Incipia blog

Apple App Store Category and Keyword Rank Change After Pausing Search Ads

Gabe Kwakyi | October 18, 2023

As the next step following our case study of how Apple's search ads affect app ASO, we decided to shut our ads off and see what happened. We turned the ads off on 10/14 at around 6:00pm EST and reported today, 10/18 at 12:16pm EST.

Category Rank, Hourly

Given that top charts are essentially manifestations of the download velocity rank-order of apps, it was not surprising that Goalie disappeared very quickly from the US productivity free top chart, starting from the exact hour we turned our ads off. It took 39 hours after turning off our ads to completely disappear (though we did see a couple blips after losing consistent rank).





Keywords Losing High Ranks







The keyword algorithm, however is a different story.

At first, we thought that only two keywords had lost massive rank: Goalie and task list. Our hunch was that, while Goalie made sense (most apps are sports games after all), it was odd to us that task list, which is a relevant term (determine relevancy not only by your own ideas, but also by looking at similar apps that return in top 10 positions) would fall so significantly, when other relevant terms had not.


Don't always trust ASO tool ranks fully for data that is crucial; always follow your research up with a live search. Searching "task list" in the app store showed Goalie in position #12, which called into question App Annie's data.

While we like the UI of App Annie's rank graphs, we've often found Mobile Action to be the best in terms of ranking accuracy. In fact, when we checked, Mobile Action had already updated its data to show Goalie's true rank for "task list" (plus some other keywords).

It's amazing $157 million in funding can't do for you, right?





We digress.

Deciding to pull an audible, we shifted to Mobile Action for the remainder of rank analysis. To do and to do list had been retaining rank nicely until the weekend ended, but suddenly they showed declines due to the high level of competition by incumbent to do apps.




Keywords Retaining High Ranks

Up until today, we had a few keywords that we considered rank retainers; but they began exhibiting bouncing ranks (see below).

Keywords Gaining Rank

Whenever you run a marketing effort to improve your rank (whether overall or keyword-targeted), you will see some keywords that start to make progress from far-away positions.

While some keywords have continued to gain rank after we turned our ads off, the progress they themselves make is pretty well irrelevant until they break into top 50 territory and moreover, top 20 or top 10. That said, they can be indicators at a more macro-level of which root keywords are the most ideal to target.







Keywords with a Bouncing Rank

Both frustratingly and intriguingly, sometimes your keyword rank will begin to exhibit a volatile trend, bouncing up and down in huge spikes.

When this happens, it's best to wait it out and see – do the trough and peak ranks show upward progress, does the average distance between the tough and peaks narrow or does the average rank trend down over time? If the first or a stable pattern occurs, it indicates that your app is deemed "relevant" or "relevant enough" by Apple's keyword relevance algorithm and by app store users' CTR/CVR/retention for your app vs the competition; and vice versa if you see worse performance. Sometimes you may be surprised by what may appear to be a relevant keyword showing declines or not nabbing a top spot, yet at the end of the day, you can't argue with the data and win. And always do a live search to see how your app stacks up.

It's possible that the keywords graphed above may start to bounce, and only time will tell.






From this study, we drew a few conclusions as to how to best use Apple search ads to compliment your ASO strategy:

  1. Use search ads as part of your category boost strategy when you release a new version or are doing a coordinated branding push.
    1. While CPTs for top terms have already begun inflating, there are still innumerable keywords given the nature of language that can and will offer lower CPTs , with more popping up by the day (just think: xerox, selfie, dab, stag weekend. Educate yourself); yet it's an open question of how strict Apple's relevance score will be on this type of keyword exploration behavior.
  2. Identify the keywords that you want to boost your organic rank for and funnel search ad dollars to those terms.
  3. This is yet another example (here's the first) now more than ever that making it into the top 10 is not enough, and the top 3 (or 4, now that there are ads), is the recipe for success from keyword-based optimization.
  4. Related to #2 and #3: integrate your search ads strategy into your general ASO strategy to buy the top rank for any keyword that you can't rank well organically for. Additionally, consider (and analyze) whether by capturing positions #1 and #2 with an ad and organic result for non-branded searches, you see an uptick in performance overall, vis-à-vis more top-of-the-fold real estate.
  5. Compare the rate at which keywords gain rank for the same number of dollars and pick not those that immediately shoot up, but those that rise more gradually over time. The concept here is that the latter keywords are more valuable than the former, given that, because you can't immediately break into the top ranks, there must be more inertia holding you back. That inertia is the value derived by the apps holding those top spots (i.e. they are driving more downloads themselves). This can be identified to some degree by search popularity (to do list has a popularity of 53 vs to do with 45), but as more ads are deployed, this technique will uncover the keywords that are not just popular, but produce a good ROI for apps, given competitors will be willing to pay more for them, driving CPT up. From that point it becomes a matter of how well you can convert those users vs your competition.

That's all for now, folks! Be sure to bookmark our blog, sign up to our email newsletter for new post updates and reach out if you're interested in working with us.

Incipia is a mobile app development and marketing agency that builds and markets apps for companies, with a specialty in high-quality code architecture and keyword-based marketing optimizations. For blog/video or speaking requests, business or press inquiries please contact us or send an inquiry to