What Are the Different Traffic Sources of Google Play & iOS?

Suleika Vanmaele by
ASO Expert

8 min read

While both Apple and Google continuously try to optimize their reporting mechanisms to make it easier for users to discover new apps, it is not always easy for publishers to understand how people find their apps. Sometimes, it is unclear how the data is attributed on the App Store, Play Store, and in your own business intelligence. So the question here is – when you analyze your traffic more deeply, how do you identify the difference between all traffic sources and what is included in each of them?

In this blog, we have gathered all the information about the traffic sources of Google Play and iOS. This will help you design a robust traffic acquisition strategy and make better data-driven decisions for your app in the future.


What is traffic attribution on the App Store & Google Play?

Traffic attribution on the app stores is determining where your traffic (users, visitors, leads etc.) comes from. More specifically, it is the answer to questions like – how do people end up on your app product page or store listing? Or, where did they come from? You can find these answers in the acquisition reports on the App Store and Google Play.

Both the app stores derive their traffic from 3 general sources:

  • Search traffic: This channel is users who find your app in the search results using keywords. You can divide this traffic per keyword that they have used.
  • Non-search traffic: These are users who discover your app while going through non-search sections on the stores. They eventually tap on your app from one of those highlighted places and arrive on your app page.
  • External traffic: Users who come from outside the app stores. These sources could be social media ads, other app ads, blogs, a specific URL, etc.

There are a lot of grey areas in this attribution system. Also, both stores have different ways of attributing data to specific sources. For example, Google Play used to attribute various ads to search, non-search traffic, or external traffic. So, all of the organic traffic was mixed with paid traffic. Luckily, both stores try to actively improve their attribution systems. The most recent one is the clearer division of paid and organic traffic on Google Play.

In store traffic Apple Google
In store ads App Store search
or App Store browse
Third-party referrer
Organic search App Store search Google Play search
Organic browse App Store browse Google Play traffic

Google Play traffic sources

The Play Store breaks down traffic sources into three categories – Search, Explore, and Referral. Let’s dive a little deeper into this.

  • Google Play Search: The number of people who visited your app product page after performing a search on Google Play and then installed your app.

Note: Before November 2022, “Search” also included all traffic that came from ads displayed in the store search results. Google stated that these paid traffic sources are no longer included in the store listing acquisition reports. This is a massive improvement as it made search and paid traffic clearer.

Changes in traffic attribution on the Play Store
Changes in traffic attribution on the Play Store. Source: AppTweak.
  • Google Play Explore: Google defines Explore traffic as “unique users who found your app or game on Google Play but not from search results”. This includes downloads from:
    • Users scrolling through the Apps or Games tabs
    • Users browsing the category top charts
    • Users downloading an app from the Similar Apps Cards on an app page or in the app store search results.

Note: Google ads are displayed in the search results and sections including “Related to this app,” “Suggested for you,” and the “For you” tab. Before November 2022, this caused a huge mix-up between paid traffic and the actual traffic coming from Explore. Since November 10, Google ads traffic is no longer included as Explore Traffic.

  • Third-party referrals: These are users who have visited your store listing coming from “non-organic traffic,” and then have eventually installed your app. This traffic comes mostly from outside the Play Store or from ads placed on Google Play. It is worth mentioning that it could include some organic traffic from outside the store, for example, SEO traffic.

Before the Play Store reporting update from November, the grey area in the traffic sources was the allocation of store paid traffic. As of now, Search traffic and Explore traffic have been updated and no longer include paid traffic. All the paid traffic is now incorporated into third-party referrals. So, do not be surprised when you see a drop in Search and Explore traffic after this date in the acquisition report as in the following graphs.

Paid traffic incorporation into third party referrals on Google Play
Drop in Search and Explore traffic on Google Play.
Differences in user flow on the App Store and Google Play
Differences in user flow on the App Store and Google Play. Source: storemaven.com

App Store traffic sources

The App Store’s traffic sources look similar in name, but can turn out to be quite different from that of Google Play. The App Store divides the traffic sources in the following ways:

  • App Store Search: Includes all the traffic generated by people looking for an app in the store using the search bar. Keep in mind that people can download an app directly from the search results, without actually visiting the product page. Ads are also displayed in the search results, which means that App Store search traffic also includes the paid traffic coming from Apple search ad campaigns. 
  • App Store Browse: This includes all of the traffic from people looking at the Today, Games, or Apps section, and eventually ending up downloading your app from your product page. This could also be considered as organic browse, but it is also attributed to traffic coming via an in-app event or via Apple Ads that display in the Today tab, Search tab, and app product page.
Different ad placements on the App Store
Different ad placements on the App Store. Source: searchads.apple.com
  • App Referrer: Traffic that tapped on a link in another app and ended up on the App Store product page of your app. It includes all of the traffic that loads your product page with StoreKit API. Also, traffic from links displayed on websites within a non-Safari web browser is included in this traffic.
  • Web Referrer: In contrast, if the link on a website in the Safari web browser leads to the product page of an app, then we talk about traffic from Web Referrer. This also includes web search via Safari.

There are also some secondary traffic sources that are not as top of mind as the previous ones – app clip, institutional purchases, and unavailable traffic.

  • App clips are a lightweight version of your app that is displayed outside the app store and are used as a quick way to access your app. People who want to have the actual app can click on a link in the app clip and end up on your product page to download the app. In the console, this traffic is categorized under “App Clip.”
  • Downloads generated from Apple business manager or Apple school manager is gathered underneath institutional purchases.
  • Lastly, all of the users that downloaded your app before Apple started tracking the different traffic sources in Apple Analytics are filed underneath unavailable. Apple started this attribution system on April 15, 2017.
Traffic attribution on the App Store
Traffic attribution on the App Store. Source: AppTweak

It can be a bit confusing how the two stores attribute traffic sources, particularly regarding external traffic particularly, that is all of the traffic coming outside of the store. That is why, we’ve created the following table that displays the differences between the stores.

External traffic Apple Google
Web search Web referrer Third-party referrals
Web ads App referrer Third-party referrals
Web referrer
(another website)
Web referrer (Safari)
or
App referrer (other browser)
Third-party referrals
App referrer
(another app)
App referrer Third-party referrals
Installs without app page visit App clip traffic,
institutional purchases,
or unavailable
Not tracked

On the Play Store, all the external traffic is categorized under third-party referrals, except for direct installs. These installs don’t need an app page visit and happen with just one tap. These installs are unfortunately not tracked.


Conclusion

Keep in mind that the way both stores attribute the traffic sources in Search, Referral, and Browse/Explore is not as clear as the names suggest. The attribution system in your business or in other mobile attribution platforms that you may use could be different than those from the systems from the stores. So, make sure you have a clear view of the differences between the traffic sources when analyzing your acquisition reports. Based on clear data, you can make better and more effective strategic decisions to help your app perform better. As a result, you can measure the actual growth.

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Suleika Vanmaele
by , ASO Expert
In my free time I love to discover new restaurants and bars with friends. I also like to stay active by doing weight training.