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How to Do a SERP Analysis

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How to Do a SERP Analysis

SERP analysis is a process that helps you determine if and how you can rank for a keyword and whether the effort is worth the reward.

It’s important because not all keywords are created equal. Some are harder to rank for than others, so you must choose wisely.

In this guide, you’ll learn how to analyze a SERP to see if it’s crackable.

Let’s get started.

Step 1. Get a high-level overview of the SERP

The first step of a SERP analysis is to get a rough sense of the traffic opportunity and ranking difficulty opportunity.

To do this, we can use two of Ahrefs’ core metrics: Keyword Difficulty and Traffic Potential. 

  • Keyword Difficulty (KD) estimates how hard it will be to rank on the first page of Google for a keyword on a scale from 0 to 100.
  • Traffic Potential (TP) is the total estimated monthly search traffic to the top-ranking page for a keyword.

Using these two metrics, we will be able to get a top-level overview of the SERP and determine whether it’s worth further investigation.

Let’s use Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer to get a quick, high-level view of the keyword “when were dogs domesticated.”

Keyword overview for "when were dogs domesticated," via Ahrefs' Keywords Explorer

So what exactly is the overview showing us? 

We can see the keyword “when were dogs domesticated” has a super hard KD of 73 but a low TP of 3.2K.

At first glance, this query doesn’t appear to be worth the effort. But it may warrant further investigation if this topic is lucrative for your business.

With a super hard KD of 73, Ahrefs estimates that we will need ~235 links to rank in the top 10 for this SERP, which will require a fair amount of resources to compete. 

Generally speaking, it is better to look for low-KD and high-TP queries, where possible. 

To better understand the effort-to-reward ratio for this query, and any others, we can plot the effort-to-reward ratio in an XY graph:

Effort-to-reward ratio
  • Top left: Golden opportunities (low investment, high reward).
  • Top right: Long-term opportunities (high investment, high reward).
  • Bottom left: Possible opportunities (low rewards, so effort might not be worth it).
  • Bottom right: Try to avoid (unless it’s a highly lucrative topic for your business).

Our query for “when were dogs domesticated” falls into the “high effort, low reward” quadrant, so it may not be worth the effort.

We are looking for a query that falls in the top left-hand section. In most cases, these will be the golden keyword opportunities. 

Avoid queries that fall into the bottom right section where possible unless it is particularly lucrative for your business.

Let’s try to find a search with more opportunity.

Let’s plug in “how to leash train a dog” into Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer and see if this keyword has better metrics.

Search for "how to leash train a dog," via Ahrefs' Keywords Explorer

We can see that this query has a medium KD of 18 but a much higher TP of 24K. Great!

We can see that this search has a much better effort-to-reward ratio than our previous query, so let’s scroll down the page in Keywords Explorer to the SERP overview and investigate if (and how) we can rank.

Step 2. Investigate if (and how) you can rank

Now that we have completed our top-level overview, we can consider other factors using the SERP overview in Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer.

We should consider four key elements in our SERP analysis when investigating the ranking difficulty:

1. Domain Rating (DR)

DR is one of Ahrefs’ most widely used metrics in SEO. It shows the relative strength of a website’s backlink profile on a scale from 0 to 100.

It’s not a Google ranking factor, but there are a couple of reasons why it can be easier for high-DR sites to rank on Google: 

  1. They can boost a page’s strength with internal links – High-DR sites have lots of strong pages. They can funnel some of this strength to specific pages with internal links.
  2. They are often trusted brands – People may prefer to click these results on the SERPs. They may also have more topical authority, which may help. 

These reasons explain why 64.9% of SEOs pay attention to DR when analyzing their chances to rank:

While it’s certainly possible to outrank a higher DR site, a good rule of thumb is to look for pages ranking in the top 10 with the same DR as you or lower. By doing this, we can maximize our chances of appearing on the SERP.

If we return to our previous query “how to leash train a dog” and look at the SERP overview, we can see that the first result comes from a DR 90 site. 

Even with a high-DR site, this looks hard to beat.

SERP overview for "how to leash train a dog," via Ahrefs' Keywords Explorer
  • Scanning down the DR column, we can see that 8 out of 10 sites have a DR of 70+, so we could potentially be on the back foot from the start with this query.
  • Jumping to the sixth result, we can see that it has a DR of 26, which suggests that this SERP is crackable, at least in terms of DR. 
SERP overview detail of sixth result, via Ahrefs' Keywords Explorer

Finding outliers like this DR 26 site is what we need to be focusing on at this stage. It can mean that ranking on this SERP with a ≤ 70 DR site is possible.

Assuming that we don’t have a DR 70+ site, our hopes of ranking will most likely rest on equalling the ranking of the DR 26 site. 

It is worth noting that the traffic this site receives is estimated to be around 833, which is a lot lower than our original estimated 24K TP.

With these revised figures, we need to reevaluate whether the effort is worth the reward at this stage. That depends on our website’s authority, our risk appetite, and the resources available.

Although DR plays an important initial role in our SERP analysis, there are other factors that we should consider as well, such as links.

2. Links 

If you ask an SEO what the top Google ranking factors are, chances are they will mention “backlinks” in their reply. 

But what exactly is a backlink? Simply put, backlinks are clickable links from one website to another. 

What is a backlink

Backlinks are also highly important for ranking on Google, as they are one of eight confirmed ranking factors.

We saw in step #1 that KD can give us a broad indication of how many links we will need to rank, but actual link numbers will vary from site to site.

Let’s return to our query for “how to leash train a dog” in the SERP overview and take a closer look at the links.

SERP overview for "how to leash train a dog," via Keywords Explorer
  • Looking at the Domains column in the above image, we can see that the first result has 521 referring domains. Unless we can acquire over 521 referring domains, we should rule out the possibility of outranking this result.
  • The second result has 116 domains. Again, this seems relatively high, so we should probably rule out outranking this result too.
  • Positions #3–10, however, have ≤ 36 domains each, which is where the most opportunities lie on this SERP.

