The big lie of perfect 'App Store Optimization'

How search is ruining the App Store experience

After listening to discussions on The Prompt podcast 'An Isolated Experiment' on what's wrong with the App Store, I feel compelled to write about this new practice called App Store Optimization. The so-called ASO is a new term to define the artificial positioning of an app in organic searches, similar to the way digital marketeers try to influence Google results with SEO.

The time couldn't be riper: only last week it was revealed that Apple and Google started rejecting games on their stores that try to ride on the success of Flappy Bird. Claiming violation of the App Store Review Guidelines, Apple rejects app names leveraging on popular apps and misleading metadata. Google simply considers Flappy clone entries spam.

Giant game makers are also trying to protect themselves against hordes of clones, rip-offs and generally nice people. King.com's lawyers use tools not designed to protect creative work such as video games, but it clearly shows their side of the coin: they are so tired of Candy Crush Saga knock-offs that they'll try to trademark the word 'Candy' and 'Saga' in an attempt to stop it. Sure, these are common words, but it is the same principle than the 'Tower Defense' trademark owned by Com2Us, which will be considered by gaming fans the name of the genre itself.

The common justification for these shenanigans is that App Store search is so useless that app and game developers need to come with some creative wording to be found properly. The Iconfactory, for instance, has to append 'for Twitter' to its iOS Twitterrific app to have a chance to be recognised by the App Store's search engine. And these are the guys who coined the expression "tweet" before Twitter adopted it!

Making a stand where it matters

Why buying into the chicken or the egg problem? It's about defending originality in a time of clones. There is something inherently wrong about capitalising on popular search terms to try to boost rankings artificially. From a creative point of view, it doesn't sound reasonable to sacrifice something as important as an app name with some descriptive keyword spamming. From a practical point of view, it's also difficult to understand how function and description can be more effective than a decent brand. Realmac Software's Clear app is not the most keyword-friendly of the names, but it's certainly more memorable than the Tasks & To-Do List it has appended on the App Store title.

The efforts to gain exposure via search optimisation also concern app listing screenshots. All the cramming of related popular keywords infiltrates images, using text labels of a cheap magazine advert instead of the actual screenshots of what the app looks like. A little explanation goes a long way, but there is nothing less subtle that framing your app screenshot with... an iPhone! I had saved this example mentioned on The Brooks Review about an app with seriously misleading screenshots. Check it out with your own eyes and tell me you haven't seen anything like this on the App Store.

Just like the surge in flappy keywords, one day Apple will address the questionable practices of the new ASO experts to get their developer accounts banned for good. Perhaps these methods work: they could improve visibility in search results and translate into more downloads. For me it's clear: invest on long term credibility with a unique brand or name instead of copying others.

Top image with the Coca-Cola barber shop from Brent Moore