Death by Search Ranking

For a decade iKana and iKanji touch (yeah it’s been that long!) have generally enjoyed really good search rankings on the App Store. For pretty much any combination of relevant search terms they would show up within the top 10-20 results. For all those years my apps have enjoyed 4-5 star overall ratings and seen regular updates.

Then something went wrong. I’m not entirely sure when exactly, as the effect has been gradual rather than overnight and I have to admit I’d not previously really kept a close eye on my rankings because they’d always been fine and for the past couple of years contract work has been my major focus. But over the last year or so it seems both apps have slid down (and down) the rankings until the point where they’ve become so buried I’ve started to regularly see days with low single digit, or even zero sales. When you’ve been selling apps for a decade and had previously been able to count on one hand the number of days you’ve had zero sales this sets alarm bells ringing very loudly.

It’s hard to overlook the major changes Apple made to the App Store with iOS 11 – search results are now extremely low density. You can barely see two results on a screen at once on a 4.7″ device, so if you’re say 40 or 60 places down your visibility is near zero. But that doesn’t explain my apps amazing fall down the rankings. In fact the most confusing thing is seeing apps which haven’t been updated in years – some of which look like first attempts at programming, with zero reviews, ranking tens of places above mine. What bizarre algorithm sees two apps with the same keyword, and ranks the one with no reviews that hasn’t been updated in 3 years above my 5 star one, updated a week ago? Clearly some other factors are weighting the results, probably ones completely outside my control – but it’s hard to imagine what or how this is helpful for your typical App Store customer or why Apple is doing it.

It seems the best way to to improve your app’s rankings is still to keyword load its name. Although this is tricky now you only have 30 characters to do it. Given this is a practice Apple themselves asks you not to do (although it remains unenforced), it’s ridiculous that the search algorithm still weighs the name above all else. An app with no reviews, not updated in years but called “Hiragana” will rank over my app if I just call it “iKana touch” and have “hiragana” as a keyword instead. In renaming iKana touch to “iKana – Hiragana and Katakana”, it now at least breaks the top 20 for a search of “Hiragana and Katakana”, but still falls behind less up-to-date apps with lower or no ratings.

It would all be that bit less terrible if it were possible to easily play with keywords, app title and so on to see what magic combination would claw you a few spaces up the results. But of course you can’t do that without annoying your users with an endless stream of largely identical ‘bug fixes and improvement’ type updates because Apple deems almost any change to your app listing post review as verboten.

I’m really starting to reach my wit’s end with this now. I’ve never felt especially unfairly treated by Apple, but having my business slowly destroyed by this infuriatingly crap, opaque search algorithm makes me very bitter.


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