We can see from this link analysis that the lower end of the SERP is much easier to crack—at least in terms of links.

If we hone in on the sixth result, we can see that this site only has eight domains. 

SERP overview detail of sixth result, via Ahrefs' Keywords Explorer

Acquiring more than eight domains should be achievable for most businesses, so this could be a great opportunity. 

We only need to be aware that the estimated traffic for the sixth result is much lower than our initial TP estimate of 24K and is now 851. 

Looking at the rest of the SERP’s traffic, we can see that rather than gradually declining, the eighth and 10th results have more impressive estimated traffic, 5,895 and 3,643, respectively.

This may mean that the estimated traffic opportunity may not be as low as 851, but it can vary depending on our exact position.

So far, just using DR and links, we have seen how feasible it will be for us to rank on this SERP. We can see that the lower half of the SERP (from positions #6–10) is most achievable at this stage.

Now we will need to consider the role of search intent on the SERP. 

3. Search intent

Search intent is used to describe the primary reason for an online search. In other words, it indicates why the user typed their query into the search engine in the first place.

But what does search intent mean in terms of our SERP analysis?

In a nutshell: Our webpage needs to provide the best answer for the query to rank well on the SERP. Identifying the dominant search intent on the SERP can help determine how or if we will compete. 

Most content on the internet falls into the categories below and, for our SERP analysis, it makes sense to use this categorization: 

  • Blog posts
  • Category pages
  • Product pages
  • Landing pages
  • Videos

Let’s use Ahrefs’ own keywords to explore this concept in more detail. 

Say we have a website that we want to rank for “backlink checker,” and we have written a blog post targeting that query.

This alone will not enable us to rank for this query, as the intent of this search is strongly aligned toward SEO tool companies with big backlink databases—like Ahrefs. For these types of websites, the backlink checker is likely to be one of their main product pages.

If you thought of it, why would you click on a result for “backlink checker” that didn’t have a backlink checker product? 

You probably wouldn’t. 

This rules out the possibility of targeting this keyword for the average website creating a simple blog post on this topic.

Let’s consider another more visual example using Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer. Let’s plug in the keyword “how to draw a picasso face” and scroll down to the SERP overview.

With this query, we can see that 4 out of the top 6 results on this SERP are video-based. Therefore, we can see that the search intent is focused on video content. 

SERP overview for "how to draw a picasso face," via Ahrefs' Keywords Explorer

Because this format of content is so dominant at the top of the SERP, it will likely be tough to rank near the top of this SERP unless we create video content ourselves.

Returning to the SERP overview for our “how to leash train a dog” search query, we can see that the majority of the articles here are blog posts, but the fifth result is a video SERP feature.

This indicates that, at least for some searches, searchers are looking for video guides rather than blog posts about this topic.

SERP overview for "how to leash train a dog," via Ahrefs' Keywords Explorer

With this type of mixed search intent, it is best to create content in both formats, assuming you have the expertise and resources to compete. This will likely increase the chances of appearing on the SERP for this particular keyword.

In summary, we have seen how analyzing search intent can help inform our SERP strategy and determine if and how we will compete. 

Let’s now take a look at content quality.

4. Content quality

It’s worth being aware that the standard of content Google expects can be much higher for certain topics.

For example, in a Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) topic, such as medical advice, you likely need to provide content created or reviewed by doctors to compete on the SERP. 

Google defines YMYL topics as the following:

YMYL definition, via Google Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines

Unless you have the resources to compete on these types of SERPs, then it is a good idea to stay clear of them. 

Even in non-YMYL topics, such as product reviews, there are sites like Wirecutter independently reviewing thousands of products every year with great success. So it’s not just YMYL topics that have extremely high-quality content.

Wirecutter's "about us" page, via nytimes.com

Wirecutter now has the backing of The New York Times, so it has tremendous resources at hand. 

Looking at its website, it typically updates or publishes around 10 articles per day, and this is despite its reviews taking “weeks or months of research” to complete.

So how do high-quality sites like Wirecutter impact our SERP analysis? 

Simply put, if there is a website that has high-quality content within the SERP, then you should consider whether you have the resources to compete and outrank them.

Step 3. Check for other opportunities

The final step of our SERP analysis is to check for any other opportunities. One of the biggest opportunities you can take advantage of is SERP features. 

Google seems to have hinted it as one of its priorities for search as far back as 2007. According to then-representative Marissa Mayer: 

We [Google] want to help you find the very best answer, even if you don’t know where to look.

But what exactly is a SERP feature, and how can we identify it?

A SERP feature is any result on the SERPs that is not a traditional organic search result. 

In brief, these are some of the most common SERP features and their basic requirements:

  • Featured snippets – Provide a concise answer to a query.
  • Video carousels – Create a YouTube video on the topic.
  • Image packs – Provide a relevant image of what people are looking for.
  • Top stories – Publish relevant news stories on the topic.
  • People Also Ask – Answer a related question on the topic.

Using Ahrefs’ Site Explorer, we can see a list of current SERP features in the Organic keywords report by entering any website into the search bar and then clicking on the SERP features filter. 

In the example below, I have used ahrefs.com.

SERP features dropdown, via Ahrefs' Site Explorer

Filtering results by specific SERP features can be useful for competitor analysis or simply understanding which SERP features your website ranks for.

So what do SERP features look like in the wild? 

Let’s take a look at a featured snippet for “what are cats whiskers for” in Google search.

Featured snippet search result for "what are cats whiskers for," via Google.com

As we can see above, appearing in a featured snippet will mean you get more SERP real estate than a standard organic listing and will also mean that the result appears at the top of the search results.

