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App Store SEO: The Impact of iTunes Web Preview

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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 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 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.

Some Surprises

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 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,, 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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54 Responses to “App Store SEO: The Impact of iTunes Web Preview”

  1. William Ponikvar

    Would like to find out, were can I go or talk to about my downloads. My computer crashed and I lost on my songs. Is there a way I tunes reconstruct downloads?

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  3. The change is all well and good for Apple and their SEO, but for the end user the experience still sucks. Before the page even loads completely, i-Tunes comes to the foreground (launching if necessary and leaving remote mode if active), completely obscuring the web preview page. All this without any user intervention or warning. This isn’t any better than the previous behaviour.

  4. Another very important aspect which you did not mention is the domain authority that has. Even though the previews are hosted on a subdomain it still passes a lot of that domain authority. Most app-developers don’t stand a chance against that advantage apple has.

  5. Just want to chime in and show what Google Custom Search is capable of –, we built this tool to search for apps on iTunes App Store and provide it for free as the add-on of our marketing service. I think iTunes App Store search field is kind of untapped and still relatively new field. We had to come up with our own solution cause it turned out that nobody else haven’t done it yet:-)

  6. I think there’s a mistake in the chart. I expect it to reflect ‘5, 1, 3, 71’, but it looks like you actually charted something like ‘5, 3, 1, 71.’

  7. Your discussion of “URL-safe” app names is somewhat harmful. Some app names aren’t in English and cannot be expressed in US-ASCII. A huge range of the BMP can be percent-encoded in an URL, which good browsers just display as the intended character. Characters like ®, ™, and parens can just be dropped with no harm.

    What you’re calling SEO-compliant name and URL structures are really Kaypro-compliant strings. We’ve gone beyond the stage where if you couldn’t have typed it on a Selectric it must be some weird thing nobody could possibly be expected to handle.

    • Joe – It’s harmful to not have your app name in the iTunes preview URL. Because you can only change the name when you submit a new version of the binary, it’s best to be conservative here.

      It’s hard to make exact recommendations because we don’t know the exact limitations of the URL generation algorithm. I did find that ® and â„¢ prevent the name from appearing in the URL and so mentioned those specifically.

  8. Gazoobee

    This is an example of the kind of great article the Apple Blog *should* be publishing. Kudos on having an informed, longer than two paragraph article for a change and written by someone who knows what they are talking about.

    To nitpick though, please don’t write an entire article using “SEO” without first explaining what it is. The standard form is to use the whole term the first time and then abbreviate from there afterwards.

    @ Eddie V. – stop spamming

    @ Anonobot – you are not describing the default behaviour of an iTunes preview link. iTunes itself is not supposed to load unless you click on the link on the preview page. Blame the site that sent you there, not Apple.

  9. This is a great analysis, Weldon – the relegation of developer pages to the 2nd page of results is a significant setback to any effort they have underway to control their brand, messaging and promotion.

    Giving developers control over their online brand and message is a core value of AppStoreHQ (we also run iPhoneDevSDK, the most-visited independent forum for iPhone developers). We’ve created search-optimized landing pages for every app and developer in the app store, and thousands of developers have claimed and edited their pages on our site.

    With this change by Apple, we’ve realized we need to turn up the volume on our developer support services and have a long list of enhancements on deck to further differentiate our app and developer pages from Apple’s web previews. We invite any published iPhone developer to get in touch and let us know what they’d like to see to compete against Apple for their own brand (!) in search results.

    Thanks again for shining a light on this – the independent developer is the heart of the mobile app ecosystem!

    • Thanks, Chris. Publishers should want their page in the first 10 results, if not the first 3. Having iTunes up there is good for getting customers to checkout, but I think a lot of devs want the chance to interact with customers and learn something from that interaction. The App Store is a black hole for analytics.

    • I’m very jealous that you didn’t know what SEO meant. It’s the bane of my existence. It’s an often misunderstood area of web development and full of snake-oil salesmen who only confuse my clients and make my life harder.

      Articles like this are great though – well researched, logical, and informative.

  10. Anonobot

    The change is all well and good for Apple and their SEO, but for the end user the experience still sucks. Before the page even loads completely, iTunes comes to the foreground (launching if necessary and leaving remote mode if active), completely obscuring the web preview page. All this without any user intervention or warning. This isn’t any better than the previous behaviour.

    I’d be much happier with it if the automatic behaviour was removed. In return they can make the “view in iTunes” button on those pages more prominent.