Incipia blog

Here’s How to Fix Apple’s Search Ads Platform

Gabe Kwakyi | October 2, 2016

Feature Image Credit: Apple Search Ads promo page.

Don't forget to check out our other posts on Apple search ads for the latest best practices, tips and tricks, or bookmark our Apple search ads news updates page.

At Incipia, we're probably as excited (or more) than anyone about the advent of keyword-based ads in the App Store (vs the black-box that is Google Play's UAC), as evidenced by our constant flow of search ads posts.

Yet, from what we have gathered thus far, Search Ads are shaping up to fall short of our expectations (and others, per the last section) when they go live this Wednesday, October 5th.

This article details our analysis of what search ads got right, as well as how Apple could improve upon the platform. Please feel free to share this tweet here and add your own thoughts and we will add your comments (as appropriate) to the bottom of this article.

You can view Apple's documentation on search ads here and the search ads API here.

What Apple got Right

  1. Providing a data point on the popularity of searches, beyond auto fill!
  2. Showing the actual search terms that broad and search match type targets show ads for. Apple's documentation even references this as being a source of keyword discovery, which is absolutely true. Search term-level granularity in reporting is the single most valuable data that PPC-type campaigns provide.
  3. Negative keywords, at campaign and ad group level, and with broad and exact match. Well done on recognizing that negative keywords are a critically important component of a PPC-type ad campaign.
  4. Search match? Search match seems to be an extended form of broad match which could do wonders for advertisers; yet creating a relevant broad algorithm that doesn't anger users or advertisers, and taming it when ROI goes south has historically been a challenge for the current PPC players: Google and Microsoft.
  5. Search ads API – providing a way to plug external analysis and management tools into search ads is vital to capturing budget of larger advertisers, as well as creating a great opportunity for new 3rd party tools, as has happened with ASO tools.
  6. Day-one integration with MMPs for attributing search ad performance in existing reporting infrastructure, rather than forcing advertisers to use Apple's search ads reports.
  7. Reporting by targetable dimensions (e.g. age, location, gender, device) – as expected. If you can add a target, you should be able to report on it. Unfortunately, Google's UACs completely ignore this tenant by not even allowing advertisers to see a breakdown of performance of ad texts, videos or images.
  8. Low volume indicator flag – this is nice to have as it provides a way to get the most core need of an impression share data point by helping advertisers deduce which targets are either too small to bother with, or must be bid up to gain more visibility.
  9. Recommended keywords based on the app selected; though per the comments section below, some suggestions are competitor app names, which is cause for consternation.
  10. A bulk import option for keywords.

apple search ads reporting

Image Credit: Apple Search Ads documentation

How to Improve: Campaign setup

Search ads have opted for a simple setup (we've touted how it's so easy, you can set up a new campaign in 30 seconds), which is good for part of Apple's stated purpose for search ads: indie developers.

Yet, Apple could allow such simplicity while also satisfying the need of advertisers to customize their ad campaigns by providing more optional items, such as CPA bid or a "standard vs all features" campaign type as is offered by Adwords. Even indie developers will look for more ability to optimize their ads after their initial simple setup. "Set it and forget it" doesn't appeal to anyone; neither advertisers with bigger budgets (who have the resources to and investors who demand they generate a good ROAS) nor advertisers with smaller budgets (to whom every dollar counts and must be maximized).

These features would be greatly appreciated in the search ads platform:

  1. An option to customize how ads look and how they show, rather than having automated-only ads. Having to change an app listing just to change the way ads look is not only a big pain point, but prevents advertisers from doing effective A/B testing, which is another pain point of iOS vs Android and could be solved with search ads. Also, allow an option for video preview ads, which would drastically increase their prevalence and likely result in higher user satisfaction. Even starting by allowing advertisers to choose one or a combination of the options currently provided, with different bids for each type of ad display would be a nice start.
  2. Provide an ability to optimize bid/targeting for post-install conversions, not just installs, as Google UAC and Facebook have done.
  3. Phrase match types – not providing a phrase match type is a confusing omission; broad match modifier is a useful, half match type that would have been understandable to skip, but not phrase. While working at Microsoft Bing Ads, we would suggest advertisers use all 3 match types, as they all have a unique value. A phrase match type is valued because it provides the relevance of exact that broad lacks by requiring the keyword be contained entirely as a phrase in the search query, yet also provides more volume than exact match.
  4. Provide support for exclusions and bid adjustments, rather than simply inclusions. While you can, of course, create lots of campaigns/ad groups with different bids and targets, this is not efficient and will likely place more strain on Apple's system.
  5. Provide an automation/rules system for advertisers not using an API, so that they can manage their campaigns more efficiently.