This is why SERP features are considered by some SEOs as the cheat codes for SEO. They can also potentially drive more traffic than your average organic result.

If we return to our previous example of “how to leash train a dog,” we can see that the SERP overview has identified the fifth result on this SERP as a video SERP feature. 

Let’s click on the caret next to Videos to expand this result.

SERP overview for "how to leash train a dog," via Ahrefs' Keywords Explorer

Once we click on the caret, we can see the expanded result.

SERP overview video carousel featured snippet, via Ahrefs' Keywords Explorer

There are three videos in the carousel from 2016, 2017, and 2021. If we had the resources to create video content for this query, creating a more up-to-date, high-quality video could be a valuable shortcut to ranking well on this SERP.

Assuming we managed to rank a video in the fifth position, this would leapfrog the DR 26 website we looked at earlier in the sixth position. 

If you created a blog post and a YouTube video targeting this search, you could acquire traffic from two sources rather than just one.

In summary, targeting SERP features is worth your time if you have the resources available. Winning SERP features allows us to acquire more SERP real estate instead of just appearing for a single organic result for a search query. 

Final thoughts

Conducting a SERP analysis may sound daunting at first, but Keywords Explorer makes it easy by giving you an overview of the key metrics you need to consider. 

After that, it’s just a case of following the process and asking yourself:

  • Can you provide a better answer to a keyword query than what is on the current SERP? 
  • Can you create higher-quality content than the top result for the query?
  • Do you have sufficient resources to create the content?
  • Are there any SERP features you can target to win more SERP real estate?

If the answer is “yes” to most of the above questions, you should have a decent chance of cracking the SERP.

What’s your experience with SERP analysis? Got more questions? Ping me on Twitter. 🙂



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Why Google Seems To Favor Big Brands & Low-Quality Content

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Why Google Seems To Favor Big Brands & Low-Quality Content

Many people are convinced that Google shows a preference for big brands and ranking low quality content, something that many feel has become progressively worse. This may not be a matter of perception, something is going on, nearly everyone has an anecdote of poor quality search results. The possible reasons for it are actually quite surprising.

Google Has Shown Favoritism In The Past

This isn’t the first time that Google’s search engine results pages (SERPs) have shown a bias that favored big brand websites. During the early years of Google’s algorithm it was obvious that sites with a lot of PageRank ranked for virtually anything they wanted.

For example, I remember a web design company that built a lot of websites, creating a network of backlinks, raising their PageRank to a remarkable level normally seen only in big corporate sites like IBM. As a consequence they ranked for the two-word keyword phrase, Web Design and virtually every other variant like Web Design + [any state in the USA].

Everyone knew that websites with a PageRank of 10, the highest level shown on Google’s toolbar, practically had a free pass in the SERPs, resulting in big brand sites outranking more relevant webpages. It didn’t go unnoticed when Google eventually adjusted their algorithm to fix this issue.

The point of this anecdote is to point out an instance of where Google’s algorithm unintentionally created a bias that favored big brands.

Here are are other  algorithm biases that publishers exploited:

  • Top 10 posts
  • Longtail “how-to” articles
  • Misspellings
  • Free Widgets in footer that contained links (always free to universities!)

Big Brands And Low Quality Content

There are two things that have been a constant for all of Google’s history:

  • Low quality content
  • Big brands crowding out small independent publishers

Anyone that’s ever searched for a recipe knows that the more general the recipe the lower the quality of recipe that gets ranked. Search for something like cream of chicken soup and the main ingredient for nearly every recipe is two cans of chicken soup.

A search for Authentic Mexican Tacos results in recipes with these ingredients:

  • Soy sauce
  • Ground beef
  • “Cooked chicken”
  • Taco shells (from the store!)
  • Beer

Not all recipe SERPs are bad. But some of the more general recipes Google ranks are so basic that a hobo can cook them on a hotplate.

Robin Donovan (Instagram), a cookbook author and online recipe blogger observed:

“I think the problem with google search rankings for recipes these days (post HCU) are much bigger than them being too simple.

The biggest problem is that you get a bunch of Reddit threads or sites with untested user-generated recipes, or scraper sites that are stealing recipes from hardworking bloggers.

In other words, content that is anything but “helpful” if what you want is a tested and well written recipe that you can use to make something delicious.”

Explanations For Why Google’s SERPs Are Broken

It’s hard not to get away from the perception that Google’s rankings for a variety of topics always seem to default to big brand websites and low quality webpages.

Small sites grow to become big brands that dominate the SERPs, it happens. But that’s the thing, even when a small site gets big, it’s now another big brand dominating the SERPs.

Typical explanations for poor SERPs:

  • It’s a conspiracy to increase ad clicks
  • Content itself these days are low quality across the board
  • Google doesn’t have anything else to rank
  • It’s the fault of SEOs
  • Affiliates
  • Poor SERPs is Google’s scheme to drive more ad clicks
  • Google promotes big brands because [insert your conspiracy]

So what’s going on?

People Love Big Brands & Garbage Content

The recent Google anti-trust lawsuit exposed the importance of the Navboost algorithm signals as a major ranking factor. Navboost is an algorithm that interprets user engagement signals to understand what topics a webpage is relevant for, among other things.

The idea of using engagement signals as an indicator of what users expect to see makes sense. After all, Google is user-centric and who better to decide what’s best for users than the users themselves, right?

Well, consider that arguably the the biggest and most important song of 1991, Smells Like Teen Spirt by Nirvana, didn’t make the Billboard top 100 for that year. Michael Bolton and Rod Stewart made the list twice, with Rod Stewart top ranked for a song called “The Motown Song” (anyone remember that one?)

Nirvana didn’t make the charts until the next year…

My opinion, given that we know that user interactions are a strong ranking signal, is that Google’s search rankings follow a similar pattern related to users’ biases.

