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A Practical Guide to Apple Search Ads: Part 1

Overview & Benefits


Although relatively new, Apple Search Ads (ASA) has become one of the most effective channels for iOS marketers. This should come as no surprise as 70% of App Store visitors use search to find apps and 65% of downloads occur directly after a search on the app store.1 In the first of this two-part series, we provide an overview of ASA and the benefits of this marketing channel. 

Apple Search Ads Overview: A Must-Have Mobile Growth Channel

Apple Search Ads (ASA) debuted in late 2016 and quickly took the mobile growth industry by storm, becoming one of the leading ad channels for iOS. The popularity of ASA should come as no surprise. After all, we’re talking about search engine marketing (SEM), arguably the most effective advertising channel, ever. One can underscore the value and impact of SEM in a word: Google. While Apple’s ad revenue market share will likely never approach Google, ASA’s traction cannot be ignored.

  • ASA revenues were expected (prior to COVID-19) to grow 4X, reaching $2 billion worldwide in 2020, up from $500 million in 2018.3 

  • As of the time of this writing, ASA was available in over 60 countries. 

  • Mobile measurement partner (MMP) Singular rated ASA as a “must-have ad partner” in its 2020 ROI index.4 

  • There’s also speculation that ASA will expand their footprint into other Apple properties.5


Sold on ASA? You should be.

Ads Appearing in App Store Search Results

ASAs are advertisements that appear when a user searches (enters a “search query”) in the iOS App Store. Ads are denoted by the small “Ad” icon and blue shading. They can appear on iPhone and iPad devices. When you click on the Ad, you’re taken to the standard app listing, which includes pictures or images and the metadata that the app developer has included in their App Store Connect account.


Apple Search Ads (ASA) & App Store Optimization (ASO): They’re Not the Same

People often conflate ASA with App Store Optimization (i.e., “ASO” or “Organic Search”). That’s understandable as both paid and organic search results are triggered by a search query. Furthermore, in the App Store, app listings in paid and organic search use the same content (with minor exceptions).

The difference between the two are the mechanisms which trigger the ad listing. 

  • For paid search, one pays for ads that are triggered by bids, budgets, and relevance. You choose in Apple’s system how much you want to pay; Apple determines your App’s relevance to the query, and your ad serves if it makes the cut in the ad auction.

  • Organic search results, however, are triggered by how relevant Apple deems the user’s search query is with your App.


We must call out a huge misnomer – that ASO is “free.” While you do not pay when someone clicks on an organic listing, optimizing ASO takes time. As you know, time is a resource that also costs money. Conversely, ASA can be spun up quickly, within 24 hours. You should never take an ASA vs. ASO approach. Both channels complement and inform each other.

While ROI calculations can vary, we encourage you to approach ASA and ASO with this formula in mind:

ROI = Value Per Install - Cost Per Install (Media Spend + Hours x Hourly Rate)

Here’s a hypothetical example of where ASA actually yields a higher ROI than ASO:

Assume you spend $700 on ASA ads per week. If you convert your salaried campaign manager’s compensation to hourly, he or she makes $50/hour. ASA should only require a couple hours per week. That’s $100 per week in campaign management labor. All-in your ASA weekly cost is $800 ($700 in spend + $100 in management cost).


For ASO, media spend is $0. However, it takes more time than ASA. Let’s say it’s 20 hours per week. That same salaried campaign manager’s cost is $1,000 (20 hours x $50/hour rate). Thus, the all-in ASO weekly cost is $1,000, $200 more than ASA.


Assuming installs counts and value per install are the same for both ASA and ASO, then ASA was the more efficient channel in this scenario. Acknowledged that this is an oversimplification, data is never this clean.

The point is good ASO is not “free” and you shouldn’t shun ASA by operating on this narrative.

Search Ads Basic vs. Search Ads Advanced

Apple provides advertisers two options: Apple Search Ads Basic & Apple Search Ads Advanced. There are implicit pros and cons to both options. Basic is easy to set up but is harder to scale and optimize. Advanced requires more work but allows for greater reach, customizations and optimizations.

With Basic, setup can take as little as five minutes. The advertiser selects the app, location, maximum cost per install (CPI), monthly budget (can’t exceed $10K/month) and status (active & paused). The dashboard provides an all-in-one view of performance and settings. There’s also a download option for slicing and dicing data in a spreadsheet. This ad format turns the reins over to Apple to do the heavy- lifting. Apple relies on how relevant your app listing’s content (metadata) is to the search query to help serve ads.

ASA Advanced more closely resembles traditional SEM features you’d see in Google ads or Bing ads. Advanced gives advertisers the flexibility of creating separate campaigns and ad groups (which allow advertisers to set and optimize budgets, targeting and keywords to meet specific advertiser goals). Options are virtually limitless. Unlike Basic which relies on App metadata, the primary trigger for ad serving is keywords. Keywords are words or phrases that the advertiser feels are the same or similar to a user’s search query.


We recommend using ASA Advanced. While it requires more work, the transparency you get into keywords and targeting makes it superior.  The scope of this article will focus on Advanced. 

In the table here, we highlight the pros and cons of both ad formats.

Benefits of Apple Search Ads

Search Intent Leads to Strong Downstream Performance 

In the mobile app ecosystem, search is the primary source of installs. In fact, 70% of App Store visitors use search to find apps and 65% of downloads occur directly after a search on the app store.6 Furthermore, install conversion rates are exceptional on ASA, often exceeding 50%.  

Enjoy Security & Stability of the iOS Ecosystem

Mobile app ad fraud is rampant with an expected $87 billion hit to marketers by 2022.7

With ASA, you’re dealing with Apple who is incredibly vigilant when it comes to user privacy and security. And unlike some ad networks where you’re dealing with multiple publishers (potentially increasing the likelihood of fraud and abuse), with Apple, you’re dealing with one publisher, and one with walled gardens, meaning the data stays within one ecosystem. 

Fuel Your ASO Engine 

ASA can inform which keywords make sense to leverage for ASO. Apple Search Ads provide rich data on bidded keywords and search terms that reflect actual user data and interactions with your app listing and app – from clicks, to installs, to post-install events like registrations, purchases and revenue. 

ASA also informs what content and keywords should go in your App Listing. You can review search queries and evaluate if what Apple is serving your ads for is relevant to your business. 

Lastly, Apple will give you favorable ASO rankings based on install volume coming from the app store – even if the installs came from ads.8


iOS Users Monetize the Best

When it comes to mobile app Operating Systems, iOS users consistently exhibit stronger purchasing power compared to Android users. According to App Analytics firm Sensor Tower, first half of 2020 Global App Store spend was nearly twice the estimated gross revenue of Google Play.9

Read part two: A Practical Guide to Apple Search Ads Part 2: Campaign Management & Optimization Best Practices

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