How To Optimize Your App for Search
Joe Donenfeld
Joe Donenfeld

How To Optimize Your App for Search

Joe Donenfeld, Senior Product Strategist
  1. How do I optimize my mobile app for search?
  2. What does SEO (search engine optimization) for apps even mean?
  3. How much will this actually affect my app?
  4. How do I communicate and group the different parts of app search to my team internally?

If you have asked yourself the questions above, here is a full guide of how Prolific uses the information and tools that Google and Apple make available to optimize our partner’s mobile apps for search.

Prolific’s App Search Optimization Checklist

Why Keep Reading?
If the checklist above makes sense to you, you’re already on your way! If not, we will go into more detail on how we view mobile app search on iOS and explain each step. If you need more information, always remember your best resource will be Apple’s App Search Programming Guide.

Why is this Important?
First, optimizing your iOS app for search is an easy way to attract users to your app and encourage launches once they have your app. Mobile app search is not going away. Apple and Google have made that clear with releases of Universal links, app indexing, and Android’s Instant App.

If that doesn’t convince you, you need to look no farther than the app store itself. As more apps become available, users are downloading more apps. 

The days of having all your apps on your home screen are coming to a close. As these trends continue (and they will), users will need new ways to search for apps and the content within them. There will come a time when optimizing your app for search is not such a short checklist. Get ahead of the game, show your users you’re thinking of them by making their life a little easier and making the awesome content in your app and the app itself searchable.

How are we defining mobile app search optimization?

We define search optimization as a set of strategic steps you take in order make it as easy as possible for users to find your app and the content in it.

We separate this into a few distinct parts:

  • Site-Side Optimization: These are a set of technologies and strategies that help your website communicate with your app so that you have one cohesive experience.
  • Deep links: These are a set of hooks you create in your app that allow mobile users to link directly into your app from mobile web, email, messages, and other apps on their mobile device.
  • On device search: We are using this as catch-all term for Apple and Google to index your app and for user to find new apps and content through Google Search and Spotlight.
  • App Store Optimization: These are a series of tactics to ensure users find and download your app in the app store.

Some Terms You May Want to Know Before you Keep Reading

  • Indexing: Is the ability to indicate and organize the content of your app that you want searchable by Apple and Google
  • Universal Links: A technology released by Apple for iOS 9 that allows users to link directly into apps or the app store without opening Safari.
  • Spotlight Search: Is Apple’s on device search engine that allows users to look for apps and the content within them on the device and on the web.

Site-Side Optimization

App to Site Association
App to site association is a JSON file (a common format to store data) that lives on your website’s server. In a basic form, it connects your website’s URLs with your mobile app deep links. This is also a key step to enable Universal Links and Google App Indexing. See this Apple page (under “Creating and Uploading the Association File”) or Google page for more details.

Note: if you would want users who have downloaded your app directed to mobile web for certain pages, do not include those pages in your site association file.

Smart Banner
Adding a Smart Banner is an easy way to promote your app on your mobile website. This makes sense from a business perspective because its user’s tend to convert more often and for higher value on mobile apps and it is a friendly user experience. Checkout Apple’s developer library for a deeper explanation and step by step instructions.

Update robot.txt File
Follow instructions on Apple’s developer library to amend the robot.txt file to ensure apple can crawl your site. Then use the App Search API Validation Tool to ensure Apple is indexing your site correctly.

Deep links

Universal links
This is a technology Apple released with iOS9. These are expansions on deep links, but provide a better user experience because they allow users to go directly to the app or app store without having to open Safari (traditional deep links open Safari first and then are redirected to the app or app store). They also enable stronger indexing and technologies like Branch Metrics (coming up later). See Apple’s developer library on how to setup Universal Links. Note, for devices not on iOS 9, you will need to create a custom URL scheme. See Apple’s instructions on how to setup a custom URL scheme.

Third-Party Deep Linking Tools
A series of companies have emerged with powerful solutions using deep linking technology. These tools utilize deep linking to personalize the user experience, enable our partners to do more user-friendly marketing, and increase web to app conversion. If this is something you’re interested in, you might want to checkout Branch Metrics, Yozio, and Appsflyer.

Indexing your app

This is an object that allows you to index and prioritize frequently accessed content on smart reminders and Siri suggestions (through Spotlight). The key difference from Core Spotlight is that content is only indexed when the user has engaged with it and thus is more topical to the user. These are also items you can make eligible for public indexing (meaning people without the app can find this content). See Apple’s documentation for more details.

Core Spotlight Framework
Core Spotlight Framework is a way for you to index your app content at any point and it works seamlessly with NSUserActivity (ex. on app download). The Core Spotlight Framework is a private on-device index (meaning this is only for the users who download the app). See Apple’s documentation for more details.

What Content Should I Index?
When using the NSUserActivity object and Core Spotlight Framework we recommend only content you believe to be relevant to users. However there is no simple answer for all apps. Indexing everything is a bad user experience and might affect their search results. The best rule of thumb is to ask yourself why is my user searching for this and does this content support enough use cases to warrant indexing.

Example from Apple:

  • Content that the user views (using NSUserActivity)
  • Frequently used navigation points and features (using NSUserActivity)
  • Content created or curated by the user, such as photos or a list of favorites (using Core Spotlight APIs)
  • New messages, content, or items that arrive on the device (using Core Spotlight APIs)
  • Content that lives in both your app and your website (using web markup)

Google App Indexing
Google lays out a set of simple steps to implement their SDK. This SDK is going to help surface your app and its content in Google searches. It will also help associate your website with your app in the eyes of Google, which if done correctly, will boost app installs by including an install card in search results.

When You Submit
When you submit your app, make sure to specify a support and marketing URL of your website. This makes it much easier for Apple to crawl your site. See the “Support URL” and “Marketing URL” section of Apple’s iTunes Connect Properties documentation for more info. 

App Store Optimization

Before you read any further, checkout part 1 and part 2 of “It’s Not You, It’s Your ASO.” In short, here are the items you should be thinking about in your store listing:

  • Keywords
  • Screenshots
  • Video
  • Description
  • Title

Closing Thoughts

We believe that completing these steps is going to lead to an incremental increase in installs and a better experience for your user. Overall, these are quick wins for your team that don’t require you to spend money acquiring users, but will also help create momentum once you’re ready to. As new apps continue to saturate the market, search technologies will become increasingly important. Similar to how search engine optimization on web has evolved, so will search on mobile apps. Many of these steps are still seen as proactive, but soon they will be a standard, as they already are at Prolific.