People tend to choose what they know. It’s called a Familiarity Bias.

Consumers have a habit of choosing things that are familiar over those that are unfamiliar. This preference shows up in product choices that prefer brands, for example.

Behavioral scientist, Jason Hreha, defines Familiarity Bias like this:

“The familiarity bias is a phenomenon in which people tend to prefer familiar options over unfamiliar ones, even when the unfamiliar options may be better. This bias is often explained in terms of cognitive ease, which is the feeling of fluency or ease that people experience when they are processing familiar information. When people encounter familiar options, they are more likely to experience cognitive ease, which can make those options seem more appealing.”

Except for certain queries (like those related to health), I don’t think Google makes an editorial decision to certain kinds of websites, like brands.

Google uses many signals for ranking. But Google is strongly user focused.

I believe it’s possible that strong user preferences can carry a more substantial weight than Reviews System signals. How else to explain why Google seemingly has a bias for big brand websites with fake reviews rank better than honest independent review sites?

It’s not like Google’s algorithms haven’t created poor search results in the past.

  • Google’s Panda algorithm was designed to get rid of a bias for cookie cutter content.
  • The Reviews System is a patch to fix Google’s bias for content that’s about reviews but aren’t necessarily reviews.

If Google has systems for catching low quality sites that their core algorithm would otherwise rank, why do big brands and poor quality content still rank?

I believe the answer is that is what users prefer to see those sites, as indicated by user interaction signals.

The big question to ask is whether Google will continue to rank what users biases and inexperience trigger user satisfaction signals.  Or will Google continue serving the sugar-frosted bon-bons that users crave?

Should Google make the choice to rank quality content at the risk that users find it too hard to understand?

Or should publishers give up and focus on creating for the lowest common denominator like the biggest popstars do?



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Google Announces Gemma: Laptop-Friendly Open Source AI

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Google Announces Gemma: Laptop-Friendly Open Source AI

Google released an open source large language model based on the technology used to create Gemini that is powerful yet lightweight, optimized to be used in environments with limited resources like on a laptop or cloud infrastructure.

Gemma can be used to create a chatbot, content generation tool and pretty much anything else that a language model can do. This is the tool that SEOs have been waiting for.

It is released in two versions, one with two billion parameters (2B) and another one with seven billion parameters (7B). The number of parameters indicates the model’s complexity and potential capability. Models with more parameters can achieve a better understanding of language and generate more sophisticated responses, but they also require more resources to train and run.

The purpose of releasing Gemma is to democratize access to state of the art Artificial Intelligence that is trained to be safe and responsible out of the box, with a toolkit to further optimize it for safety.

Gemma By DeepMind

The model is developed to be lightweight and efficient which makes it ideal for getting it into the hands of more end users.

Google’s official announcement noted the following key points:

  • “We’re releasing model weights in two sizes: Gemma 2B and Gemma 7B. Each size is released with pre-trained and instruction-tuned variants.
  • A new Responsible Generative AI Toolkit provides guidance and essential tools for creating safer AI applications with Gemma.
  • We’re providing toolchains for inference and supervised fine-tuning (SFT) across all major frameworks: JAX, PyTorch, and TensorFlow through native Keras 3.0.
  • Ready-to-use Colab and Kaggle notebooks, alongside integration with popular tools such as Hugging Face, MaxText, NVIDIA NeMo and TensorRT-LLM, make it easy to get started with Gemma.
  • Pre-trained and instruction-tuned Gemma models can run on your laptop, workstation, or Google Cloud with easy deployment on Vertex AI and Google Kubernetes Engine (GKE).
  • Optimization across multiple AI hardware platforms ensures industry-leading performance, including NVIDIA GPUs and Google Cloud TPUs.
  • Terms of use permit responsible commercial usage and distribution for all organizations, regardless of size.”

Analysis Of Gemma

According to an analysis by an Awni Hannun, a machine learning research scientist at Apple, Gemma is optimized to be highly efficient in a way that makes it suitable for use in low-resource environments.

Hannun observed that Gemma has a vocabulary of 250,000 (250k) tokens versus 32k for comparable models. The importance of that is that Gemma can recognize and process a wider variety of words, allowing it to handle tasks with complex language. His analysis suggests that this extensive vocabulary enhances the model’s versatility across different types of content. He also believes that it may help with math, code and other modalities.

It was also noted that the “embedding weights” are massive (750 million). The embedding weights are a reference to the parameters that help in mapping words to representations of their meanings and relationships.

An important feature he called out is that the embedding weights, which encode detailed information about word meanings and relationships, are used not just in processing input part but also in generating the model’s output. This sharing improves the efficiency of the model by allowing it to better leverage its understanding of language when producing text.

For end users, this means more accurate, relevant, and contextually appropriate responses (content) from the model, which improves its use in conetent generation as well as for chatbots and translations.

He tweeted:

“The vocab is massive compared to other open source models: 250K vs 32k for Mistral 7B

Maybe helps a lot with math / code / other modalities with a heavy tail of symbols.

Also the embedding weights are big (~750M params), so they get shared with the output head.”

In a follow-up tweet he also noted an optimization in training that translates into potentially more accurate and refined model responses, as it enables the model to learn and adapt more effectively during the training phase.

He tweeted:

“The RMS norm weight has a unit offset.

Instead of “x * weight” they do “x * (1 + weight)”.

I assume this is a training optimization. Usually the weight is initialized to 1 but likely they initialize close to 0. Similar to every other parameter.”

He followed up that there are more optimizations in data and training but that those two factors are what especially stood out.

Designed To Be Safe And Responsible

An important key feature is that it is designed from the ground up to be safe which makes it ideal for deploying for use. Training data was filtered to remove personal and sensitive information. Google also used reinforcement learning from human feedback (RLHF) to train the model for responsible behavior.

