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Image of a person’s hands holding an iPhone above crossed legs, searching “music” in the App Store
Image of a person’s hands holding an iPhone above crossed legs, searching “music” in the App Store

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In this guide, we discuss Apple Search Ads, including best practices for structuring, managing, and optimizing your search results campaigns. Let’s dive in.

About Apple Search Ads

Apple Search Ads are ads on the App Store, which include four types of ad placements: search results ads, Search tab ads, Today tab ads, and product pages ads. In this guide, we’ll focus primarily on search results ads, where app advertisers can connect with relevant users searching for key terms.

For example, each time someone enters a search term like “hotel,” they’d see a relevant ad for an app that’s bidding on the keyword “hotel.” These ads run in any country where Apple Search Ads is available, and the pricing model runs on cost per tap (CPT).

What’s the hype?

Having launched in 2016, Apple Search Ads isn’t a new marketing channel, but many companies are weighing whether to increase marketing budgets in order to run campaigns on the App Store that might be more effective than other digital ads. Here are two key reasons why.

High intent means high quality

Players coming from Apple Search Ads are likely to stick around for the long term because they’re actively searching for the best app that matches their needs. In fact, each week, 650 million people go to the App Store with the intention of downloading apps, and almost 65% of downloads occur directly after a search on the App Store. This just goes to show the strong intent that people have on this channel compared to display channels.

Brand protection

The amount of apps available through the App Store can be overwhelming. Because it’s so competitive, many advertisers use Apple Search Ads to bid on their own company names as a way to protect their brand from other competitors luring away their potential audience.

Apple Search Ads pricing models

Apple Search Ads offers advertisers two plans to get started: Apple Search Ads Basic or Advanced. Apple Search Ads Basic runs on a CPI, or cost-per-install, pricing model, while Advanced runs on a CPT (similar to cost-per-click) pricing model and includes all four ad placements. How do you choose?

Apple Search Ads: Basic vs Advanced

Let’s start with Apple Search Ads Basic. In this campaign, the Apple Search Ads AI does the work for you, such as choosing your keywords and targeting your ad groups – so, it’s hands-off but potentially less scalable. Even though you have less work to do, you also have less control over your campaigns. Apple Search Ads Basic may pick keywords that drive installs but don’t hit other performance goals specific to what you’re looking for in your campaign. For example, even though these keywords may increase installs, you would have less control over downstream return on advertising spend (ROAS).

Same goes for targeting: The Apple Search Ads Basic algorithm automatically chooses the audiences for your campaign, and targets may vary from your CPI goals. The Basic plan shows Total Spend, Total Installs, Average CPI, and Max CPI. Are you an indie developer with limited time, expertise, and budget? Apple Search Ads Basic is recommended for any studio that’s just starting to test things out and wants to get a taste for how Apple Search Ads works. The maximum budget allowed within this model is $10,000 USD per app, per month.

Apple Search Ads Advanced, on the other hand, gives you full control over your campaigns. If you’re at a studio that’s looking to scale with clear goals in mind, then this is the option for you. From the get-go, you’re picking keywords, defining ad groups, and updating visuals. The Advanced plan also offers more granular reporting on the keyword and ad group level, and shows more performance metrics such as CPT, conversion rate (CR), impression share, total taps, and rank.

A short summary:

  • Apple Search Ads Basic
    • Apple Search Ads automatically optimizes your campaign, so there’s less manual control
    • You set the price for app downloads
    • CPI model
    • Access to basic performance metrics
  • Apple Search Ads Advanced
    • Includes ability to run Search tab ads
    • For search results ads, you specify ad groups, keywords for full control
    • CPT model – you only pay when a player taps on your ad
    • Access to detailed reports on performance metrics

Apple Search Ads search results campaign types

Generally, advertisers break down their search results campaigns into four different types:

  • Brand campaigns bid on keywords that are either your brand name or related to your brand
  • Generic campaigns bid on general keywords related to an app’s genre or topic
  • Competitor campaigns bid on your competitors’ names or the keywords that they are bidding on
  • Discovery campaigns bid on:
    • Search Match – ads that Apple Search Ads automatically matches with relevant search terms
    • Broad Match – keywords that you pick and Apple Search Ads bids on similar words that you’ve provided
Diagram depicting the four campaign group types for Apple Search Ads: Brand, Generic, Competitor, and Discovery

How to manage Apple Search Ads

There are many moving parts to an Apple Search Ads campaign, so we’ll go over targeting, bids, and keywords one by one.

Audience targeting

You can target your Apple Search Ads campaigns according to location, age, gender, user, and device type. The deep audience parameters enable you to tailor campaigns to your audience. However, take into account that targeting specific audiences will limit ads appearing to people who’ve turned off the Personalized Ads setting. In fact, during the first quarter of 2022, 78% of App Store iOS 15 search volume came from devices with Personalized Ads turned off.

For that reason, one option is to open targeting for all. If you wish to reach a specific audience, you can control the audience for a specific ad group. For example, if your app is popular with football players, you could limit your ad group audience setting to only reach people who are of college age and who’ve chosen to receive Personalized Ads. Better yet, if you know that students aged 18–22 is the demographic that you’re really trying to target, you can even set that as a specific ad group.


Choosing bids doesn’t have to be a narrowly defined process. You can select options according to what you’re willing to pay, industry benchmarks, or anything that you have a hunch might work best as a starting point. Only after running a campaign will you be able to see the bid range and understand if it performed well or not.

