The majority of our digital media time is now spent on mobile, and most of that with a small number of apps. Search in the Apple App Store is the most common way iPhone owners discover and download new apps.
NY Times and WSJ both find “search bias.” Apple has helped make developers billions of dollars but it has also been accused of favoring its own apps in search results to the detriment of competitors. A New York Times analysis (performed by Sensor Tower) generally confirms this “search bias.” A Wall Street Journal analysis (using App Annie) found something similar in July.
This accusation is not unlike what Google has been accused of by critics and competitors, who say the search engine favors its own content or properties in organic results. Google was fined (roughly $2.7 billion) in Europe in 2017 in connection with alleged search bias shopping search. The company now faces a potential EU antitrust investigation in local and travel search. Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple all face new or renewed antitrust scrutiny from the federal government and states attorneys general.
Apple ranked first for books, music, news, podcasts. The Times analysis found “Apple’s apps ranked first for many of the popular queries . . . for books, music, news, magazines, podcasts, video, TV, movies, sports, card, gift, money, credit, debit, fitness, people, friends, time, notes, docs, files, cloud, storage, message, home, store, mail, maps, traffic, stocks and weather.”
Apple previously told the Wall Street Journal that its App Store search algorithm, which uses 42 ranking signals, “works the same for all apps, including its own.”
Apple changed the algorithm. The Times also says that when presented with this data, “two senior Apple executives acknowledged . . . for more than a year, the top results of many common searches in the iPhone App Store were packed with the company’s own apps.” But the company says that its search algorithm has now been “adjusted . . . so that fewer of its own apps appeared at the top of search results.”
Accordingly, the Times analysis found that in July “Apple apps dropped sharply in the rankings of popular searches.”
In addition to the various government investigations, there are a number of App Store related lawsuits that Apple faces from developers, as well as a consumer class action. Spotify has also filed a formal antitrust complaint against Apple in Europe earlier this year.
Why we should care. Visibility and position in App Store search results can be a make or break proposition for developers and startups in particular. Apple now says it has voluntarily remedied the issue in the App Store.
Despite this, the government will continue to scrutinize Apple’s behavior. And the results of any investigation into Apple’s search algorithm and its economic impact may hold implications for Google as well.