It was further debugged with manual re-teaming, automated testing and checked for capabilities for unwanted and dangerous activities.

Google also released a toolkit for helping end-users further improve safety:

“We’re also releasing a new Responsible Generative AI Toolkit together with Gemma to help developers and researchers prioritize building safe and responsible AI applications. The toolkit includes:

  • Safety classification: We provide a novel methodology for building robust safety classifiers with minimal examples.
  • Debugging: A model debugging tool helps you investigate Gemma’s behavior and address potential issues.
  • Guidance: You can access best practices for model builders based on Google’s experience in developing and deploying large language models.”

Read Google’s official announcement:

Gemma: Introducing new state-of-the-art open models

Featured Image by Shutterstock/Photo For Everything



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A Complete Guide to App Store Optimization (ASO)

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A Complete Guide to App Store Optimization (ASO)

A mobile strategy is critical to your business presence, considering the saturation of mobile devices.

This is where app store optimization (ASO) comes into play.

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • What is app store optimization?
  • How does app store optimization work?
  • How do you optimize for Google Play & Apple App Store?

Whether you are new to app store optimization or simply keen to refine your approach to ASO, this post shares practical insights that are proven to maximize app store success.

What Is App Store Optimization?

Downloads, usage, and in-app spending continue to rise, but many users prefer to use a select few apps more consistently.

Discoverability has never been harder, but the rewards of locking in loyal users are bigger than ever – so maximizing visibility in app stores is crucial.

App store optimization (ASO) describes the process of optimizing the listing pages for your mobile app in app stores like Google Play and Apple’s App Store.

You may come across alternative phrases like “app store marketing” or “mobile app SEO,” but they all refer to the same thing.

The goal is to maximize the visibility (and downloads) of your app for relevant searches – basically, SEO for your mobile app rather than your website.

In many ways, the optimization process for ASO is very similar to SEO; in others, not so much.

Ultimately, ASO aims to maximize app installs while product development works on monetization, engagement, retention, etc.

An effective app store optimization strategy keeps new users coming in while your development team (hopefully) keeps existing ones active and spending.

With the right retention rates, app store optimization acquires the new users you need to drive meaningful growth.

The goal of ASO is nearly always app downloads, but supplemental goals can include items such as:

  • Increased brand exposure.
  • Positive app reviews and ratings.
  • More frequent and increased volumes of app reviews.
  • Audience engagement.
  • Additional marketing channel diversification.

How Does App Store Optimization Work?

If you’re new to app store optimization, it might help to think of it as SEO for your mobile app.

Except, rather than optimizing a website to show in search engines, you’re optimizing your mobile app listings for the relevant app stores.

In this sense, you could argue ASO is more like optimizing a Google Business Profile to show in Maps and local results.

The other key difference is you’ve got two major mobile app stores to optimize for: Google Play and Apple’s App Store.

These aren’t the only two app stores worth considering, especially if you’re developing apps for other devices (TVs, games consoles, etc.), but they are the biggest – by far.

According to Statista insights from Q3 2022, here are the top three app stores based on the number of available apps:

  • Google Play: 3.55 million.
  • Apple App Store: 1.64 million.
  • Amazon Appstore: 0.48 million.

As a result, most ASO guides focus on optimizing app listings for Google Play and Apple App Store. Aside from being the top two platforms, the optimization process is a little different for each.

This is mostly due to each app store having its own algorithm – much like different search engines.

In practice, most app store algorithms are more alike than they are different. So, the basic principles of app store optimization apply to all of them. However, some stores may use the odd ranking signal that others don’t.

To keep this guide simple, we’ll start by running through the most common ranking signals for app stores, in general.

Then, we’ll take a closer look at Google Play and Apple App Store to see how they’re different.

Organic Optimization: Your ASO Foundation

The key ingredient missing from many ASO marketing delivery approaches is organic search optimization and integration of app stores within the broader organic marketing mix.

There is more overlap between ASO and SEO than direct competition between the two.

The integration of these areas, and the application of consistent focus on ASO, can support numerous search marketing gains.

You may be surprised to discover that many of the traditional search engine optimization tactics that work for search engine performance, such as Google and Bing, can also be directly applied to ASO.

Examples of this include:

  • App name, title, and URL optimization.
  • Keyword research for ASO.
  • App rating and reviews generation and handling.
  • Deep linking within mobile apps.
  • Indexation of Apps in Google search engine results pages (SERPs).
  • Click-through rate (CTR) optimization.

The biggest marketing mistake, however, when it comes to integrating SEO and ASO is overlooking the role of the website in driving volumes of referral visits directly to your store page and app downloads section.

Your website should be seen as the driving force behind leading people throughout the information-seeking and buying funnel from your main online entity (your website) through to an engaged, ready-to-buy/download audience (your app store).

As content levels are limited within the app stores themselves, the more you can leverage your website content to increase app awareness and discovery to build external app authority and visibility, the greater the value, traffic, and downloads your app will receive.

The Most Important App Store Ranking Factors

Like search engines, app stores don’t reveal the details of their algorithms to the public.

That being said, the following seven ranking factors are key, functional components of all major app stores:

  • App name or title.
  • App descriptions (including keywords).
  • Installs.
  • Engagement.
  • In-app purchases and events.
  • User reviews.
  • Updates.

You can break these ranking factors into three categories: discovery, conversion, and validation.

Discovery signals help app stores connect your app with relevant searches. This includes your app name /title, description, keywords, and other contextual signals.

Conversion signals tell app stores that your listing compels users to download your app – a strong indicator that your listing should show for more relevant searches.

Finally, you’ve got validation signals (engagement, in-app purchases/events, reviews, reports/flags, etc.). These help app stores determine whether users get a positive experience after installing your app.

