The enigma of the iTunes app search algorithm

Modified on by Andrew Cohen

itunes search spanish

What if your company had an app that was the 2nd BEST SELLING Spanish education app over the past half year?  What if it’s reviews were EXCEPTIONAL?  What if that app were called Learn Spanish and listed the word “Spanish” as its most important keyword when it submitted its latest version through iTunes Connect?  Where should it come back in search results when someone types “Spanish” in an App Store search box?

Answer: 70th place.

Yes, this is the lovely world of iTunes SEO that Brainscape deals with every day.  While we have luckily given our Spanish app a great boost by naming it Learn Spanish (which is one of the most important search phrases for someone looking to, well, learn Spanish), we are puzzled by the results of many other search-term combinations on the App Store.

Take our Learn Spanish* app as an example.  Sure, if you type “learn spanish” into the search box, Brainscape’s 5-star-rated Learn Spanish app does indeed pop up as the #1 search result, out of hundreds of matches.  But if you reverse the search terms and type “spanish learn”, the app is now the 29th search result!

OK, you say.  This is probably because the other 28 app titles must start with the word “Spanish” and therefore give higher prominence to the “spanish learn” search phrase beginning with that word, right?  Nope!  In fact, the 10th search result is a poorly-rated app called 123 Color: Talking Coloring Book with English & Spanish Voiceovers.  This app’s title is MUCH further from the search terms “spanish learn” than Brainscape’s app that is actually entitled Learn Spanish.

The results are even stranger when – as previously mentioned – you search for the word “spanish” by itself.  Many of the first 69 results for this term don’t even have the word “Spanish” in them at all!  And most of the other ones have significantly lower average ratings (and fewer sales) than Brainscape’s Learn Spanish app.  What is the method to Apple’s search madness?  After all, we are doing everything else necessary to optimize our App Store revenue.

Our hypothesis is that there is some degree of Apple’s employees’ aesthetic preferences incorporated into their search algorithm.  When Apple’s reviewers validate each app update for fitness for the App Store, they must be setting some database flag for whether the app is visually remarkable.  Admittedly, many of the apps that beat Brainscape in searches (other than those that are verbatim matches for the phrase “Learn Spanish”) are indeed somehow “unique” in their use of images, animations, or some other type of buzz-worthy functionality.  While this does not mean the apps are actually good for learning a language, the apps do make Apple’s App Store look exciting and dynamic, and therefore help support Apple’s visually focused marketing campaigns.

Lesson: If you want to show up higher in App Store search results, design some visually outstanding screens, even if they are not necessarily important to your app’s functionality or usability.  Steve Jobs’ insistence for beautiful design lives on in the App Store’s search algorithm.

Brainscape is a web & mobile education platform that helps you learn anything faster, using cognitive science. Join the millions of students, teachers, language learners, test-takers, and corporate trainees who are doubling their learning results. Visit or find us on the App Store .

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