How to Improve your App Store Optimization Using Apple Search Ads

Rather than passively browse, most users are actively searching for an app that meets their needs. Here's how your tram can leverage this behavior using Apple Search Ads

On the App Store, user behavior is incredibly unique: About 70% of visitors use app store search to find apps and games. In other words, rather than passively browse, most users are actively searching for an app that meets their needs. Those searches then lead to downloads – over 65% of all app installs result from a search. How can your team leverage this behavior? Advertisements using Apple Search Ads. 

What are Apple Search Ads?

Apple Search Ads (ASA) are paid advertisements placed at the top of the search results page on the iOS App Store. Their primary function is to grow visibility and to directly drive downloads, as the ads themselves are highly targeted: User demographics can be fine-tuned, and the ads can be targeted for specific keywords (i.e. the user is already interested in downloading an app with similar form or function). 

Search Ads Examples

Apple Search Ads are incredibly successful. Conversion rates regularly surpass 50%, and the average revenue per user is 30% higher. That said, given the aforementioned customer behavior on the App Store, these paid advertisements jeopardize organic downloads that otherwise would have been free. Thus, Apple Search Ads should be used carefully and thoughtfully.   

In the realm of Apple Search Ads, there are a few key terms to know. 

Tap – A tap is when your customer actively clicks on the Search Ad.

Tap Through Rate (TTR) – Tap through rate is the number of times potential customers tap a Search Addivided by the ad’s total impressions.

Cost Per Tap (CPT) – Cost per tap is the cost of your advertisement divided by the total number of customer taps on an advertisement. 

Cost Per Install (CPI) – Cost per install is the cost of your advertisement divided by the total number of successful installs. 

How do Apple Search Ads Work?

Within Apple Search Ads, there are two distinct options: Basic and Advanced. The following table outlines some of the crucial differences.

Apple Search Ads - Basic vs. Advanced

Apple Search Ads Basic

Given the limited functionality and flexibility outlined above, Apple Search Ads Basic is best suited for advertisers without extensive marketing and optimization expertise. Apple Search Ads Basic is quick and easy to set up – after configuring your budget and defining your goals, Apple’s internal algorithms intelligently place ads. You will then be charged for each install.   

Apple Search Ads Advanced

Apple Search Ads Advanced offers customization and flexibility best suited for experienced professionals. With Apple Search Ads Advanced, advertisers select relevant keywords and search queries (more on identifying keywords from our team here), define creative assets (within Apple’s limited parameters), and specify demographics. 

Much like standard PPC campaigns, the Apple Search Ads Advanced keyword functionality offers varying search parameters: 

Search Match – Much like Apple Search Ads Basic, Search Match allows Apple to automatically place your Search Ad  (based on metadata, similar apps, etc.). Search Match is generally useful for reaching a broader audience and for discovering popular keywords.

Exact Match – Search Ads will appear for search queries that exactly match advertisers’ defined keywords.

Broad Match – Search Ads will appear for search queries that are similar to defined keywords (i.e. displayed for search queries that are misspelled or have singular/plural versions).

What do you measure?

Apple Search Ads display several important metrics key to understanding your customer funnel: Cost per acquisition (CPA), cost per tap (CPT), match source, conversion rates, impressions, taps, installs, new downloads, redownloads, and more. Although this data is undoubtedly valuable, it is wise to also work with a Mobile Measuring Partner (MMP) for more in-depth data to understand the ROAS of your Search Ads

Four Main Ways of Using Ads

There are four primary Apple Search Ad campaign use cases:

Brand protection – Bid for your brand name and important keywords so that competitors don’t monopolize your audience. 

Competitive bidding – This is the complement to brand protection. Bid on competitor names and keywords in order to capture a portion of their audience.  

Prospecting – Select keywords relevant to audiences that don’t yet have brand allegiance or intent to download a specific app. 

Discovery – Sample new keywords and search terms in order to discover which work best.

Combining Search Ads with ASO

The success of your Apple Search Ads is intricately linked with your ASO strategy and awareness – fundamentally, you must understand how to optimize keywords and conversion rates. 

Strategically choosing the Keywords to target

Make sure that your selected keywords are truly relevant to your app and its features. Relevancy assures that your advertisement is being shown to interested users and that you are building credibility and recognition for organic searches.

