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The Definitive 3 Step Process For Selecting iOS Keywords

Are you wondering how to choose your iOS app keywords? This post will show you how to select them so your app gets discovered and downloaded.

When it comes to the App Store Optimization of your keywords, there are some misconceptions as to what is really important. So in this post, we want to give you a clear procedure to follow when you are doing your keyword research and how to properly weigh the different factors.

We will start from scratch, so anyone from an absolute beginner to an experienced developer can follow along and benefit immediately. Some of our customers have reported as much as a 300% increase in the number of downloads of their app after following this process.

1. Select Relevant Keywords

The most important thing to remember when selecting keywords is to choose keywords that are relevant to your app. This may seem obvious, but we still see apps with keywords that prioritize keyword traffic and low competition over relevance. A keyword that gets a ton of searches and has low competition is worthless if your app is not what a user is looking for.

For example, let's say that you are doing your keyword research and using our Keyword Research Module, you discover that the keyword bicycle has the following characteristics.

Keyword analysis

As keywords go, this is a pretty good keyword to target. There are people searching for this keyword because the traffic is 5.3, and the difficulty is fairly low. Both scores are out of 10, with 10 having the most traffic or being the hardest to rank for.

But let's say that you have a note taking app. Targeting the keyword bicycle will not help you, unless your app specifically does something like: helping cyclists journal their training. Even though the keyword gets a lot of traffic, the competition is low, and you might be able to rank well for it, when people find your app by searching for that keyword, they will probably have no interest in downloading it.

If you need more insight into which apps you are competing with and what people are looking for when searching for a keyword, we also provide a list of the top apps that are ranking for that particular keyword in our Keyword Research Module. Here is a list of the apps that are currently ranking for the keyword bicycle.

Keyword relevance matters

As you can see, the top 10 apps are either distance trackers, games or for bicycle repair. That is what people are looking for when they are searching for this keyword. Take some time to brainstorm keywords that apply to your app and create a list. List both individual words and phrases.

If you need some ideas, use the Keyword Spy and Keyword Suggestions Module to get more ideas. The Keyword Spy Module allows you to look at the keywords that any app on the App Store is using.

For example, here are the keywords that the popular game Clash of Clans, is using. If you have a game that is similar, this is a great way to get some inside information on what is working for them.

Spy on competitors

The Keyword Suggestions Module will give you recommendations based on your current keywords. Here is an example of part of the list of the suggested keyword results from Clash of Clans. Click on the iPhone or iPad Difficulty columns to sort by difficulty to rank, to get the top suggestions, based on the likelihood of ranking for that keyword.

Get suggestions for new keywords

Enter the keywords you uncover from these modules into the Keyword Research Module to get the traffic and ranking difficulty for each keyword. Keep track of your keyword ideas and their data in a spreadsheet. Start with columns for Keyword, Traffic, Difficulty (iPhone and/or iPad) and Traffic (iPhone and/or iPad).

You will need to be able to sort this data in the next steps, so using a spreadsheet makes this much easier. Remember to keep your spreadsheet even after you submit your keyword list, because you will continually need add to it, write notes and experiment with other keywords on the list.

2. Optimize Ranking

Now that you have a list of relevant keywords, how do you determine which ones are the highest quality terms?

Sort your list by Difficulty Score (from lowest to highest) for the device you are targeting. If you have a universal app, you can average the iPad and iPhone scores to get a composite score or target the device that is better suited to your app.

The keywords with the lowest Difficulty Score will be your best keywords to target, provided that they pass the relevance test above and have a Traffic Score higher than zero.

But this is only a guideline. Where you actually rank will also depend on your app and how many downloads you have, how well your keywords are optimized, etc. So you need to get an idea of what kind of Difficulty Score it will take for your app to get into the top 10 for a keyword. You can do this in a couple of different ways.

If you have not published your app yet, you can use the Keyword Research Module to look at the apps that are ranking highly for each keyword that you want to target. Compare the Difficulty Score for the keyword, relative to characteristics of the apps on that list, such as number/quality of ratings, age, internationalization of user base, etc. When you compare your app to these other apps, you will get a general idea of how well your app will rank.

Here is an example of the top 7 apps for the keyword "castle td":

Top Apps analysis

If you have an app that is already published, start tracking your keyword rankings. Take a look at the average Difficulty Score that gets you in the top 10 and select new keywords based on that score or lower.

For example, if you have 3 keywords that are ranking in the top 10, with Difficulty Scores of 2.5, 2.0 and 3.0, the average will be 2.5. When you select new keywords, only select ones that have a Difficulty Score of 2.5 or less.

As your app gets more downloads and more ratings, you can start to target higher Difficulty Score keywords, but start small and focus on ranking as high as possible for lower competition keywords.

As you get more experience tracking your keyword rankings you will get a feel for what Difficulty Score you can rank for. Your goal is to rank in the top 10 for all of your keywords. You will need to continually test your keywords and find replacements for the worst ranking ones.

3. Optimize Traffic

The next criteria you should look at is how much traffic your prospective keywords are getting. Traffic is secondary to difficulty because if your app ranks #518 for a keyword, it really doesn't matter how much traffic it is getting.

