COVID-19 ushered in significant changes around the types of apps that consumers downloaded in 2020, supercharging categories such as Business and Education. Sensor Tower's latest report on App Store download sources, available now, reveals that the pandemic appears to have also affected how users found new apps to install. While search as an app discovery method was previously trending downward on Apple's platform, it accounted for 59 percent of App Store worldwide downloads last year.
Sensor Tower's analysis looked at four sources of app downloads on Apple's platform: browse, search, app referral, and web referral.
Search has remained the largest source of downloads from 2018 to 2020. However, it lost ground in 2019 thanks mainly to the increase in installs from app referrals, falling 2 points Y/Y to 56 percent. 2020 saw a reversal in this decline, potentially due to the number of App Store users searching for apps from word-of-mouth. As COVID-19 led to the shutdown of in-person spaces such as offices, classrooms, and gyms, many consumers turned to their mobile devices to find digital replacements, leading to record installs video conferencing apps and a surge in adoption for apps in the Health & Fitness category. Our research also found consumers were primarily searching for specific apps and brand names during this time, versus generic terms.
App referrals remained the second largest source of downloads in 2020, with its share declining from 22 percent in 2019 to 20 percent. The third most installs came from browsing the store, which accounted for 12 percent, down 1 point from the previous year.
The resurgence of search was particularly pronounced among non-game apps, where that method of discovery accounted for 70 percent of installs in 2020. This was up 7 points from 2019 when its share had fallen to 63 percent.
Before COVID-19, app referrals were a growing source of installs. It's possible that this trend will continue in the future as user behavior shifts away from actively searching for new apps in the aftermath of COVID-19 and consumers once more rely on referrals as a passive method of discovery.
While the prevalence of search has bounced back for non-game apps, app referrals have continued to grow as a source of downloads for mobile games. In 2020, app referrals were the largest source for mobile game downloads—about 38 percent—for the first time. This shift has many possible drivers. It's possible that consumers are interested in only specific genres of games, and so increasingly depend on referrals for recommendations. At the same time, the influx of new consumers to the mobile games space during COVID-19 has bolstered in-game advertising as a means for app discovery. These consumers are likely more open to trying new titles presented to them through those they're currently playing, and aren't used to seeking them out through browse and search.
This method of game discovery was already on the rise in previous years, climbing 5 points from 26 percent in 2018 to 31 percent in 2019. COVID-19 seemed to only have supercharged this, accelerating the growth of app referral downloads by 7 points.
On the other hand, the percentage of game downloads originating from search fell from 44 percent in 2018 to 42 percent in 2019, then saw an even steeper decline to 35 percent in 2020. If this trend continues, it's likely that the majority of mobile game downloads will come from app referrals in the future. This could speak to the way consumers are deciding which games to download; rather than seeking out specific titles, user interest might be piqued instead by advertisements showing gameplay or referrals from a trusted publisher.
For more analysis from the Sensor Tower Store Intelligence platform, including key insights on download sources in an app's life cycle and category breakdowns, download the complete report in PDF form below: