— 26 Apr 2019

How to Start with Apple Search Ads: Use Cases, Account Settings

Liza Knotko

First presented in October 2016, Apple Search Ads offers mobile publishers a chance to hold the top spot in the App Store search results. Apple claims that the average conversion rate of this app advertising channel is about 50%.

At a glance, this ad network seems like a go-to solution for anyone with an iOS app to promote. Nevertheless, even after a couple of years on the market, Apple Search Ads is a strange beast for many. That’s why we decided to compile everything you need to know about the App Store ads prior to setting up your first campaign.

What is Apple Search Ads?

First things first, Apple Search Ads is an ad network with sponsored ads, which appear at the top of the search results page of the App Store for iPhones and iPads. The ad network is used by mobile publishers to improve their apps discoverability and increase the number of users.

There are 2 types of ad banners in Apple Search Ads:

  • the one showing your app creatives;
  • the one which contains text only.
the App store ads

Why use Apple Search Ads?

Let’s consider 7 main  reasons in favor of using this app advertising channel:

  1. Impressive Click Through Rate

The average Click Through Rate (CTR) for Apple Search Ads ad banners is 50%, which is unprecedented compared to other ad networks (e.g. average CTR in Adwords is 1.35% – 3.40% depending on category).

Why so high? The reason lies in high levels of the motivation behind search queries. In the App Store, 65% of overall downloads come from the search, with over 50% of users searching for a particular app name.

You can examine other important performance metrics of the App Store ads in our Apple Search Ads Benchmarks Report.

  1. Quality fraud-free traffic

Apple Search Ads operates on Apple’s proprietary traffic, thus cutting the amount of fraud inside the network to 0%. Median retention for users coming from the App Store ads is +33%, higher than the median for top 20 ad networks and inferior only to organic.

  1. Premium ad placement

Apple Search Ads banners are placed at the #1 position of the App Store search results page. If we couple the stats (65% of downloads coming from search) with the premium placement, we get the best performing ad placement for an iOS app publisher available on the market.

  1. Reaching a highly motivated audience

The placement of Apple Search Ads banners predicates the fact that they reach users in the late stages of the purchasing pipeline. A user who searches for a “cooking app” in the App Store is ready to install one, they need no further persuasion and your only job is to show them the relevant ad.

  1. Organic boost

When your Apple Search Ads are displayed for a particular keyword, your organic app listing will automatically be displayed at 8-10 position in the search results, even if you don’t rank for this particular keyword.

If your app already ranks for this keyword, it’ll be displayed at search position 8-10 or above. Note that this does not necessarily mean that you’ll get a great boost in conversions.

  1. Empowering your brand

With over 50% of search inquiries in the App Store being for a particular app brand, the competition intensifies. Big publishers know that if they don’t run ads on their brand name, their competitors will. Thus, brand defense strategy is what many publishers should implement.

“But what if I’m already #1 in search? Won’t I waste money on ads against my own app and cannibalize organic traffic?”

No. In such cases, Apple tends to show a text ad above your full organic listing which features creatives. Based on research, TTR of image banners for branded keywords is 4-5 times higher than of the text-only banners, meaning that users are more likely to tap on your organic listing.

Brand protection via Apple Search Ads
  1. Easy to start

There are no minimum fees required by Apple. Furthermore, there’s a number of pre-built tools to get up and running quickly (Apple Search Ads Basic, Search Match in the Advanced version and more).

Though you may start fast, optimizing and scaling your campaigns is where Apple Search Ads may get really tricky.

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How to Start with Apple Search Ads: Use Cases, Account Settings

Apple Search Ads: Advanced and Basic

Apple Search Ads allows publishers 2 ways of managing their ad campaigns: Basic and Advanced. Let’s review what these options offer.

Apple Search Ads Basic

  • How it works: No ability to manage keywords or targeting. Your ad banner will be automatically matched to relevant search queries and performance will be optimized automatically.
  • Payment: Pay for app downloads at a cost that you specify.
  • Management: Minimal management needed, no flexibility. You can adjust CPI based on ad performance.
  • Reporting: Simple dashboard with basic ad performance metrics.
  • Monthly budget: Max budget is $10.000 per app/month.
  • Number of apps: it’s possible to promote up to 50 apps.

