When iTunes web preview pages first appeared for songs and albums the industry was abuzz with the possibility that iTunes could be migrating to the cloud. iTunes preview has so far had little impact on how we use purchased media content, but it has had a huge impact on how we find iTunes media content on the web, especially with iPhone apps. The iTunes web preview pages are an enormous draw for search engines and consistently rank high in the results when searching for the names of apps.
A Quick History of iTunes Web Preview
Previously, web links to iTunes content opened a redirect page (hosted on phobos.apple.com) that asked you to wait “One Moment Please” while the iTunes application was launched. This page only had a thumbnail of the cover and sparsely listed just the title and publisher.
iTunes web preview first appeared on November 13, 2009 with full pages including descriptive text (hosted on itunes.apple.com). Audio clip previews were added on January 7, 2010. These pages still launch the iTunes application, but also include the full description, select customer reviews, and links to related content. Preview pages for iPhone apps were published on February 4 and podcasts were added March 1. TV Show and Movies still have the old style pages that just launch the iTunes application.
In hindsight, the launch of iTunes 9 on September 9, 2009 with store pages rendered completely in WebKit using HTML was a sign of things to come.
iTunes Web Preview has SEO Mojo
These web preview pages have exposed text content to Google and other search engines that can now crawl and index these pages. To measure the impact this has had on search results, I did a short study on the Top 100 Paid Apps in the iTunes App Store. I chose to track the relative ranking in Google search results of the iTunes preview page and the app’s homepage when searching on the app name.
For this study, I only looked at the search results for the app name. While keywords would have been interesting to track, they are not publicly available. The keywords that publishers submit to Apple are hidden content in the iTunes App Store and are not included in the web preview page. I dropped special characters that appeared unlikely to actually be typed into a search (trademark and copyright symbols, for example).
In almost all results, iTunes appeared in the first 10 results on Google. In fact, the median result was #4. In some cases, the pages were only launched only a month ago, so that’s impressive. iTunes appeared above the app homepage for 68 of the Top 100 Apps.
In about 2/3 of the apps, the iTunes preview page ranked higher in search results. There is a marked difference between these two sets of apps.
For all 100 apps, the median rank of the developer’s homepage (as published in iTunes) in Google search results was #17. Developers should take note here because a rank of 17 means that your app’s homepage is pushed off to the much less visited second page of results.
For those cases where the homepage appeared before iTunes, the median search result rank was #1. The iTunes preview page median result was #5. When we look at the other set, where iTunes appeared above the homepage, the median iTunes result was #3 and the median homepage result was #71.
We can see here that homepages that rank well for searches on the app name have a pretty good chance of capturing customers who are looking for that app. However, if the homepage is not doing well for a search on the app name, it is far more likely that the customer will end up at the iTunes store, or perhaps a review site.
While I was not surprised to see the iTunes preview pages come in at the #1 result for App Store specific titles like “Space Miner: Space Ore Bust,” I did not expect to see the iTunes page fall near the top with some older brands that predate the App Store. “Frogger,” “Skee-Ball,” and “SpinArt” — single word titles — all show iTunes at #6. Tetris, Scrabble, Rock Band and Final Fantasy have the iTunes preview page holding a spot between #13 and #15. “Playboy” — another single word term that I would have thought to have lots of search results — shows the iTunes page for the app at #7.
Why Do iTunes Preview Pages Rank So High?
iTunes preview pages rank well in Google search results because they are very search engine friendly for app names. The URL, page title, meta description, meta keywords, and the H1 tag are all loaded with the app name. These pages also have lots of incoming links from every blog entry, review, and so on that uses the iTunes link. I suspect that the Playboy app comes in at #7 because of all the recent news and opinion articles that link to the app as an example of a big publisher that escaped the iTunes sexy app purge.
The old phobos.apple.com links are 301 redirected (permanently moved) to the new preview page which helps transfer all the links directed to the old page to the new preview page as well.
It is interesting to note that the iTunes preview page uses the “nofollow” attribute for links to the app’s homepage, so the PageRank of the preview page does not convey any benefit to the developer’s site .
The Upside to iTunes Preview Ranking High for App Names
The advantage to publishers in having the iTunes preview rank high in search results for an app name is clear. It gets customers who are searching for their app to the one place where they can download your app and pay money for the privilege to do so.
But there may be times when a publisher would want someone searching for their app to get to their own site first.
What is the Impact of Ranking Below the iTunes Preview Page?
There is no easy answer to questions about what this all means for App developers. However, let me point out one key advantage of ranking higher than the iTunes preview page — developers can influence what shoppers learn about their company and their app outside of the iTunes App Store.
Also if they come to the publisher’s site first and then go to iTunes, the publisher has a chance to see what brought them there. The iTunes Store does not provide any information about individual customers or even reporting on keyword searches that lead to apps.
David Barnard of App Cubby sees a positive side in the iTunes App Store climbing in the search results.
It’s a better user experience for potential customers to land on a preview page. I’m also happy to see Apple working the SEO angle on behalf of developers (something myself and many fellow developers have little experience in). It does concern me that developers do not have access to analytics on these preview pages (or anything in the App Store for that matter). With iTunes preview pages ranking so high in search results, I get an even smaller window into my potential customer base. But I do appreciate Apple’s efforts to help users discover and purchase apps and the long term impact that has on my pocketbook.
Use URL-safe Characters in App Titles
One finding from this quick study is that apps with a special character like the trademark or copyright symbol in the name, do not get the app name in the URL of the iTunes because the algorithm to generate the URL must not be able to deal with these characters. In these case, the URL contains the app id only. There are nine apps with this issue in the Top 100 Paid Apps list. Of those nine, the median ranking of the iTunes preview page is #8, well below the #3 ranking of sites that do have the name in the URL. Homepages for this set of apps dropped in the results significantly. The best homepage result of this set was #15 by “Need for Speed Undercover” but six of the nine homepages did not appear in the first 100 results from Google. In the case of “Brothers in Arms 2: Global Front” the iTunes link is in the #1 spot, but the specially created web site for the iPhone game, brothersinarmsiphone.com, does not even appear in Google search results.
I do not think that we can say that the non-safe characters in the title are the cause of the low ranking for these homepages, but perhaps the inattention to SEO practices in the App Store are linked to a lack of effort to optimize the homepage as well. Developers should pay more attention to SEO to make sure that customers looking for their app can find their site.
What Does It All Mean?
There are two issues that most developers should look for right away. The first is the non-safe characters issue mentioned above. The second is to look closely at the app description. Previously, the app description was not indexed for iTunes searches. Only the name and hidden keywords are used for searching inside iTunes. However, the description text is being indexed by Google now. It would benefit publishers to spend more attention on crafting the right message in the app description to reach those searching on the web.
Apple’s move to go with HTML content in the app store and the new preview pages for the App Store and other content have had a clear effect on where iTunes content appears in web searches. More web traffic is going to go straight to the iTunes Store as this trend continues but developers can take a few steps to make sure that customers find the info that they have prepared for shoppers on their own web sites.
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