The Psychology Behind Better App Store Rankings

The Psychology Behind Better App Store Rankings

I’m sure you’ve read a few articles on App Store Optimization (ASO) that recommend, more or less, the same tactics:

“Maximize your keywords”.

“Write a compelling description”.

“Include screenshots and videos”.

While these tips are important and effective, I wanted to look at app store optimization differently by using psychology— the study of behavior and mental processes, like perception, emotion, cognition, and motivation. In other words, this blog post will teach you how to boost an app’s rankings and download velocity by getting into the brains of consumers.


Getting Your App To Stand Out

The very first thing I wanted to understand is exactly how and why we decide to choose some apps above others.

I started with this question: should I choose an app that’s an all-in-one solution or an app that specializes in one thing?

Think about it this way: If you were shopping for a product to help you remove a stain from your brand-new shirt, would you opt for an “all-in-one” detergent with stain fighters, color protection, and fabric softener, or a specialized product that is a concentrated stain-fighter?

Alexander Chernev published research on “Product Differentiation and Compensatory Reasoning in Consumer Choice”–in other words, do consumers prefer specialized options or all-in-one options?

He found that “a product specializing on a single attribute is perceived to be superior on that attribute relative to an all-in-one option, even when this attribute is exactly the same for both options.”

However, all-in-one options can still stand out by “introducing another attribute on which the all-in-one option is inferior to the specialized option”.

ASO Tactic: Create a Specialized/Niche App

Create a specialized app that is focused and targeted, like Google Maps or a calendar app. For instance, a large publisher like ESPN has a mobile app version of its main website but also has niche apps for ESPN radio, live video, fantasy sports, etc.

ASO-Specialized and Niche Mobile Apps

However, if you’re going for the “all-in-one” option, make sure you have a unique feature that offers an added benefit over a specialized option. Take the Waze app as an example. It’s a navigation app, just like Google Maps, but what sets it apart is its real-time updates of law enforcement activity, speed cameras, traffic accidents, speed limits, and more.

App Store Optimization Example: Waze App
Photo Credit: Greenbot

Mobile App Pricing: The Difference Between $5 and $4.99

Let’s move on to another huge factor in selecting a mobile app: pricing.

Let’s say you had a choice between two apps with the exact same claims, however, app A costs $2.00 and App B is $1.99. Which one would you choose?

According to “psychological pricing” (yep, that’s a real thing!), you’ll probably choose App B. Why?

Psychological pricing in a marketing strategy based on the theory that we can make prices more attractive to consumers by eliciting an emotional reaction.

There are dozens upon dozens of pricing tactics that use psychological pricing (we’ll write about that another day), but here’s one you’ve probably seen (and fallen for) before.

Charm Pricing (also referred to as the Odd Pricing Strategy) involves changing your pricing by adding a “9” or “99” at the end. For instance, a $10 item will now be priced at $9.99. Charm pricing works because of what economist Tim Harford calls the left-digit effect, which theorizes that consumers will generally focus on the left-most digit in the price. In other words, your brain will associate $9.99 with $9, and since $9 is less than $10, you’ll likely choose the $9.99 option.

ASO Tactic: Offer Limited Time Offers For Premium Apps or Features

Conveniently, the Apple App Store and Google Play Store are already optimized for charm pricing with their pricing tier model. However, an effective pricing-focused ASO is to offer users a limited-time discount on your premium app or feature within your app, share a promo code for your paid app or an in-app product, or participate in an affiliate marketing program for wider distribution. This tactic will entice potential users to download your app and to boost your app store rankings is to

Discounts on Mobile Apps
Photo Credit: Hashslush

Leveraging Social Proof

Why are we more likely to download an app with 5 stars than an app with 3.5 stars? Those 5 little stars are what we call “social proof”.

Psychologist Robert Cialdini is credited for “The Social Proof Theory” (also called the Informational Social Influence Theory), which says that “a person who does not know what the proper behavior for a certain situation is, will look to other people to imitate what they are doing and to provide guidance for his actions,” according to Psychology Notes HQ. In other words, in times of uncertainty, we are more likely conform our actions based on what other people think is the best or correct action.

In fact, a 2015 Consumer Reports study found that nearly 70 percent of online consumers rely on product reviews before making a purchase. Social proof is, in fact, so powerful, that 54 percent of respondents say they would try a product recommended by someone they know even if it had negative online reviews.

ASO Tactic: Leverage Social Proof On Your App Store Page and Website

It goes without saying that social proof is incredibly helpful in boosting your app store rating and download velocity, but social proof goes beyond 5-star reviews. Here are a few other ways to leverage social proof in the app store:

  • Expert Social Proof: Get a credible, reliable expert in your industry to give his or her seal of approval on your app. For instance, you can get a magazine editor to write a guest blog post about how great your e-Commerce app is, get a press quote from a cybersecurity expert about your security app, or include the name of a recognizable company that uses your SaaS app.
  • Certifications as Social Proof: In the same vein as expert social proof, you can use certifications or awards from third-party organizations to verify the reliability and trustworthiness of your mobile app. For instance, MyFitnessPal, a health and fitness app, includes its #1 rating from Consumer Reports in the app description.
  • Influencer Social Proof: Thanks to social media, influencer marketing is one of the most effective ways to tap into a younger, tech-savvy audience. In fact, a study by Collective Bias found that 70 percent of millennial consumers are influenced by the recommendations by non-celebrity bloggers. You can leverage a positive testimonial or quote from an influencer on your website or in your app’s description.
  • Numbers as Social Proof: Another great form of social proof is sharing information about how many people use your app, have downloaded your app, or have left positive reviews. As an example, a mobile app with 52,500 users can say that their app is “trusted by more than 50,000 users worldwide”.

MyFitnessPal - Social Proof in Apple App Store


Simplifying Mobile App Descriptions

You could read a dense, 3,000-word article, or like what BuzzFeed has made notorious, read a listicle that clearly and concisely summarizes important information.

As it turns out, there is a bit of a science behind why we love lists and bullet points. As The New Yorker puts it best, there are we love listicles because they’re intriguing: “the headline catches our eye in a stream of content; it positions its subject within a preëxisting category and classification system, like “talented animals”; it spatially organizes the information; and it promises a story that’s finite, whose length has been quantified upfront.”

Moreover, our brains process information spatially, meaning we’re more likely to remember things neatly organized on a number or bullet-pointed list than in hard-to-read paragraphs. Our brains also love to categorize things to make them easier to understand and recall, as neuroscientist Walter Kintsch discovered in the late ‘60s.

ASO Tactic: Create A Searchable, Easy-to-Read App Description 

You should note that only the first three lines of your description will be visible before the “Read More” button appears, so make sure those first 100 characters are captivating, descriptive, and include your target keyword (and don’t forget to apply these SEO strategies to your app’s description as well). Then, use a numbered or ordered list to highlight specific features and/or benefits of using your app.

Description of an app in Apple App Store


Looking for more app store optimization tips and tactics? Read “App Store Launch Plan: How to Launch a New Mobile App”.