Over the years, there have been numerous accusations that Apple enjoys a perceived “monopoly” with the App Store that is often unfair to third-party developers. For iPhone and iPad users, of course, the App Store is the only legitimate way to get apps onto their devices, and not only does Apple require a 15-30 percent take of the revenue from all apps and subscriptions sold through the App Store, but it also acts as a gatekeeper for which apps are permitted and of course controls other important pieces like search results.
It’s this last point that’s now creating another new App Store controversy. A report from The Wall Street Journal (via Apple News+) has revealed that Apple’s own mobile apps come up much more frequently at the top of search results than they arguably should, giving Apple an unfair advantage over other competing apps.
According to an analysis done by the Journal, Apple’s own apps ranked first in over 60% of basic searches — those for generic terms such as “maps” — while those Apple apps that generate services revenue for the company, like Apple Music or Apple Books, showed up in the number one spot in 95% of searches related to those apps.
Apple’s First-Party Apps
While Apple doesn’t necessarily have anything to gain from driving people to many of their own apps — Apple has little reason to care whether you’re using their Calendar, Reminders, or Mail apps, for instance — there’s definitely a strong financial motivation to draw people into apps like Apple Music, Apple Books, and Apple News, all of which push users toward the company’s digital store fronts and subscription services.
Of course, most of Apple’s first-party apps already have a home field advantage in that they come preinstalled on users’ devices and have to be explicitly removed, and some apps, such as Photos, Clock, and Camera, are considered integral enough to iOS that they can’t be removed. However, because Apple offers most of these apps on the App Store as well so that users who choose to remove them can reinstall them later, they still show up in search results, even when they’re already installed, which reminds users that they’re there and could, in theory, guide users into those apps rather than choosing to download an alternative.
For example, a user searching for music apps would be reminded that they already have Apple Music installed, and therefore may be more likely to choose to use that instead of downloading Spotify.
Further, even if the company isn’t deliberately manipulating search results, Apple already holds its own apps to a different set of rules from apps by third-party developers. While Apple tells developers that it is downloads, user reviews, and ratings that influence search results, users can’t actually review or rate any of Apple’s own first-party apps that come pre-installed on iOS devices, so it’s even more questionable what metrics Apple is using that gives these apps such prominent placement in its algorithms.
In fact, perhaps ironically it’s also worth noting that Apple’s other, more optional apps like Pages, Numbers, Keynote, iMovie, and GarageBand all allow ratings in the same way as any other third-party apps, and many of these actually don’t come up as prominently in search results. A search for “spreadsheets” for example, brings up Google Sheets in the number one spot, and Apple’s Numbers app down in eighth place.
Apple’s Search Algorithms
Apple of course denies that it’s deliberately giving its own products any special advantage over others on the App Store, and after being contacted by the Journal with these findings, Apple conducted its own tests in direct response to questions posed by by the Journal, and according to a spokesman said that “some searches yielded different results in which their apps didn’t rank first.”
Apple customers have a very strong connection to our products and many of them use search as a way to find and open their apps. This customer usage is the reason Apple has strong rankings in search, and it’s the same reason Uber, Microsoft and so many others often have high rankings as well.Apple, in a statement to The Wall Street Journal
The company of course didn’t disclose any details on how its App Store search algorithms work, but did say that it “relies on machine learning” and “past consumer preferences” and suggesting that users will get results tailored to their own behavioural profile.
Apple says it uses 42 different factors to determine where apps rank in search, but keeps the specific formula a closely-guarded secret in order to prevent developers from trying to game the results. Of these 42 factors, Apple did identify the four with the most influence as downloads, ratings, relevance, and “user behaviour” which includes the number of times users select an app after a query and also download it.
Still, however, this makes it unclear how Apple’s own apps are getting such prominent placement when you consider that very few users actually have to download them — they’re already preinstalled on every iPhone and iPad — and Apple doesn’t allow ratings or reviews on these preinstalled apps. This latter point, however, also begs the question about how the App Store search algorithms score apps that don’t allow ratings.
Not a Level Playing Field
Despite Apple’s own claims that it’s not doing this deliberately, many developers aren’t convinced that Apple is playing fair here, and anecdotal evidence certainly provides reasonable grounds for these suspicions.
For example, the Journal points to Audiobooks.com, which consistently held the number one ranking in the App Store for almost two years, until it was unseated by Apple Books last September, shortly after Apple began marketing audiobooks directly in its own app.
As Audiobooks.com’s general manager, Ian Small, pointed out, the change was “literally overnight” and resulted in a drop of 25 percent in the company’s daily app downloads. Audiobooks.com at the time had 35,000 customer reviews and a rating of 4.8 (out of 5). The preinstalled Apple Books app, which can’t have any reviews or ratings, has taken the top spot in searches for “audiobooks”, “books”, and “reader” ever since.
In response to questions raised by the Journal, an Apple spokesperson called this behaviour perfectly reasonable, since a search for “books” matches the actual name of Apple’s app, and the app suddenly became first for “audiobooks” after Apple added that keyword to the app because of Apple’s ethereal “user behaviour data” algorithms. However, by Apple’s own logic it seems odd that an app named “Audiobooks.com” wouldn’t come up first in search results for the word “audiobooks” since that too should be considered almost an exact name match.
More Transparency is Needed
Although it sounds like Apple is being somewhat disingenuous here — it’s hard to see how its own apps are getting such prominent placement when user ratings and downloads are supposed to be major factors — it’s also possible that there’s simply something off in the company’s secretive algorithms. For example, if one of the factors is how many devices an app has been installed on (not necessarily downloaded to), then almost all of Apple’s first-party apps are going to be given an insanely high score for that factor — it’s pretty hard for any other app to compete with being installed on 900 million iPhones.
In a case like this, it would be easy for Apple to say that it’s not deliberately giving its apps top placement by making specific exceptions to its search algorithms, but its own apps would still have the advantage of a scoring metric that other apps simply can’t possibly attain.
Ultimately, Apple is going to have to be alot more transparent about how all of this works if it wants to avoid the ire of antitrust regulators. The company is in a more tenuous position with its App Store now than ever, as U.S. and E.U. agencies begin to scrutinize many big tech companies and politicians begin to call for their breakup out of fears that they’re gaining too much power. Apple is going to have to be prepared to say a lot more than just “that’s the way it works” when it comes to allegations like these, especially now that its pushing into its own revenue-generating service apps.