ASO Competitive Research & Analysis: a Step-by-Step Guide

What is ASO competitive research?

ASO competitive research is the process of evaluation of apps with similar functionality or features and overlapping user acquisition channels. Its purpose is to identify opportunities for growth and areas for optimization.

In a way, ASO competitive research is like reverse engineering your competitors’ apps, disassembling them to see what elements might have contributed to their success.

ASO competitor analysis will be crucial for your app’s growth. With more than 30 thousand mobile apps published every month on the App Store it’s easy to see your app won’t function in a vacuum. In order to break through, your app will have to find its place among many other apps fighting for users’ limited attention with varying marketing strategies.

Whether you use the knowledge acquired during the ASO competitor analysis to emulate the top performers or find your own way to draw attention in a crowded category is up to you. But if you base your decisions and ASO strategy on data competitor analysis provides and not just intuition, you’re much more likely to succeed.

Main goals of ASO competitive analysis?

Our goals are pretty straightforward:

  1. Rank high: our goal is to find new keyword opportunities and improve positions for indexed ones. Analyzing our competitors’ visibility may show us attractive openings… or force us to fight harder for demanding “must haves”.
  2. Convert better: we want to find out why your competitors are succeeding and what contributes to results, so you can emulate what’s viable or do what they’re NOT doing if that makes sense. This means improving all visuals of our app store page.

We recommend to perform competitor analysis on two levels:

  • App category & relevant subcategories: you should examine top  apps in a category and subcategory relevant to your app as a whole. The goal is to find design trends and patterns as well as a framework for choosing competitors as benchmarks for direct comparison and optimization. Look at keywords during this step too: to find more direct and indirect competitors (and even more relevant keywords) as well as patterns in messaging.
  • Individual apps: after the aforementioned step is complete, we take our selected benchmarks to follow and emulate… or find our own way if it’s more viable. This means dissecting their product pages and trying to guess (or even better – test) what might work for us.

What is the scope of ASO competitor analysis?

To accomplish aforementioned goals on both levels, we’ll be conducting these tasks:

  1. Keyword analysis: this process is technically simple, but without proper tools may be time consuming and labor intensive. Besides checking what keywords are worth ranking for, it’s wise to look for patterns & trends in keyword usage in a particular category. In the next step we’ll take a closer look at how these keywords are put to work to create meaningful and engaging content on a product page.
  2. Creative assets evaluation: on a category / subcategory level – we’re looking for trends and patterns in design, style and communication (preferred colors for icons, background for screenshots, etc.). On an individual level – we’re dissecting every bit of information we can to find those that contributed to a selected benchmark’s success. 

Creative assets evaluation is in fact the most important part of our ASO competitor analysis. It has the largest scope and yields the most useful information. It can be incredibly fun, but at the same time frustratingly difficult.

Why? To answer this question at this point, we highly recommend you have to take a look at our “Lifestyle Apps: ASO and UA trends” report:

ASO Competitive Research & Analysis: a Step-by-Step Guide

What makes a picture great? What makes an icon work? Our “Lifestyle Apps: ASO and UA trends” benchmark report may be a useful read for publishers of all apps, as it contains an analysis of 200 top performing apps from the Lifestyle category and a multitude of visual examples of creative assets evaluation – with insights and recommendations by our SplitMetrics’ experts. Even if your app is from a different category, this report will give you an important insight into elements of design that matter and showcase interesting logic behind their creation.

It might also be a great idea to read our “ASO Benchmarks & Mobile Trends” report for 2022:

ASO Competitive Research & Analysis: a Step-by-Step Guide

What conversion rate should your app have? What product page elements matter most for potential users? Needs and search habits of users looking for financial apps or games are far apart. This is why any optimization efforts must take category benchmarks into consideration. Before you make your product page optimized, you have to understand what optimized truly means for apps that resemble yours the most. “ASO Benchmarks & Mobile Trends 2022” explains just that.

Also, as you might have already guessed, we’ll be looking at images (icons, screenshots) and so on and trying to deduce which ones of them led to a higher tap-through rate or a conversion rate – and why. As we mentioned, dissecting your competitors can be fun…but ultimately the end result of ASO competitive analysis are hypotheses (ideas to modify your app’s product page), not hard, accurate data.

A comparison between two variations of a quiz game developed by Etermax. Source: SplitMetrics Optimize A/B testing platform for mobile apps custom pages.
An image speaks a thousand words. Did the background color contribute to a higher conversion rate? Only tests can give a definitive answer. Check out SplitMetrics Optimize, a versatile testing platform that will allow you to verify all hypotheses that will be formulated during competitor analysis. In this example, Etermax chose SplitMetrics Optimize to run A/B testing experiments and validate concepts before launching the game and understand how to market an app.

