Is the new App Store paid suggested search ad placement worth it?

Amidst the commotion of the new iOS 14.5 privacy guidelines, we mustn't overlook two other important features: The Suggested search results tab and the new Apple ad placement. Here's why.

As the dust settles with the rollout of iOS 14.5’s enforcement of the new privacy guidelines, several other App Store features were rolled out that shouldn’t be overlooked. 

In this piece, I want to share Storemaven’s insights on two specific features: 

  • Suggested search results within the App Store search tab
  • A new Apple Search Ads placement within the Suggested Search results component 

The Storemaven App Store research team thrives on analyzing billions of App Store impressions and hundreds of millions of App Units to uncover the true impact of Industry changes. I’m happy to relay their findings on the new App Store features with you.

What is an app store suggested search?

With the release of iOS 13.1, the App Store added a new section to the search tab called Suggested Search which includes a list of apps and games that are “suggested” to you. According to Apple, this list should be personalized to each user based on previous behavior on the App Store as well as apps previously installed. 
As I’ll discuss later on, successfully personalizing suggested search before a user ever searches is very tough to accomplish, even if you’re Apple or Google.

Is the new App Store paid suggested search ad placement worth it? - 1

The Search Ads new feature was released with the rollout of iOS 14.5 on 26 April 2021. 

In a nutshell, this is a new placement for search ads that are located at the top of the Suggested Search section in the search tab. Given that according to Apple about 70% of app store users search before installing an app, this placement has the potential to bring in a huge volume of ad impressions. But hold your horses. The fact you can “purchase” visibility of millions of impressions a day doesn’t mean the quality of these impressions is high, or in other words, that these impressions will translate to a significant increase in App Units.

Is the new App Store paid suggested search ad placement worth it? - 2

How does the App Store decide which apps to feature in the suggested search?

Before we dig into the actionable insights we identified, how does Apple decide which apps or games will be featured in the Suggested Search section for each user?

While the Suggested Search section will be different for different users as it’s determined by their historical behavior on the App Store, it seems that not all apps have an equal chance of being featured organically in this section. 

By analyzing the commonalities of the different apps and games presented within this section, Storemaven’s research team found that these apps will almost always share one thing in common: very significant daily sales and app unit volume. 

This makes a lot of sense from a business perspective. The App Store team wants to both introduce the best apps and games for its users to create the best iPhone experience possible, at the same time maximizing App Store revenues. 

By surfacing apps that are already monetizing very well, the App Store will profit the most from these installs. 

So through our analysis, we showed that significant apps (in terms of sales and app unit volume) get an “unfair” share of Suggested Search appearances.

Three crucial insights on the connection between organic mobile installs and paid installs

What billions of data points taught us on paid and organic installs?




    A peculiar bug (or feature) in App Store Connect analytics

    So how do you identify if you’re getting significant organic impressions from the suggested results section? 

    Well, App Store Connect doesn’t make life easy for us unfortunately, as they don’t split the data between “normal” search impressions coming in from the search result page after a user searched for a term, and the Suggested Search impressions that occur before a user has performed a search.

    What actually happens under the hood is that App Store Connect associates the impressions in the Suggested Search section to search impressions, yet the resulting app units to browse app units

    Is the new App Store paid suggested search ad placement worth it? - 3
    In this graph you can see how suggested search appearances result in massive search impression “spikes” (blue bars) and also correlate with Browse app units (purple line).

    Under this methodology, what you’ll see in your App Store Connect data are spikes, sometimes occurring almost daily, in your search impressions. These spikes, that look almost like App Store featuring, will indicate that you’re being featured in the Suggested Results section. 

    The impact of Suggested Results app units could only be gleaned by looking at Browse App units, again with App Store Connect not separating App Units to Suggested Search or “normal” browse app units coming in from the Today tab, other featuring placements, or top charts.

    What’s the volume and quality of Suggested Search traffic? 

    According to our analysis, the volume of impressions suggested results generated at a given day are anywhere between 500,000 to 2,000,000 impressions in the US. 

    This increase in search impressions is massive compared to the normal baseline and at first glance, might lead you to think that this is a huge channel for install growth. 

    But on closer inspection, this increase in impressions doesn’t translate very well to App Units. In fact, when looking at organic performance as a whole (combining search and browse impressions and app units) we saw a very minimal impact on organic App Units. 

    It seems that the install conversion rate of Suggested Search impressions is extremely low (less than 0.1%). 

    Given that with iOS 14.5 you can run an ad on top of the Suggested Search section, it can be easily validated. From experiments our research team has run, we saw that the performance of this ad placement is also in line with the organic performance of Suggested Search with <1% install conversion rates. 

    So to recap:

    • The daily volume of impressions from the Suggested Search section can reach 500K-2M impressions per day in the US. 
    • The daily resulting App Units would hover around 0.1%-0.2% of these impressions.
    Is the new App Store paid suggested search ad placement worth it? - 4

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      Why is both paid and organic suggested search traffic quality so low?

