and more basic needs are being filled by built-in apps, combined with fewer people browsing and exploring apps,” Price said.

For app developers, it’s feast or famine. According to a recent Nielsen report, the average user time spent in apps per month has jumped 63% in the past two years, despite the overall number of apps used per month remaining roughly the same. The top 200 apps – out of more than 3 million – are absorbing more than 70% of user engagement, and the revenue that goes with it.

“The dominant players in the category have emerged and are in positions where they can’t be dislodged,” said Josh Shaeffer, a strategic adviser to the ASO shop Mobile Action and VP at the sports and fitness app developer Runtastic. A startup fitness app will automatically find itself competing with MyFitnessPal, which has been rated more than a million times, and the likes of Nike and FitBit.

ASO executives compare the state of their industry to early-years SEO because it implies that changes are coming to upgrade the space, as semantic and intent-based algorithm adjustments did for web searches. But for Apple or Google, why feel pressured to upend a market that’s growing and performing well?

Some changes, such as Google’s recent decision to enable sponsored results on app store searches, are likely to favor the already established players who have marketing resources to throw at ASO (i.e., stuffing app names with keywords or buying ratings and reviews).

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Many industry executives suspect subtle algorithm tweaks from Apple. But the company denied to AdExchanger that any such readjustments have taken place, emphasizing that it has no plans to change the current meritocracy. (Unlike Google, Apple has no paid mechanism for upping search results.)

Apple has taken some steps to open real estate to more developers, such as the “explore” tab and new categorical searches that allow apps to compete in smaller, more precise pools. Shaeffer called the explorer tab and vertical strategy for directing users, “an important step,” but said he expects ASO firms to look for ways outside the app store to elevate new products.

Price similarly said he’s seen app developers shift budgets away from traditional ASO to mobile ads, Facebook and even public relations.

For instance, Facebook’s direct app-install ads are hugely popular with marketers, who can pull exact measurement data on CTR and download completions. But that strong performance means app-install ads are significantly more expensive than Facebook’s other formats, once again giving the dominant players in the space the tools to remain on top.

Additionally, TV and/or search ads play a role in discovery for almost half of all US app downloads.

Bell agreed that alternate streams are widening, but said there’s no getting around the fact that 70% of all downloads are triggered by searches in the app store. And the conversion rates are higher for users who are browsing the store as opposed to those who are deep-linked to an app download page from, say, a mobile ad.

ASO also remains crucial because Google and Apple don’t release data on app store searches. Especially in an environment where keywords come and go, and where search term strength varies widely for mobile vs. desktop, vendors are necessary to keep a finger on the pulse of what’s working in the app store.

“You can’t abandon ASO because it’s what’s effective with users,” said Bell. “As long as Apple and Google are black boxes, this is the playing field and these are the rules.”

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