Apple App Store, Google Play, other app stores

One final note before we get down to business. This article focuses on the app store optimization process for the Apple App Store. A competitor analysis for Google Play would be very similar, but should be conducted separately for all app stores.

ASO competitive research step by step

We know our goals and scope, so let’s get down to business.

Identify your direct competitors

What apps are REALLY your competitors? The answer to that isn’t as simple as it seems. Watch out, because there’s some pitfalls here to avoid:

  • You will likely share generic keywords with apps from outside your subcategory or even category and that’s okay. A food delivery app and a dietary monitor can target the same keywords related to food or dishes, but with an entirely different intent. You can exclude them from your analysis.
  • Apps that are powerhouses may not always be viable benchmarks too. For example, you may notice that they rely heavily on their brands to acquire traffic and convert it. It makes sense, because more than 50% of all search queries conducted are brand related. This approach may be visible in other areas, as after reaching a certain stage of development and growth certain apps may continue to capitalize their brand and may neglect (or willingly abandon) some actions that would be meaningful for you. This is why it’s important to pick multiple apps as benchmarks and mostly those that are more or less on the same level as yours.
  • Finally, there exists a subset of apps that are a component of real-life appliances and devices or extensions of services available besides the App Store. This list may include apps of banks, apps for configuration of Smart TVs, smartwatches, speakers, smart homes and so on. The decision to use this app doesn’t technically take place on the App Store, but elsewhere. These apps may and frequently do rely purely on brand driven traffic to build their audience. Even though some of these apps may share keywords with you and indirectly may compete with your app – spending time on dissecting them during a more granular and individual analysis may not yield any meaningful conclusions.

Again, this is why it’s so important to…

Learn more about your apps category & subcategory

Even detailed information about your competitors will be meaningless without any reference. Proper benchmarks are crucial, because they will help you evaluate your own efforts. We recommend two essential reads at this point:

One will provide you with insights crucial for picking the right benchmarks later. The first one will help you take meaningful action right after our next step which is to…

Find the keywords your competitors rank & don’t rank for

Keyword research is probably the most time consuming element of establishing our presence on the App Store. It’s a foundation of our Apple Search Ads campaigns, product page copy as well as its metadata. It’s so important, that it’s covered in two lessons in our advanced Apple Search Ads Course (lessons 4 & 5):

ASO Competitive Research & Analysis: a Step-by-Step Guide

Learn all you need to know about keyword research in the complete SplitMetrics Acquire Apple Search Ads Course

To cut to the point: first, we’ll use the keyword planner available in our Apple Search Ads optimization platform SplitMetrics Acquire to create a list of all the keywords that our competitors rank for:

A screenshot from SplitMetrics Acquire keyword research tools, showcasing key parameters and competitors
Source: SplitMetrics Acquire Keyword planner.

The process is simple and automated. After selecting a number of key competitors and compiling a list of new keywords, we can examine each one of them individually, add more competitors, more keywords… and so on. There’s a wide range of tools for this task available, like App Radar, AppTweak or AppFollow to name just a few. Use the one you like most, because ultimately they’ll all lead you to….

The result: you should now have a comprehensive list of keywords and relevant  competitors that should give you an idea of how communication is shaped in your competitive environment and what keywords to rank for.

Next steps are technically simple. The best case scenario is that you find popular, relevant keywords that you have a chance of ranking high. Naturally, this is easier said than done. At this stage we can offer you this advice: there’s no point in wasting your precious keywords space on your product page (or your title, subtitle) for poor keywords. Aim high… and introduce changes when you don’t succeed. Implement, test, optimize. Rinse and repeat.

Most searches on the App Store are brand-centric, reflecting the intent of users to find specific apps through the Search function. For the purpose of the ASO competitive analysis, you need to take a closer look at unbranded, keywords, in order to be seen by users looking for specific features or functionality.

Given that the task of optimizing keywords on your app’s product page is a big subject on it’s own, perhaps in this article it would be best to direct you to a more comprehensive guide on product page keyword optimization, as ultimately competitor research is an integral part of it:

Pick your benchmarks…

Now it’s time to look for benchmarks: most successful apps relevant for us, that can help us take an in-depth look at our own product page and optimize.

We should have a competitor list and clear understanding on who to pick up for this stage of analysis. Choose top 10 apps that might be worth looking into on a deeper level.

Compare the number of total downloads and their growth

The number of downloads (or the number of instances a user taps that “GET” button to be exact) is the ultimate measure of success on the App Store. Top results in Search capture the majority of taps, just like top 10 positions in any list.

So, if someone is in the top 10 most downloaded apps in a category or in organic results – they’re doing something right.