Apple Search Ads Advanced

  • How it works: Manual flexible ad campaign management. You specify audiences, keywords, and max CPT bids based on your own target KPIs. Ad spend is controlled on the campaign level.
  • Payment: Pay when a user taps on your ad banner. The amount you pay won’t exceed your max specified CPT bid and will be equal to what your closest competitor in an auction bids plus 1 cent (second-price auction).
  • Management: Flexible, you can influence each of the available Apple Search Ads performance parameters to control ad campaigns.
  • Reporting: Detailed exportable reports for main metrics.
  • Monthly budget: Unlimited.
  • Number of apps: Unlimited.

Apple Search Ads Pricing Model

Apple Search Ads operates on a second-price auction basis, which means you pay what your closest competitor is willing to pay plus 1 cent USD, but no more than the maximum CPT bid you’ve specified.

Apple Search Ads second-price auction

You pay only when the user taps on your App Store ads banner. This is called Cost-per-Tap (CPT) pricing.

Prior to entering the auction, Apple checks your relevance score verifying if the ad banner and app page metadata are relevant to the keyword you’re running the ad for. The precise mechanics of estimating an ad relevance score are not disclosed by Apple.

A good rule of thumb here is being frank with yourself deciding whether or not your ad banner is really relevant to the keyword you’re trying to show it for.

If you figure that out, the right blend of relevance and keyword bid will help your app hit the ad spot. Here’s a summary:

App Store Ads second-price auction
Source: Apple

Apple Search Ads Use Cases

Now as we examined the basics, let’s look into Apple Search Ads use cases. There are 4 main ways to use the App Store ads:

  • Brand protection – bidding on your brand keywords to make sure your brand is safe from attacks by other app publishers.
  • Competitive bidding – the opposite of Brand protection. Bidding on your competitors’ branded keywords to lure a share of your competitors’ potential users.
  • Prospecting (via discovery-centric searches) – prospecting new users who did not yet make a choice towards a particular brand and are choosing among alternatives.
  • Discovery (researching new keywords for ASO and Search Ads) – using Apple Search Ads as a source of finding best-performing keywords to bid in your Apple Search Ads campaigns or include in product page metadata for better organic performance of your listing.

Apple Search Ads Keywords

There is a number of specific keyword features characteristic of Apple Search Ads. Above all, there are two types of search inquiries in the App Store based on the user’s motivation behind the search:

  1. Discovery-centric (“racing games”, “cooking app”, “match 3 game” etc.). The main goal of a discovery-centric search is to find new app(s), relevant to the broad search term.
  2. Utility-centric (“Amazon”, “Instagram”, “Gmail” etc.). As you see, a utility-centric search is aimed at finding a link to an app of a particular brand, in which a user is interested.

Apple also has a pre-built tool which lets an advertiser see the amount of traffic a particular search term gets. In Apple Search Ads, it’s called a keyword popularity index or indicator.

Ranged from 5 to 100, it shows the share of users who have entered a particular search query in a particular storefront.

The value isn’t absolute and depends on the overall amount of traffic in a particular storefront: 50% in the US and the UK storefronts will differ in absolute terms.

The bigger search popularity of a keyword, the more search traffic it gets. Such keywords are limited in number, hence competition for them is intense.

ASA average Search popularity
Source: Apptweak

Keywords with search popularity of less than 5 can be ignored, as they have little to contribute to the number of impressions. The top 10% of keywords with the highest popularity index are the most interesting traffic-wise. However, winning an auction for them is not the easiest task as the competition is severe.

Apple Search Ads Keyword Match Types

Broad match – the default match type for a keyword. It shows your ad for a search inquiry with a close form, such as, synonyms, rare misspellings, related search and phrases that include that term partially or fully.

Mind that sometimes Broad Match in Apple Search Ads is even a bit too broad.

Exact match – your ad will only be shown to a user when his search query exactly matches your keyword and for the most popular misspellings and plurals.

Apple Search Ads Keyword Match Types

Apple Search Ads also offers Search Match – default feature which democratizes keyword discovery and helps you get up and running with an ad campaign in a matter of minutes.

With Search Match on, your ad may be matched to search terms without you having to figure out all keyword possibilities and actively bid on them. It means that you need to do virtually no work on keyword discovery prior to launching a campaign – Apple will automatically match your ad banner to search queries, which it considers relevant to your app.

Which factors are taken into account while assessing the relevancy?

Per Apple, Search Match uses multiple resources to match your ad to relevant searches on the App Store, including the metadata from your listing, information about similar apps in the same genre, and other search data.

