The iTunes App Store search algorithm might just be the eighth wonder of the world. One which developers have been trying to understand since the store became flooded with apps. Compounding the app discoverability problem is iOS 6 and the way it displays search results one at a time. Users are finding it difficult to dig deep into search results and that means search ranking is more important than ever. Let’s dive into how iTunes search works so we can figure out how to get our apps higher up on the results list.


The algorithm matches search terms to keywords specified in the application name, keywords field, and company name. The application name allows for 255 characters while the keywords field only allows for 100 characters. The fact that Apple gives you more space for your app name means more and more developers are stuffing it with keywords.

Searching for “white noise” returns my app White Noise Lite as the first result. This is based on keywords in the application name and the overall popularity of my app. Searching for an exact match of your app name does not guarantee it will be displayed first.

Registering the best possible keywords is the most important thing you can do to help with app discovery. It is also important to register as many words as possible. If you don’t use all 100 characters in the keywords field then you aren’t maximizing your ability to be discovered.

I think it is poor design for Apple to limit keywords to 100 characters. It means you are penalized for registering big words. Even the comma you use to separate words in this field counts against you. I prefer Amazon’s approach to keywords – you can register 30 words and not have to worry about letter count. I really wish Apple would take this approach.

Given the limitation of Apple’s keyword field, you should choose your words very carefully. Take my White Noise Lite app which helps you sleep at night. Does it make sense to register “sleeping” or “nap,rest”? Both take up the same amount of letters but registering two keywords can help show up in more search results.

Keyword optimization

Keyword optimization is what you call this exercise and you really have to be creative. Here are some tips to follow:

  • Always add as many words as possible into the keywords field
  • Do not use spaces in the keywords field (ex: “tic, tac, toe, free, game” should be “tic,tac,toe,free,game”)
  • Duplicating words in the keywords field that are already in the app name doesn’t appear to improve ranking. (ex: “white,noise,lite” is not required since it’s in my app name)
  • Registering plural versions of the words is not always required (ex: “sleep” gives you “sleeps” for free)
  • Popular misspellings are given to you for free. (ex: “noise” registers “noises” which also registers the misspelling “moises”)
  • Abbreviations sometimes map to larger words (ex: “dr” also registers the word “doctor”)
  • Registering two short words as opposed to one long word can yield more traffic (ex: “rest,aid” versus “sleeping”)
  • Use Google’s Keyword Optimization tool for help on finding popular and related keywords

Always search for the keywords you are registering on iTunes and examine the results. If they include a lot of extremely popular apps you might want to try another word. (ex: “angry”, “birds”, “free” will be tough to rank in).

Bottom line

These tips will hopefully make your app more visible when it comes to searching which ultimately means more downloads. I’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to iTunes search engine results. I’ll be diving in deeper in a future article, and if you have some more tips please post them below or let me know @toddmoore on Twitter.

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