It’s not enough to look at just the numbers though. Most downloaded apps may be well their prime time in their lifecycle and they may be losing ground to newcomers. Besides the physical number of downloads – dynamics and growth are also important factors.

Even a quick glance at our aforementioned “Benchmarks” report shows that KPI that reflect the overall condition of a given category can change dramatically even in a relatively short period of time.

Reviews

Reviews are important, and lower scores can have a tremendous impact on the conversion rate of an app’s product page. Jumping from average 3-stars to 4-start can result in 89% conversion uplift. Don’t hesitate to follow the vox populi and focus your qualitative analysis on apps with high ratings.

Although technically, from the viewpoint of your ASO efforts downloads are more important (after all, it’s the visibility and conversion rate that are our goal), bad reviews and low scores should be red flags. Relevance score is important. Negative reviews may signal that the app somehow fails expectations set by its creative assets, copy and campaigns and taking it as a reference point for our efforts may result in misdirected findings.

At the same time, don’t become frustrated when you notice your competitors have ratings and reviews higher than your app. This can be helped, but it will need time. You can start now by replying to all of them, especially negative ones. Fortunately, there are tools like Asodesk to help you do that.

At this point, we should have about 10 competitors to dissect. Those relevant to you, popular, growing and with good reviews.

Look at the metadata: app titles, short and long descriptions

Title and short description contribute to organic visibility on the App Store and have a significant impact on the app’s tap-through rate and product page conversion rate. Long description matters too… at least till the “read more” part ;).

Okay, so what are we looking for now?. After spending some time with SplitMetrics Acquire’s keyword planner described above, you should have the keyword field optimized. This means that your app’s meta keywords – those are visible only in the source of a product page (or any ASO tool you might be using, like AppTweak) – should be selected. 

This time, we’re looking at our direct competitors individually, because they may be an indicator of a given app’s reliance on their brand to drive traffic. You might want to reconsider brand-reliant and non-optimized competitors as benchmarks.

What else? Look at how keywords are used to describe key features. Try to get an idea of what the focus is. Look at how keywords are put to work in delivering something meaningful.

Evaluate the creatives: icons, videos, screenshots

ASO Competitive Research & Analysis: a Step-by-Step Guide
Icons variations for housing & rentals subcategory. Source: Apple App Store, selected for the “Lifestyle Apps: ASO and UA trends 2022-2023.

App Store product page visuals are crucial for its conversion rate. Changes to them can result in significant conversion uplift, but what works best is heavily dependent on an app’s category and subcategory. A user looking for a game may focus on entirely different aspects of an image than the one searching for a finance app. This is why we evaluate ourselves and our benchmarks in reference to them.

Evaluating a competitor’s creative assets may seem trivial but it’s far from it. You’re looking at hundreds of little elements simultaneously and it’s difficult to pinpoint elements that may have contributed significantly to the product pages high conversion rate. Take this example:

ASO Competitive Research & Analysis: a Step-by-Step Guide
Source: “A/B testing done right: an 8-Step Framework to Successfully Validate Mobile App and Game Ideas”, SplitMetrics App Growth Week, by Nadia Nazarova, Head of Product at SplitMetrics and Hagar Seri Head of ASO & Mobile CRO at Moburst. Shown during App Growth Week. You can access the recording of the event on this website.

Characters and people facing right – looking at the app’s title or graphics. Believe it or not, this change had a noticeable effect on the Tap-through Rate of this app.

This is why looking at a category & subcategories as a whole is so important. You can ask yourself how a given app stands out from the crowd. What design elements are consistently present. Also, general knowledge and familiarity with such elements help you draw attention to things that might actually work.

The result of this step? You should arrive with a multitude of ideas that you can implement on your app’s product page.

What should be your next steps? Again, you can try to make an educated guess or take a more data oriented approach and plan a series of tests (with our tool SplitMetrics Optimize) to be sure what works and what doesn’t. Ultimately, this may save you a lot of work and money in the long run.

App store optimization: keep up the good work!

It’s possible that truly conclusive data will be yielded only in the process of A/B testing. Your competitive keyword research may require some restructuring as well.

Formulating a good ASO strategy and the process of app store optimization is challenging. It is something that directly reflects publishers’ response to frequently not entirely understood user expectations. An icon, screenshots, video, description may not seem like much, but the number of elements on them can can and will work may surprise even the most seasoned ASO specialists. This is why to keep your finger on the pulse of benchmarks and case studies and carefully plan any changes (again, this is something that’s much easier done with an A/B testing tool, which ultimately forces you to maintain an order of doing things).

To wrap things up, we encourage you to read our reports that give practical insight into app categories and subcategories:

Hopefully, these will give all mobile marketers enough valuable insights and insider knowledge to make informed decisions in formulating their ASO strategy and marketing strategy on all app stores.

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