Positive validation signals (strong engagement, positive reviews, etc.) are an even stronger indicator that app stores should show your app to similar users.

What Do Users Want From An App Store Listing?

Optimizing your app listing for visibility is one thing; getting users to actually download your app is something else entirely.

The catch-22 here is that installs directly impact your ranking in app stores.

The more people install your app, the higher it should rank. This, in turn, should result in more installs, higher rankings once again – and so forth.

So, what are the key factors on your mobile app page that determine whether users hit the install button?

  • App icon: On most app stores, your app icon is the most visually prominent element on results pages and recommendation lists.
  • App details: This includes your app name/title and, usually, some short descriptive text explaining the purpose of your app.
  • App rating: Most platforms show the average rating/review score for your app in search results and at the top of your app listing page.
  • App description: With Google Play and the App Store, users can see a brief description on your listing page and they can click to see the full description – so that first sentence or two is crucial.
  • Visuals: This includes any feature images, screenshots, and demo videos that you can add to your listing, showcasing the key benefits and user experience of your app.
  • User reviews: Unless users are already familiar with your app, they’re probably going to browse through some reviews from existing users.

Here, you can see this in action.

Screenshot from Google Play, February 2024App Store Optimization Elements for ASO

Much like SEO, app store optimization is a careful balance of optimizing to maximize visibility in app stores while prioritizing the needs of your users.

Google Play Vs. App Store: Key Differences

Google Play and the App Store are more similar than different when it comes to app store optimization.

Firstly, the ranking factors are very similar, and the differences are mostly technical – for example, Google and Apple handle keywords differently.

Here’s a quick summary of the main ranking factors for Google Play and the App Store.

App Store Google Play
Listing Listing
App name App title
Subtitle Short description
Long description
Keywords (app name, keyword field) Keywords (all inputs), incl. keyword density
Ratings & reviews Ratings & reviews
Listing CTR Listing CTR
App performance App performance
Downloads Downloads
Engagement Engagement
Uninstall rate Uninstall rate
In-app purchases In-app purchases
Updates Updates

As you can see, there’s not much of a difference here – in fact, most of your time will be spent on things like specifications for icons, videos, and other assets for each app listing.

As a general rule, Apple is more strict with its developer guidelines and it’s usually harder to get an app approved for the App Store.

So, if you’re promoting iOS and Android apps, optimizing your listings for Apple’s guidelines will often satisfy both app stores while maintaining consistency and reducing workload.

Now, let’s take a closer look at app store optimization for Google Play and, then, the App Store.

App Store Optimization For Google Play

To give your app listing the best possible start, you’ll want to dedicate the most time to the following nine elements:

  • App title.
  • App category.
  • App descriptions.
  • App icon.
  • Feature graphic.
  • Screenshots.
  • Promo video.
  • App rating and reviews.
  • Google Play Android Vitals.

We’ll take a closer look at optimizing each of these elements, but always refer to official Google guidelines while managing app listings for Google Play.

App Title

Optimizing your app title for Google Play will feel familiar if you’re used to optimizing website titles for search.

You want to start with the product/branded name of your app and then include a brief description – in no more than a few words – using your primary keyword.

Google Play SearchScreenshot from Google Play, February 2024Google Play Search

You can use up to 30 characters in your app title, but try to keep it as short and punchy as possible.

Prioritize accuracy over keyword targeting and highlight the key benefits of using your app.

App Category

Selecting the right category for your app is essential for matching with relevant searches.

For example, let’s say you’re promoting a heart rate monitoring app. In this case, “Health and Fitness” is the most appropriate category.

Google Play example 2Screenshot from Google Play, February 2024Google Play example 2

When users specifically search for “heart rate monitor,” the keywords in your title are a stronger signal.

However, your app category can help your app show for more general searches like “health and fitness apps” or “productivity apps.”

Crucially, users can also browse categories in the Google Play store to discover new apps without searching.

Google Play Categories ExampleScreenshot from Google Play, February 2024Google Play Categories Example

For more info on selecting the right app category for Google Play, take a look at this Play Console Help page.

Short & Long Descriptions

In Google Play, your app listing includes two descriptions: A short description that shows under the About this app preview and a full description that users can reveal by clicking on the arrow highlighted below.

Google Play Descriptions - ExampleGoogle Play Descriptions - Example

You can use up to 80 characters for your short description and 4,000 characters for your full description.

In your short description, try to describe the core functionality of your app in the most compelling way possible.

Accuracy is key here, but you want to convince users to install your app – so highlight the most attractive benefits.

Your full description provides a more in-depth summary of what your app offers.

Remember that most people won’t click through to read the full description, and those who do are looking for information, not a sales pitch.

You’ll find Google’s official guidelines for creating app descriptions under the “App descriptions” section of this Play Console Help page.

App Icon

App icons show on the left side of search listings in Google Play and the top-right of app listing pages.

Google Play App Icon ExampleGoogle Play App Icon Example

These are the most prominent elements on app store results pages.

Ideally, you want an app icon that either visually describes the role of your app or leverages your brand image as a differentiator.

Designing a unique icon is more challenging if your app has a specific purpose and many competitors – e.g., a heart monitoring app.

Google Play example 3Google Play example 3

If this applies to your app, use design principles like contrast to make your listing stand out from other results.

Notice how Pulse App’s Heart Rate Monitor app stands out from the other listings above?

This is thanks to a combination of simple iconography with strong contrast, using a black background to stand out from the white Google Play results page.

Compare this to the REPS app, which uses similar iconography without a black background, and the Bodymatter app, which uses a black background but a more complex design.

Google Codelabs has an excellent tutorial on designing and previewing app icons. It includes best practices and tips for making an icon that stands out on results pages and the latest Android features, such as adaptive icons.