apple search ads examples

Image Credit: Apple Search Ads campaign setup

How to Improve: Data Analytics

  1. Surfacing the actual number of searches per month for keywords in the search ads UI instead of the near useless search bar. Apple is already providing a search metric, so showing the monthly searches is a natural next step. (Providing organic keyword attribution data is also entirely possible within privacy compliance, per Apple’s documentation, and is one of the most sought-after, valuable data points currently sought after by app teams.)
  2. Data beyond installs, such as in-app purchases by type and amount or retention data.
  3. An impression share statistic, which would tell advertisers know how much oil is in each keyword's reserve and can make an informed decision on how deep to drill.
  4. Visibility into keyword quality score, with a breakdown by subcomponent, such as Adwords/Bing provide (e.g. expected CTR, ad relevance and landing page experience). Advertisers are used to this level of visibility and use it to improve the quality of their campaigns, which is in Apple's best interests as well.
  5. A method of capturing changes made to campaigns, by date and with details of who made the change, what entities were changed and what the changes were.
  6. Estimation data, such as suggested bid-to-show for keywords, both during setup and once live, or suggested budget tiers with potential change in expected ad impressions and taps.

app store search ads keyword search popularity

Image Credit: Apple Search Ads campaign setup

Consequences of Not Improving

All this aside – Apple has plenty of cash, a ravenous fanbase and any search ads are better than none, right? So what really does Apple have to lose by creating another sub-par advertising/app discovery ecosystem (remember iAd)? Here are three consequential outcomes:

  1. Facebook retains/grows its mobile ad revenues and continues monetizing on Apple's failure at iOS app discovery as it has done, allowing Facebook to grow larger and use these profits to fund other, more dangerous Apple-hunting products, such as VR, messaging and perhaps even... A Facebook operating system?? That's reminiscent of what happened in the Google vs Microsoft battle, which leads into consequence #2:
  2. Google/Alphabet continues its war of apps against Apple by helping companies better grow and monetize their apps, gains ground and wins. Don't forget Apple, that:
    1. Google:
      1. Has just as many total apps available.
      2. Is working on Android instant apps.
      3. Is growing the share of developers locked into its services via Firebase.
      4. Gives app marketers the ability to make instant updates and an entire A/B testing engine.
      5. Is making much bigger headway vs spotlight with in-app indexing technology
      6. Has the massively successful Adwords ad platform.
      7. Owns the global OS market.
    2. Google is very good at turning the tide against behemoths. Google began as a funny new search engine and ended up challenging Microsoft for everything, from a mail client, to an internet browser, to productivity software, to enterprise resources of all sorts, to an operating system, to... General domination of the tech sector. This time, Google (and Facebook) is Apple's corporate equal, not a startup.
  3. Apple misses a chance to offset declining profits from hardware sales with app store-based revenue, sees its stock decline and begins a protracted contraction.

Comments From the Industry:

This is our opinion, but we'd love to include yours as well. Write to or tweet to @incipiaco to add your comments on what you think about search ads, what Apple has done well and where Apple has room for improvements below.


apple search ads feedback

apple search ads feedback2

"I agree that the inability to optimize bids for downstream conversion is a hole that should be filled in a subsequent release."


PS – if Phil Schiller or anyone else from Apple happens to be reading this, please do your platform a favor and set up an external product advisory group. Feedback from customers is vital, especially if you're serious about taking on the titans of mobile advertising. PPC competitors Google and Microsoft both have various product advisory counsels for their PPC ad products, which have yielded excellent improvements in their products, happier customers and thus sustained ad revenues.


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


Don't forget to check out our other posts on Apple search ads for the latest best practices, tips and tricks, or bookmark our Apple search ads news updates page.


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