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Apple ‘improved’ App Store search after its own apps unfairly dominated results

Apple ‘improved’ App Store search after its own apps unfairly dominated results


Putting third-party apps at a disadvantage ‘wasn’t a mistake’

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Apple’s iOS App Store heavily favored the company’s iPhone and iPad apps and ranked them higher than more popular third-party options until a recent algorithm change, according to a new report from The New York Times. The Times studied App Store search results (dating back several years) for common queries like “music” and “podcasts” and found that Apple regularly steered customers to a handful of its own apps — even unrelated results like Compass and Find My Friends — before getting to options from third-party developers.

The Wall Street Journal conducted a similar review of historical App Store results in July and also concluded that Apple’s apps had a clear and significant edge.

Apple told the Times that the App Store was actually working as designed in these instances. “There’s nothing about the way we run search in the App Store that’s designed or intended to drive Apple’s downloads of our own apps,” Phil Schiller, the Apple vice president who oversees the App Store, said in an interview on the subject. “We’ll present results based on what we think the user wants.” The idea that someone would “want” to see the iTunes Remote or Clips apps ahead of Spotify or Pandora when searching for “music” frankly seems a little idiotic. That reasoning doesn’t really hold up.

But there was another culprit to blame. Apple says it had an algorithm in play that would often group together apps from the same developer in results. Since Apple’s apps have basic names like Podcasts or Music, they’d show up first — followed by a batch of other, irrelevant Apple apps right after.

The algorithm was updated in July, a few months after Spotify filed a formal complaint about Apple’s tactics, and search results quickly looked more sensible and balanced afterward. As the company faces an antitrust inquiry from the EU, Apple’s executives were careful to avoid admitting any wrongdoing or harmful mistakes. “It’s not corrected,” Schiller said of the algorithm. “It’s improved,” added Eddy Cue, who ran the App Store before Schiller took over those duties.

The App Store team failed to notice for months and months the extent to which the company’s own software was crowding the prized top slots in search results. Eventually, they did, however, and “a single engineer decided to change the algorithm,” which factors into account a long list of criteria when building App Store search rankings.

The algorithm examines 42 different signals, they said, including an app’s relevance to a given search, its ratings, and its popularity based on downloads and user clicks.

Apple presented a very public defense of its App Store practices earlier this year and portrayed the digital marketplace as a game-changer for app makers. It has certainly been that: Apple says developers have raked in over $120 billion in digital sales. But as the one and only place where iPhone users are able to download native software, the App Store has faced more thorough scrutiny throughout the last few years. Former employees have also voiced concern regarding the company’s App Store decision making.

App developers might cry foul over Apple’s propensity for highlighting its own software efforts, but the company refuses to budge an inch in acknowledging that it might have done anything to hurt competition. “We make mistakes all the time,” Cue told the Times. Without missing a beat, Schiller added that “this wasn’t a mistake.”