In addition to relevancy, consider search traffic volumes. Apple Search Ads provides a metric that shows the popularity of any given keyword from 0 to 100. The median popularity is about 27. Any keyword that scores less than 5 should be ignored, and keywords ranked above 90 are intensely competitive (and therefore expensive). Ultimately, leverage keyword research to determine the most relevant yet feasible keywords that gain quality traffic. 

Understand Search Ads organic cannibalization and incrementality

Also, be aware of the cannibalization challenge. Unlike many other digital platforms, users on the App Store enter with an intent to download rather than to simply discover. If your app is organically ranked in the top three for branded keywords, advertising means that you will likely pay for downloads you would have otherwise received organically. The flip side of this coin is that if you won’t place your Search Ad for these terms you risk having one of your competitors doing just that and “stealing” your installs

Improving Search Ads Conversion Rates

Apple Search Ads allow your app to be listed first on the search results page – but you still need to compel users to install. Use A/B testing to understand which phrases, graphics, videos, and other tools perform best with users.

Apple Search Ads includes flexibility (albeit limited) in the screenshots and app previews shown to your users – these are called Creative Sets. Creative Sets allow advertisers to establish (and test!) advertisement variations more relevant to specific keywords or audiences. Creatives Sets won’t show you engagement metrics with your listing which makes it harder to understand the full funnel. 

That being said, a portion of users will still explore the full App Store Page . In order to understand which creatives and messaging are most likely to encourage these users to install a/b test your app store page with a solution such as Storemaven. 

Understanding the true impact of Search Ads on brand awareness

Another important aspect of Search Ads, which is similar to other ad channels is understanding its impact on growth holistically. The power of an ad goes far beyond the simple direct responses (the number of installs that resulted through a tap on the ad). 

As we see on channels such as Facebook, Google, and others, ads also contribute a lot to your share-of-voice and brand awareness. As users spot your ad within their search results page, a significant portion of them will be then driven to explore your app or game at a later stage, even if they didn’t directly tap on the ad. 

This could materialize in the form of an increase in branded search volumes and installs. 

Viewing Search Ads in this way is more comparable to running a billboard campaign or a TV ad in its potential to drive brand awareness.

Other Tips to Optimize Apple Search Ads

Segment your Campaigns

By segmenting your campaigns, you will get more flexibility to incrementally adjust and optimize your Apple Search Ads strategy. Some examples include search match versus broad match, discovery versus utility, and branded versus unbranded. 

Pay for Keywords That Matter

Although it may seem obvious, offer higher bids for your most important keywords – especially if they’re popular. Ultimately, only one ad is shown for each search query. If that search query is demonstrably effective for your app, pay a premium. In today’s competitive landscape, if you won’t one of your competitors will. 

Understand LAT Tracking 

Note that Apple permits users to limit advertisement tracking, known as LAT, which prevents “interest-based targeting” in the iOS App Store and beyond. When LAT is enabled, users have no ID to advertisers – gender, age, location, and more are completely anonymized. Approximately 20% to 30% of users have enabled LAT.

It is best to first target users who do not have LAT enabled. Not only will you better understand true performance, but you can more easily meet performance goals and stay within budget. Only when you’ve maximized returns on LAT “off” customers should you begin working with LAT “on” customers – these users are often useful for broadening your market and boosting traffic.

Apple Search Ads automatically targets LAT “on” customers unless you have defined demographics parameters such as age or gender.

Reach engaged users at the exact moment they're searching for your app


Apple Search Ads Basic is a great (and intuitive) option for novice or time-crunched developers, while Apple Search Ads Advanced is a valuable tool for experienced advertisers. If your team chooses the advanced option, understand and leverage the myriad features at your disposal, such as keywords and demographics.  

Your Apple Search Ads strategy is more than just a UA effort, it must be baked into your ASO strategy, specifically your efforts to increase the visibility of your app. It’s crucial to involve both the ASO team when planning and strategizing Apple Search Ads. 

Ultimately, apps of all sizes can benefit immensely from advertisements on the App Store.

Jonathan Fishman
About Jonathan Fishman
Jonathan is Storemaven's Director of Marketing. Before joining Storemaven he spent ten years commanding tanks, working on Wall St., consulting high-growth companies, and exploring Black Rock City. In his spare time, he likes building things from wood, writing, and listening to Frank Zappa.