Friday, October 16, 2009

Keywords in the Apple App Store

In the last several months, my wife and I dove into iPhone development. Frustrated with the quality of apps for kids, we decided to take matters into our own hands and create the sort of app we wished was generally available. My wife has a PhD in educational technology, and I'm a multimedia developer, so we've been creating educational multimedia for almost a decade.

We worked long and hard on LetterWriter Oceans, a game to teach letter writing to kids. When we started development on it, there wasn't quite the glut of cheap letter-writing apps that there is now on the app store, but the steady rise of cheap apps in our target space didn't really bother us, because we were confident that we could grab a good niche because we were shooting for higher quality, better interaction, and a different tone - less "Saturday morning cartoon" and more "trip to the aquarium".

Unfortunately, the sales numbers have been only slightly better than abysmal, with only a few sales per day. We're aware that the days of the iPhone App gold rush are over, but this was even worse than we expected.

And here's the main reason: people just aren't finding our app.

I'm convinced that if our app was listed alongside the other apps of its ilk, we'd fare much better than we are, but we're struggling to get in even the first page on any search of the app store other than an explicit search for the name of our app.

The reason appears to be due to a new policy for App Store applications: keywords.

Recently, the App Store has started asking for keywords. Near as I can tell, new applications are required to add keywords, and only these keywords are used in searches. But legacy applications, added before the keyword mandate, are searched for based on the full text of their application description.

Thus, if you search the App Store for "letters", something that a letter writing application should come up very high on, you'll see things like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic books before you see our app. Why? Because they list the person who drew the letters for the comic in the application description.

Worse, you won't even find our app in the search results. We used the word "letter" as a keyword for our app, but we didn't use "letters". I had assumed that Apple's search engine would match simple plurals for nouns, but I was wrong. If you search for "letter" in the App Store, you will see our app in the first page. If you search for "letters", we don't exist.

Furthermore, Apple's search engine doesn't filter out what we'd all assume are "noise" words. Our other app, Tap Treats Halloween comes up on a search of "trick treat", but not if you search for "trick or treat", because I didn't include "or" as a keyword, thinking that Apple would either filter it out as a noise word, or at least display our app if two of the three words matched. Nope.

Oh, and you only get 100 characters worth of keywords, and that includes the comma delimiters.

As far as I can tell, there are no recommendations from Apple for crafting your keywords (if you know of any, please share!), so we're left to do it by trial and error. But even that is problematic because your keywords are set in stone and unchangeable until you upload a new version of your app. You can't even change the title of your app from, say, "LetterWriter Oceans" to "Letter Writer Oceans" without submitting a new binary.

The net effect of all this is that we have been practically absent from the App Store, even with very relevant searches. And that directly affects our sales, perhaps moreso than any other factor. I really enjoy making iPhone apps, and the iPhone development environment has rejuvenated my desire to create apps like no other environment has in recent memory. But this one piece has been a real letdown. Hopefully, Apple engineers are working on ways to make the keyword searching smarter (plural-aware, noiseword-aware), and this problem will go away. But in the mean time, my competitors are snaring sales that I can't even compete for.

And what's going to happen when we have thousands of developers submitting incessant fake updates so they can tweak their keywords? I can't see any outcome other than the approval process slowing to a crawl.

Update: Our new version of LetterWriter Oceans is up on the app store, so if you try the above-mentioned keyword search for "letters", it might start showing up, since this means our new list of keywords is live.


Anonymous said...

As a fellow iPhone developer I feel your pain. Blog posts like this are great for getting the issues out there to the public. However, Apple Engineering lives and dies by radar. Simply hoping that they are working on the issue is just that, hoping. Please file a bug report (radar) against iTunes Connect/AppStore for the search issues that you describe (and be sure to enumerate how crippling the current environment is). That way you can be assured that Apple is working on the search issues.

Hang in there. BTW, LetterWriter Oceans looks great!

CC said...

Thanks for the tip. I've actually spoken to our local Apple rep about the problem, but I should probably do this, too. It hadn't occurred to me since, well, it's technically not a bug but a policy, but maybe if enough people call it a bug, it will get "fixed."

Tom said...

I appreciate your post. I have been working on iTunes App Store SEO, too. I tested a number of searches for your product and did find it using 'writer letters' and 'letter writer' among other searches. I could not find it using other common terms such as 'write' and 'teach'.

I would suggest that you modify your keywords, yet again. I'm not sure what your current keyword list is, but here is what I found and recommend. Also, I'm including a link to the Apple guidelines on keywords.

Recommended Keywords (99 chars):
learn, teach, write, letters, abc, alphabet, handwriting, preschool, kindergarten, phonetics, ocean

Keywords in use:
letters, preschool, ocean, abc, alphabet, kindergarten

Keywords not in use:
teach, learn, write, handwriting, phonetics

CC said...

Thanks for the suggestions and the link! We'll definitely take a look at that.

Of course, this means we have to update "Letter Writer Oceans" again, and I'm loathe to do a fake update just to change keywords, since it just slows down the approval process for everyone. And I'm not aware of any bugs in the current version. I guess I need to add some new features or something...