Is Apple Building Its Own Search Engine to Take on Google?

Apple Spotlight Search on iPadOS 14 Credit: Jesse Hollington
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As antitrust investigations heat up around the world, the idea of Apple developing its own search engine appears to be gaining new steam.

There has been speculation swirling for years that Apple was working on its own search engine to compete with the Google behemoth, but for the most part, there’s been very little real evidence that the iPhone maker was actually interested in doing this. The last time they flared up was an Applebot web crawler was discovered back in 2014, but that turned out to be primarily about enhancing Siri and Spotlight, not building a replacement for Google.

In reality, it seemed that many of the ideas of Apple building its own search engine came from the folks that just assumed that Apple had enough money and market dominance that it could basically do whatever it wanted, and while certainly the idea of Apple building its own version of Google Maps suggested that it was willing to break with the search giant in at least some areas, building an actual search engine to rival Google doesn’t really ever appear to be something Apple has ever seriously considered.

Besides, it’s fairly easy to see why Apple wouldn’t have much interest in parting ways with Google in this area; it’s currently collecting around $10 billion per year from the search giant just for offering the privilege of default placement on the iPhone and iPad, and it’s been doing so for years.

This is not an insignificant number when you consider that Apple’s entire services business only generates around $50 billion in revenue per year. In other words, about a fifth to a quarter of Apple’s entire service revenue — which reached a quarterly record $13.2 billion in Q3 2020 — comes from its search deal with Google.

Not only is this not pocket change for Apple, but the iPhone maker’s strong stance on user privacy means that it’s not interested in making money in the same way that Google does, so it’s difficult to see how it would make up that $8-$12 billion in lost revenue every year from building its own search engine.

In fact, it was the push for user privacy that caused Apple to part ways with Google Maps back in 2012. Apple wanted access to Google’s vector-based maps and turn-by-turn navigation, while Google wanted data on Apple’s users — something that was too high of a price for the privacy-focused Apple, which preferred to laboriously build its own fledgling maps system rather than selling out its users to the Google data machine.

While one could make the same argument for Google’s default search engine placement, at least here users have a choice, and Apple’s own Safari features mitigate how much data Google can collect, which is a stark contrast to Google Maps, where the search giant wanted to collection background location data on every iPhone user on the planet.

Apple’s Search Engine Ambitions

According to The Financial Times, however, it does seem that Apple may be rethinking its approach to search engines in light of antitrust investigations that could actually break apart the lucrative multi-billion search deal between the two companies.

If the U.S. government and EU suddenly declared the exclusive Google-Apple deal to be illegal collusion between the two tech giants, then Apple would certainly no longer have a disincentive to building its own search engine instead, and as The Financial Times notes, there’s mounting evidence that it’s lining up its pieces in order to do exactly that.

With iOS 14, Apple has already switched to presenting its own search results and direct website links in Spotlight queries, which of course is exactly the purpose Applebot was designed to fulfill when it debuted a few years ago, however many web developers and search experts are also seeing a lot more activity from Applebot than they once did, and it’s not even something that Apple is particularly secretive about — the company has an actual support document explaining the Applebot crawler and how to identify it.

According to digital marketing consultant Suganthan Mohanadasan, who was interviewed by The Financial Times, Applebot has started showing up “a ridiculous amount of times,” suggesting that Apple has dramatically increased its efforts to index the web.

Of course, that’s probably not entirely surprising considering that iOS 14 now relies on Apple’s own search results for both home screen Spotlight requests and Siri, and with changes in iPadOS 14 to bring a macOS style Spotlight window, these types of user searches have probably become even more common. Meanwhile, Apple is even generating autocomplete style suggestions, which implies that it’s learning from common queries made by other iPhone and iPad users — and it’s got over a billion of those to learn from.

It’s also perhaps telling that Apple also now employs Google’s former head of search and artificial intelligence, John Giannandrea, and while the former Google executive currently heads up Apple’s AI efforts for things like Siri in his role as Senior Vice-President of Machine Learning and AI Strategy, it’s not at all hard to see how his experience would significantly contribute to Apple’s own search engine efforts.

In fact, Apple is one of the few companies with the resources to pull this off, with profits expected to surpass $55 billion this year, and $81 billion of free cash sitting in the bank, it can afford to play the long game in a way that very few other companies can.

While Google already has its rivals, the only one that truly stands alone these days in indexing the web from scratch is Microsoft’s Bing, while others like the popular privacy-focused DuckDuckGo simply license their results from Bing.

So it’s obvious that Apple is one of the few companies that truly can build a rival to Google, but the bigger question of course remains whether it actually should.

Certainly as long as it’s being paid billions of dollars a year to let another company do the heavy lifting, it’s hard to see any upside to Apple Search, but legal experts also believe that it’s only a matter of time before it’s called to explain why it’s taking those billions of dollars from Google for this kind of exclusivity.

Many experts also suggest that it could take a lot more effort for Apple to catch up to Google in the raw search business than it even did with Apple Maps, which lingered behind its more popular rival for several years, and in fact got such a rough start that many users still don’t trust it — even though it’s vastly improved.

One of the struggles that Apple faced with Apple Maps could be an even bigger problem with building its own search engine, and that’s getting a sufficiently critical mass of users to actually provide feedback that would help tune the results.

In the case of Apple Maps, that meant being able to get accurate road and navigation data by anonymously keeping track of where people were going and the routes they were taking, while for search that would require getting the same hundreds of millions of queries per minute that Google already gets from users everywhere in the world.

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