Feature Graphic And Promo Video

Feature graphics show on your app listing page and can also show for branded searches, paid ads, or recommendation sections on Google Play.

Until recently, you could only use images as featured graphics, but you can now use promo videos in their place.

Google Play Feature Screenshot from Google Play, February 2024Google Play Feature

This is one of the most visible assets on your Google Play listing, so use feature graphics to capture attention and showcase the best of your app.

Google suggests:

“Use graphics that convey app or game experiences, and highlight the core value proposition, relevant context, or story-telling elements if needed.”

You’ll find more guidance on creating feature graphics under the Preview assets section of this Play Console Help page.

App Screenshots

App screenshots show in the same horizontal panel as feature graphics on your app listing page.

They’re designed to showcase the best features of your apps while showing users what the in-app experience looks like.

Google Play Screenshot ExampleScreenshot from Google Play, February 2024Google Play Screenshot Example

You can include descriptive text in your screenshots to emphasize the key benefits of your app’s most important features.

Keep things descriptive, though.

Google prohibits the inclusion of performative or ranking text in screenshots, such as “app of the year” or “most popular…” and promotional information like “10% off” or “free account.”

If your app supports multiple languages, you’ll need to provide screenshots for each language version, including any translated descriptive text.

See the screenshots section of this Play Console Help page for more info.

App Ratings & Reviews

App ratings show prominently in results and at the top of the app listing pages in Google Play. Besides this, you’ve also got a prominent Ratings and reviews section as the largest element on your listing page.

Google Play Rating ReviewsScreenshot from Google Play, February 2024Google Play Rating Reviews

Aside from being a ranking factor, app ratings and reviews are one of the biggest trust factors that help users choose which apps to install.

You don’t need perfect review scores but a positive (3.5+ stars) is a great asset for rankings and installs.

Your review profile also allows users to view the feedback left by others – and how you respond. Once again, how you deal with user problems is often more important than the scores or feedback itself.

You’ll need a framework in place for generating regular reviews and replying to them, engaging with reviewers, and solving user issues.

Your replies are also visible, so avoid generic responses – show new, potential users how good you are at dealing with problems.

In fact, don’t take inspiration from Google’s own support team for Google One. Privacy is great, but the tone of the reply below is more dismissive than helpful, and the exact same response appears throughout replies.

Google Play Review ExampleScreenshot from Google Play, February 2024Google Play Review Example

This feedback can also help you develop a stronger product, and users often edit their reviews, following updates or resolved tickets.

Always remember: Long-term revenue is the goal, which starts with quality app experiences, engagement, and retention.

Google Play Android Vitals

Google provides an extensive toolkit for optimizing your mobile app. Its Android vitals initiative sets out the most important usability metrics that affect the visibility of your app on Google Play.

If you’re used to optimizing websites for search, this will sound a lot like Google’s Core Web Vitals.

The principle Android vitals is similar in terms of performance affecting your search ranking, but this is a far more extensive initiative than Core Web Vitals, as it stands.

Android vitals are broken into two key components:

Core vitals

All other vitals

To maximize the visibility of your app in Google Play, keep the user-perceived crash rate below 1.09% across all devices and 8% per device, with the user-perceived ANR rate below 0.47% across all devices and 8% per device.

Google Play Bad Behaviour ExampleScreenshot from developer.android.com, February 2024Google Play Bad Behaviour Example

Take a look at the official Android vitals documentation page for more information.

App Store Optimization For App Store

For the App Store, we’ve also got nine key elements to optimize, but they’re not quite the same as Google Play:

  • App name.
  • App subtitle.
  • Categories.
  • Keywords.
  • Description.
  • App icon.
  • App previews.
  • Screenshots.
  • App ratings and reviews.

One of the key differences here is how the two platforms handle keywords. While Google analyzes your whole listing for keywords, Apple provides a single field for you to add keywords.

Again, always refer to official Apple documentation when optimizing listings for the App Store.

App Name

In the App Store, your app name simply provides a recognizable and memorable name for your mobile app.

You don’t need to worry about keywords or descriptive text here – that comes later.

App Store NameScreenshot from App Store, February 2024App Store Name

For now, concentrate on coming up with an app name that’s easy to remember and spell while somewhat describing what your app does.

Apple offers the following advice:

“Choose a simple, memorable name that is easy to spell and hints at what your app does. Be distinctive. Avoid names that use generic terms or are too similar to existing app names.”

You can use up to 30 characters for your app name in the App Store, but try to keep it as short and punchy as possible.

App Icon

As with most app stores, the app icon is one of the most prominent elements as users browse the iOS app store. Apple provides extensive design guidelines for app icons and it’s more strict than most.

App Store IconScreenshot from App Store, February 2024App Store Icon

So, if you’re promoting your app across the App Store, Google Play, and any other platforms, you might want to start with Apple first. In most cases, this makes it easiest to maintain a consistent design across all platforms.

Generally speaking, the same design principles apply. Keep it simple and impactful with intelligent use of iconography, color, and contrast.

Look at your competitors and try to come up with something that stands out from the other apps your target audience is likely to see.

Subtitle

Your app subtitle provides a brief description below the app name. Use this to highlight the purpose and benefits of your app in the most compelling way possible.

App Store SubtitlesApp Store Subtitles

This is your first opportunity to excite potential users about your app, so try to make an impression here. You’ve only got 30 characters to work with, which means punchy subtitles tend to do best.

You’ll want to test and refine your subtitles over time, paying close attention to CTRs and installs as you try different variations.

Categories

As with Google Play, categories are key for discoverability in the App Store.

You can assign primary and secondary categories for iOS apps to help users find your app; the primary category has the strongest weight. – so choose the most relevant one.

App Store Categories Screenshot from App Store, February 2024App Store Categories

Apple provides extensive guidance for choosing app categories. Make sure you follow Apple’s guidance because selecting the wrong categories violates the App Store guidelines.