But if you do some testing and find that there are two keywords that are relevant and you rank similarly for, then prioritize them by their Traffic Score. You can use the Traffic Score as a secondary sort criteria on your spreadsheet, to make it easier.

Before we move on, there is one caveat to the priority list above. If a keyword is getting zero traffic, then you should automatically take it off the list, unless it is part of an important keyword phrase.

Ranking #1 for a term nobody is looking for doesn't make any sense.

Other Keyword Optimization Considerations

But wait, that's not all! After you have created a list based on these primary selection criteria, then there are some other things that you have to keep in mind.

Optimize Space

Remember that you only have 100 characters to work with in your keyword list, so use as little space as possible. One way that you can do this is by removing all the spaces between your words and replacing them with commas. This also goes for keyword phrases.

There is actually no difference between separating two keywords with a space or a comma. However, Apple recommends using commas and only using commas prevents mistakes like using a comma, then putting an unnecessary space after it.

Our Keyword Optimization Module will help you do this and identify other ways that you can optimize your keyword list. Just enter your keyword list into the input field and the module will show you exactly how you can improve. Using Clash of Clans as an example, here is what an unoptimized keyword list might look like:

Not optimal

There are several things about this keyword list that are not optimal, which are listed in the Suggestions area. The keywords that are not optimal will appear in red. The word alliance appears twice in the list and the name of the game is already included in the keyword list by default, so there is no need to explicitly declare it in your keywords. You can take out these extra words to free up space for more keywords.

The words that appear in orange might be OK, but you definitely want to double check them. In this example, clan is orange because it is the singular form of clans, which is already in the name of the game.

You generally do not want to include both the plural and singular forms of a word in your keyword list, unless they have similar competition and traffic. This is a special case where clans is automatically included, so the question is: do we include clan too? If we look at the traffic and difficulty numbers for both keywords, they have very similar ranking difficulty and significantly more traffic, so it should also be included in the keyword list and tested:

When to choose plural or singular

The other orange word machicolation is an example of a keyword that is a little long, and that is why it is in orange. You would most likely be able to find two shorter keywords that would give you better visibility. And as you can probably guess, if you do the research, it is also an undesirable keyword because nobody searches for it. But it is in orange based on the length only, you would have to do the difficulty and traffic research separately.

If you put your cursor over the colored keywords, you will see a help bubble that will tell you why the keyword is red or orange. For example, this is what happens when you put your cursor over the word alliance:

How to improve a keyword

If we use the Keyword Spy Module to get the list of keywords that Clash of Clans actually uses, and it put into the Optimize Keywords Module, this is the result that we get:


They have a little space to add 11 more characters. But overall, this is an excellent list. Try a free trial of Sensor Tower and use our Keyword Rankings Module to see the traffic and difficulty profiles of these keywords and how Clash of Clans ranks for these keywords, it is impressive.

Use those 100 characters to their full potential, every keyword counts.

Check Keyword Combinations

In doing your research on other apps using the Keyword Spy Module, you may see some keyword lists where one or two words seem totally worthless because they have little to no traffic. But they are on the list because they are part of a keyword phrase that the app publisher is trying to rank for.

For example, take a the keyword list for Clash of Clans game above. The keyword "of" might not seem like good keywords, but is part of the name of the app, which a person looking for the game will probably search for. We automatically include the name of your app in the keyword list because it is included in your search terms without having to explicitly declare it.

Another dimension of keyword selection that you want to take into consideration is your keyword combinations. Since you put a comma between every single individual word in your keyword list, there may be words that you can use in multiple combinations that are more effective than they would be on their own or in just one keyword phrase.

As an example, take a look at different combinations of the words "cannon", "castle", "td" and "giant", and compare the differences between the individual words and the keyword phrase combinations.

Keyword combinations

Improve Your Title

Remember that improving the title of your app also helps your search visibility, so be sure to put your keyword research to good use and add keywords to the title of your app. Also keep in mind that using the same keyword in your title and your keyword list does not earn you any bonus points, so use different keywords. If you need tips for naming your app, you can check out this post.

Test, Test, Test

As you have probably seen by now, choosing keywords is a balancing act. You want to use keywords that are relevant, but you also need to find the sweet spot between difficulty, traffic, length and keyword combinations.

The only way that you will know if your keywords are working is to continually monitor your keyword performance. Remove keywords that you are not ranking in the top 10 for, and replace them with keywords on your list that look good. Be willing to experiment and find out what works and what doesn't.


As you can see, the concepts behind effective keyword selection are simple, but actually getting ranked for relevant keywords requires time and effort. Remember to prioritize your keywords by relevance, ranking, then traffic.

It usually takes several iterations of research and testing before you can get to a point where you are happy with your keywords. But the work does not end there, you need to continually monitor your rankings and downloads to be sure that you are maintaining the highest App Store search profile possible.

After you have read this entire post and are ready to submit your new or updated keyword list, but are not too sure how to do it, check out this tutorial on how to submit your update. Once your submission is published, be sure to track your results for enough time for your results to stabilize. Then make changes accordingly.

Do you have any questions about selecting App Store Optimization Keywords? Leave your question in the comments below...

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Hugh Kimura

Written by: Hugh Kimura, Head of Content

Date: October 2013