Once the results are in, the next step is deciding whether to increase or decrease it. If an ad isn’t getting a lot of impressions, that’s a time to increase the bid to get higher reach and performance. If it is getting a lot of impressions but the bid is low, you can try slowly decreasing the bid until it starts to negatively impact performance.


There are different types of keyword settings: exact match, broad match, and negative keywords.

Let’s start with exact match. Exact match is a keyword that is exactly what you type in the search bar. For example, if you type “off road driver,” your results are going to only be “off road driver.” Exact match will also match you to close variants like common misspellings and plurals. The benefit of exact match is that it protects your brand against your competitors who might also be bidding on your name.

Sample mockup of a user searching “off road driver” in the App Store on an iPhone

Next, there’s a broad match, which includes searches closely related to your keyword. If there are misspellings, words out of order, plurals, or phrases that are close to your keyword, a broad match has you covered.

Finally, negative keywords are terms excluded from your brand activity if your brand name sounds like an irrelevant term. You can also use them in discovery campaigns to exclude keywords you’ve found already, as well as any keywords you’re actively using in your exact and broad match campaigns.

Apple Search Ads analytics and reporting

Once you start running your campaigns, there are three options for analyzing performance data on the Apple Search Ads platform.

The first is through the campaigns dashboard. Here, you can see performance metrics across every campaign, as well as the daily budget and your campaign’s start and end dates. You’ll see data like spend, installs, average cost per acquisition, impressions, and conversion rate. You can also drill down into the ad group or keyword level through the ad groups dashboard or keywords tab.

The next option is the charts dashboard, where you can view different targeting metrics, such as countries, device, date, and ad group, and visualize the performance data through bar graphs, charts, and trend lines. This dashboard is a great way to compare metrics that are important to you. For example, how does the CR compare to the click-through rate (CTR) for a certain ad group?

Lastly, there are custom reports. With this feature, you can automatically schedule reports, organize report dimensions, and choose how deep you want the analytics to go within campaign groups. 

If you want to dive deeper into your Apple Search Ads analytics and reporting, and understand post-install performance like ROAS and cost per achievement (CPA), you can use a third-party platform like Luna from Unity that also connects to your mobile measurement partner (MMP).

How to optimize Apple Search Ads

After deciding on the structure of your Apple Search Ads campaigns, choosing the right bids, and organizing your keywords, you can get to optimizing. Here are six tips to scale your campaigns and boost ROAS.

1. Analyze CPA

We talked before about the process of choosing bids. It’s helpful to understand which KPIs you should analyze and optimize.

CPA* is a metric that shows the progress an acquired player made in your game: How much are you paying for someone to download your app from the Apple Search Ad and then, for example, get to level 2 or book their first taxi ride. By looking at CPA, you can tell how many quality players you have, since they’re actually engaging with the app. A low CPA shows you that players are both downloading your app and engaging with it. If your cost per achievement is high, you’d want to first decrease the bid.

2. Adjust bids accordingly

If you see some keywords underperforming, you’ll want to see what’s causing this. First, look at the bid and see if it was strong enough. On Apple Search Ads, you’ll see the average bid range and if your bid is stronger or up to par with your competitors – basically, the platform shows where you stand in the auction. But note that sometimes you don’t necessarily want all your bids to be strong. It really depends on the target of your campaign. For example, let’s say you’re targeting app installs and want your CPA* to be $20 USD. You’re not going to add a high bid because it’s going to increase the cost of your installs. You can always change and optimize your bid according to its performance.

3. Analyze CTR

Next, look at the clickthrough rate, or how many people are clicking on the ad. CTR shows whether your ads are appealing to potential players. This is important because your ad is the first interaction you have with them. You’re trying to find keywords that give you a higher CTR.

4. Pause or remove keywords

It’s helpful to ask these two questions when a keyword is underperforming and your CPI is high: Do you want to pause the keyword completely? Or do you want to just try lowering the bid?

You can try decreasing the bid around 20–25% and see if it improves. If it’s still not improving, pause the keyword while simultaneously increasing your bid on a high-potential keyword. Overall, you want to analyze your low-performing keywords and see whether to fix or remove them, while also analyzing your high-performing keywords and seeing if you can scale them.

5. Analyze impressions

Impressions show you how many people are searching your keyword. If you see that you have a lot of impressions, analyze whether those impressions are converting to downloads. You might want to adjust your bid to see if conversions will remain stable at a lower cost.

6. Constantly monitor keywords

A keyword’s performance is not always going to stay the same. Be sure to constantly look at your keyword activity and find the balance between your keywords’ spend, performance, and reach. For example, let’s say you increase the bid on a keyword and the next week instead of $66 spend, it’s $500 without conversions; increasing the bid may cause your performance to scale down. Essentially, even though it’s at a higher scale, it’s not performing as well as when it was on a lower scale. That said, incremental increases are going to act differently at different levels of scale, so defining marginal return on investment (ROI) is a good way to find balance.

Time to put these tips in action with Luna from Unity, an official Apple Search Ads partner. Learn how Luna’s smart bidding algorithm, bulk operations feature, and MMP support can help scale your Apple Search Ads campaigns.

*Note: In this context, CPA is referring to installs only or post-install metrics rather than CPA in the Apple Search Ads dashboard.

June 16, 2023 in Games | 17 min. read

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