      Our hypotheses are that:

      1. A user tapping on the search tab in the App Store already has a “task” in mind. They tapped on the search tab because they want to search for something. That could be a broad search (puzzle games) or a specific brand (Uber), but they are not reaching this tab with a “browsing” mindset. 
      1. The Suggested Search section is not heavily personalized because personalization is an extremely tough task to achieve. Imagine Google introducing ads on the main search page of google.com. What are the chances they’ll be able to guess your search intent before you search? And who opens google.com without already having something in mind they want to search for?

        Unless Apple or Google become clairvoyants and know what you want to search for before you search for it, or give them any input, these ads will very likely (like 99.9% likely) be unrelated to what the user is looking for. 

        To give you an example, I was just looking for a scanner app, and I saw an ad in Suggested Search for an RPG game, there was no chance I would’ve tapped on this ad on my way to find the scanner app needed. 

      2. In general, when someone wants to search for something, App Store Search included, they are in the midst of performing a task. Interrupting them with more information on their way to perform the task will only result (for most users) in them ignoring this forced information, or at best, only glancing at it as they go on performing the task in hand. This means that although the Suggested Search section is visible to any user opening up the search tab on the App Store, most users will dismiss it, similar to “banner blindness” a well documented UX phenomena that shows how users aren’t even registering the fact they viewed an ad banner in certain cases.

      Actionable Insights

      1. If you’re already being featured consistently in Suggested Search, paying for the search tab placement could result in cannibalization 

      When you start your Suggested Search research, first analyze your organic app store performance as a whole. Combine both Browse and Search data (impressions and App Units) and try to identify very significant spikes in search impressions. These should appear after Suggested Search was introduced on iOS 13.1 and rolled out fully in iOS 14.  

      If you identified these spikes, it’s very likely that you are getting featured in Suggested Search. 

      Depending on the cadence in which you appear in Suggested Search (for many significant apps and games you’ll see this happening almost every few days), it’s pretty likely that by running an ad on Suggested Search (choosing the search tab placement within Apple Search Ads when running a campaign) will result in cannibalization. Given that the cost of this placement is high (and the very low conversion rate) this will lead to “growth leaks” or in other words inefficient budget spend. 

      1. Suggested search traffic, paid or organic does not result in significant direct app unit growth 

      Given the observation we made, don’t expect that appearing on the organic suggested results will result in significant App Unit growth. We saw on average that even in cases where search impressions grew by x2-x5 due to Suggested Search, App Units grew only by 5%-10%. 

      It’s not bad, but it won’t change your growth trajectory to the tune it might seem to at first. 

      1. Suggested search, paid or organic, could result in a slight increase in branded search volume 

      Just because a marketing effort doesn’t result in direct response value, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. In fact, we believe only doing things you can directly attribute value to is short-sighted, as it prevents you from capturing significantly more value by doing things you can’t attribute success for directly. 

      Running an ad on Suggested Search is like running a billboard. You get millions of eyeballs on your app name, icon, and subtitle, even if they’re just glancing at it. 

      When thinking about this ad as an awareness campaign, it could result in an increase in branded search volume. From our research, appearing in Suggested Search results in a modest increase in branded search volume (4%-5%) in the weeks and months following that appearance. 

      Depending on your specific branded search profile, and your brand capital (and how many branded searches it generates) it might make sense to run these Suggested Search ads, but in most cases, there will be better channels to increase your brand awareness. 

      1. Until the App Store Connect team fixes the analytics bug/feature, in order to understand Suggested Search impact, analyze your organic performance as a whole over time

      We can’t determine whether it’s a bug or a feature that Suggested Search impressions are associated with search, and App Units are associated with browse. In our view, both impressions and App Units resulting from Suggested Search should be associated with Browse traffic. 

      Until Apple updates its App Store Connect logic to reflect that, in order to analyze the impact of Suggested Search on your growth you should analyze your organic performance as a whole. Remember – paid search (both regular Apple Search Ads placements as well as Suggested Search placements) are not separated from organic search data within App Store Connect. 

      In order to break down search to paid and organic, you have to deduct paid data (that you can source from your Apple Search Ads dashboard) from total search data in App Store Connect. 

      After creating a true and accurate view of organic search data that will include Suggested Search impressions, and combining it with Browse data that will include Suggested Search app units, you can gauge and analyze how Suggested Search is influencing your growth.

      Conclusion

      Given the chatter in the industry on the new ad placement and suggested search influence on growth, we decided to do what we always do and look at the data. 

      We found that contrary to the initial belief that Suggested Search will be a massive growth channel allowing marketers to “purchase” millions of high-quality impressions, we think it’s currently an ineffective way to boost growth when factoring in the nature of its placement, psychology of users searching the app store, and cost. 

      If you’re looking for a better way to monitor and analyze your mobile growth efforts, identify areas to double down on and what to avoid, check out polarbeam.io and request a demo today.

      Contributor: Ori Bandel, Storemaven’s Senior Growth Analyst

      Jonathan Fishman
      About Jonathan Fishman
      Jonathan is Storemaven's VP 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, listening to Frank Zappa, and spending time with his daughter.

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