In some cases, you may find multiple categories that match your app.

For example, if you’re running a photo-sharing social media app, you could select either Photo & Video or Social Networking as your primary category.

In such cases, Apple suggests considering the following:

  • Your app’s purpose: Your primary category should be the one that best describes your app’s main function or subject matter.
  • Where users look for an app like yours: Understanding your audience will help you identify the category in which they will likely look for your app. Will they consider your app more of a social network or a photography app?
  • Which categories contain the same type of apps as yours?: Research how similar apps are categorized — users may already know to visit these categories to find this type of app.

If multiple categories accurately reflect the purpose of your app, you’re unlikely to run into any violation issues.

At this point, it’s more a question of which category matches the search and everyday use of your app – not only to maximize visibility but also to set the right expectations for users who install your app (think engagement and retention).

Keywords

While Google Play looks for keywords throughout your app listing (similar to how Google Search analyses web pages), the App Store provides a dedicated keywords field.

You can use up to 100 characters to add keywords (separated by commas – no spaces) to help users discover your app. Apple offers the following advice for choosing keywords:

“Choose keywords based on words you think your audience will use to find an app like yours.

Be specific when describing your app’s features and functionality to help the search algorithm surface your app in relevant searches.”

Apple also recommends considering “the trade-off” between ranking well for less common terms versus ranking lower for popular terms.

The most popular keywords may generate a lot of impressions and traffic, but they’re also the most competitive, which can impact CTRs and installs.

App Description

Your app description should provide a short, compelling – and informative – description of your app, highlighting its main purpose and benefits.

Similar to Google Play, you can use up to 4,000 characters in your app description, but users can only see the first two lines (and most of the third) without clicking to see more.

Apple suggests the following:

“Communicate in the tone of your brand, and use terminology your target audience will appreciate and understand. The first sentence of your description is the most important — this is what users can read without having to tap to read more.”

App Store Description ExampleScreenshot from App Store, February 2024App Store Description Example

If you want to update your app description, you’ll have to resubmit your app listing, so it’s important to try and get this right and only make considered changes.

You can also add up to 170 characters of promotional text to the top of your app description.

Crucially, you can change this text at any time without having to resubmit your app listing, making this a great place to share the latest news and info about your app – such as limited-time sales, the latest features, or fixes from the last update.

App Previews

App previews are the App Store equivalent of promo videos.

You can add up to 30 seconds of footage to illustrate the key benefits of your app and the experience of using it.

App Store App PreviewScreenshot from App Store, February 2024App Store App Preview

Again, Apple has strict guidelines and specifications for app previews – make sure you tick all the right boxes.

As with most things, if you’re listing your app in the App Store and Google Play, getting your app preview approved for the App Store first should mean you can use the same format for Google Play – as long as you include footage from the Android version of your app.

Screenshots

You can add up to 10 screenshots to your app listing for the App Store.

If you don’t have an app preview, the first one to three screenshots will show in search results, so make sure these highlight the core purpose of your app.

App Store ScreenshotScreenshot from App Store, February 2024App Store Screenshot

In your remaining screenshots, you can focus on the main features or benefits of using your app.

Try to stick to one feature or benefit per screenshot to communicate each purpose clearly.

App Ratings & Reviews

Once again, app ratings and reviews are important for maximizing visibility and installs in the App Store.

If anything, user reviews are more prominent in the App Store than Google Play, but we can’t say whether this has any meaningful impact on downloads.

App Store ReviewsScreenshot from App Store, February 2024App Store Reviews

The same general principles apply here: try to develop a regular stream of reviews and manage a positive app rating.

Again, you don’t need perfect scores, but you do need to respond to user reviews and address potential issues.

Prioritize negative reviews and respond as quickly as possible with responses that deal with issues – avoid generic, unhelpful responses.

Extra App Store Optimization Tips

App store optimization is an ongoing process that needs ongoing attention. Getting your listings approved for app stores is only the beginning.

Maximizing visibility and – more importantly – revenue from your mobile apps requires a complete product development strategy.

Here are some final, additional tips to help you drive long-term success from app store optimization:

  • Know your KPIs: Don’t get distracted by the wrong metrics and KPIs – know what you’re optimizing for and center every decision around your business goals.
  • Prioritize user experience: Visibility is one thing, but you’re not going to maximize it or take full advantage of it if people uninstall your app or rarely use it – so make sure quality product development and UX design are at the heart of your ASO strategy.
  • A/B test key app store elements: Test and optimize the most important elements on your app listings to increase visibility, CTRs, installs, and retention (descriptions, videos, screenshots, reviews, etc).
  • Master each app store’s analytics system: Google Play and the App Store both provide capable (albeit in different ways) analytics systems to help you improve visibility, revenue, and product quality – so make full use of them.
  • Promote your app with ads: Both Google and Apple provide dedicated ad systems for their respective app stores to get your app in front of more eyes.
  • Promote your apps outside of app stores: Use other marketing channels to promote your apps – social media, app directory websites, app review websites, affiliate marketers, tech publications, etc.
  • Localize your app listings: App stores can connect you with global audiences, but only if you optimize your listings for each target language and location (this is called localization) – with translated text, screenshots, videos, etc.

Conclusion

The mobile app industry still shows growth despite smartphone penetration being way past saturation.

Smartphones aren’t the only devices in people’s lives anymore, either.

Apple Vision Pro launched with over 600 compatible apps, opening another space for mobile experiences beyond the confines of traditional smartphones.

App store optimization (ASO) will become more complex as new devices and app stores emerge.

However, the rewards will also grow, and the companies already mastering ASO for today’s app stores will be first in line to benefit as emerging technologies bring new opportunities.

More Resources:


Featured Image: Billion Photos/Shutterstock

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