In addition to Search Match, Apple’s Keyword Suggestion tool is a great mechanism which recommends relevant keywords for the App Store ads based on keywords in your ad groups that already perform well.

Apple Search Ads Account Settings

Apple Search Ads account structure will be familiar to those who are experienced in working with Google Adwords, with several peculiarities.

Below is the outline of ad account levels in Apple Search Ads and settings available on each of them.

  1. Business account -> Billing, Time zone, Currency
  2. Campaign group -> Access rights (even though campaign groups may contain a few apps, it’s better to stick to the principle: 1 app per 1 campaign group)
  3. Campaign -> Storefront, Lifetime and Daily budget
  4. Ad Group -> Demographic (Age, Gender, User Type, Device, Location), Scheduling, Search match, CPA goal
  5. Keywords and Negative keywords -> Bids, Match type
  6. Creative Set -> Language

Data discrepancy in Apple Search Ads

Data discrepancy between  Apple Search Ads and your mobile app tracker (AppsFlyer, Adjust, Tune, etc.) may range from 20 to 70%, which means up to 70% of revenue from the channel can be hidden (i.e. attributed to the organic traffic or other marketing channels).

Why does it happen? Here are a few reasons:

  1. Re-downloads

Re-downloaders are users who download your app more than once. Depending on their settings, Mobile Measurement Partners (MMPs)  can recognize that this is a re-download by an existing user and attribute it to the media source this user initially came from. Some app categories, for example, dating, have over 60% of re-downloads.

  1. Limit Ad Tracking (LAT)

LAT helps Apple users prevent their devices from being tracked by media sources and MMPs. When LAT is turned “On”, the Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) associated with the device is substituted with zeroes. As a result,  no user data, including app installs, can be collected by MMPs, thus Apple Search Ads is not reflected in the statistics of your mobile tracker and you don’t get a full picture of attribution.

On average, LAT-based discrepancies make 15-20%.

  1. API glitch, open latencies, attribution settings.

This discrepancy causes usually amount to 5-10%. For a deeper dive into reasons of data mismatch check out this article.  

Apple Search Ads Pros and Cons

Although opportunities that Apple opens up for app developers seem stunning, there are several drawbacks you need to keep in mind before getting too deep. Let’s take a close look at both pros and cons of app advertising through the App Store.


  • It’s the ultimate way to advertise your iOS app.
  • Easy to set up.
  • Immediate influx of high-converting traffic.
  • Low user acquisition costs make Search Ads a cost-efficient brand awareness hack.
  • Suggested Bid Range and Bid Strength Indicator provide important insights for efficient bid management.
  • With its Relative Search Term Popularity Index, you can see how often people enter a particular keyword in the Search field.
  • With its Search Match option, you do not need to pick each keyword manually.
  • The best timing and occasion for making an app visible to possible users as you catch people at the point when they need it the most.
  • App developers can create great apps and promote them successfully without worrying that much about the overcrowded market.
  • The ability to use Brand searches (let’s do it straight, competitors’ names) for running ads.


  • The majority of App Store search is not about discovery or nuanced questions looking for answers, but rather a means to access something specific.
  • Apple Search Ads is not always easy to scale.
  • It’s not available universally worldwide (59 storefronts are available). However, we shouldn’t forget that this ad channel is relatively young and keeps developing. Thus further storefronts expansion is only a matter of time.
  • Apple is still improving on user experience.
  • There is no option to track ROI and ROAS – the key metrics user acquisition teams use to evaluate results.
  • Apple Search Ads offers very little control over the ad content via Creative Sets.
  • The ability to use Brand searches (let’s do it straight, your competitors can start stealing your organic users) for running ads.

Want to ensure your app with Apple Search Ads? Try out our free Starter Plan of SplitMetrics Acquire.

Ensure your app growth with Apple Search Ads
Optimize & automate your Apple Search Ads like a pro with our free Starter Plan of SplitMetrics Acquire. Get started for free. No credit card required.
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How to Start with Apple Search Ads: Use Cases, Account Settings

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Liza Knotko
Liza Knotko
Ex-Marketing Manager at SplitMetrics
5 years of experience in mobile marketing, responsible for helping app publishers, such as MSQRD, Prisma, ZeptoLab, Rovio and Wargaming, succeed in their conversion optimization strategies.
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