Apple adjusts App Store search algorithm after report found its apps ranked first for hundreds of search terms
The big picture: Despite compounding evidence, Apple says “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.” However, the company’s increased focus on services means it’s slowly turning into a big competitor for some of the biggest names in the App Store. Naturally, that leads to suspicions of anticompetitive behavior, but Apple strongly defends its public image and only takes small steps to course correct.
The Cupertino giant has always touted the security and the quality of its App Store, but it has often been criticized for using it to gain an advantage over its competitors. Between putting some apps out of business and being sued by app developers for alleged monopolistic practices, Apple is now also the subject of antitrust probes in both the US and Europe.
If you searched for “music,” you’d find apps like iTunes Remote and Music Memos ranking well above Pandora and Spotify, which makes very little sense.
In July, a Wall Street Journal investigation revealed a pattern where Apple’s apps would surface in the most common keyword searched in the App Store, and the New York Times recently confirmed that by looking at six years’ worth of data from research firm Sensor Tower. The analysis showed some searches displaying 14 Apple-owned apps before rivals. If you searched for “music,” you’d find apps like iTunes Remote and Music Memos ranking well above Pandora and Spotify, which makes very little sense.
In typical Apple fashion, the company first denied manipulating search results ranking, explaining that it uses a complex algorithm that should prevent anyone — including itself — from gaming the system. Apple vice president Phil Schiller recently told the New York Times that the algorithm would also bundle together apps from the same developer in search results. While this is useful for things like Microsoft’s mobile office suite, in most cases it can lead to clusters of irrelevant search results placed above relevant ones.
As of mid-July, Apple has turned off the bundling of apps in search results, and the New York Times says data from Sensor Tower shows the change was effective. Apple’s apps still surface at the top in most cases where they’re relevant to the search term, but now you’d get two of them at most and apps like Apple Wallet no longer hold the top spot for keywords like “money” and “credit.”
The company was careful to portray this change as an “improvement” rather than a “correction.”
Eddy Cue, who oversees Apple’s apps, said he’s aware the algorithm still needed work. He noted the company’s own apps are so popular that it had to further adjust the search algorithm to “handicap” them so that third party-apps could get some exposure.