Monday, September 9, 2019

Apple Apps in App Store Search Results

Joe Rossignol:

Apple recently adjusted its App Store search algorithm so that fewer of its own apps appear at the top of search results, senior executives Phil Schiller and Eddy Cue confirmed in an interview with The New York Times.


Mr. Schiller and Mr. Cue said the algorithm had been working properly. They simply decided to handicap themselves to help other developers.

“We make mistakes all the time,” Mr. Cue said.

“We’re happy to admit when we do,” Mr. Schiller said. “This wasn’t a mistake.”


Even after the change, analytics firm Sensor Tower found Apple apps ranked first in the App Store for over 700 search terms, even when the Apple apps were less relevant and less popular than ones from its competitors.

Jack Nicas and Keith Collins (Hacker News, AppleInsider):

Before Apple Music arrived in the App Store, Spotify was for years the first result in searches for “music.” Shortly after Apple Music was added to the store in June 2016, it took the top spot. By then, Spotify had fallen to fourth place. In Feb. 2018, Apple apps suddenly appeared in the top six results for “music”. By the end of 2018, there were eight, some of which were unrelated to music. At this point, Spotify was the 23rd result.


When multiple Apple apps packed the search results, such as in searches for “music,” the Apple executives attributed the results to a feature of the App Store search engine that sometimes grouped apps by maker. They tweaked that feature in July so Apple apps would no longer look as if they were receiving special treatment. Many Apple apps dropped as a result.


An Apple spokeswoman said the company could not verify the data because it did not keep a record of historical search results.


“I find it hard to believe that organically there are certain Apple apps that rank better than higher-reviewed, more downloaded competitors,” said Todd Dunham, chief executive of the ASO Project, which consults app makers on how to rank higher in the results.


The search algorithm in the App Store was built by a small team of engineers in Cupertino, Calif., some of whom said in a separate interview arranged by Apple that they hadn’t noticed for months that Apple was dominating search results for music and other categories.

Search is one of the biggest problems with the App Store. Why does it have such a small team? How can they improve it without keeping historical results or having automated checking for things like this?

See also: David Heinemeier Hansson.


Update (2019-09-10): David Barnard:

Given how crude the search algorithm is, I don’t think @pschiller and @cue are lying about Apple’s apps making it to the top organically.


And this chart makes a ton of sense when you realize that iOS 10 is when Apple started allowing system apps to be deleted. From that point on Apple released more and more of their system apps on the App Store which created a feedback loop of momentum.


Here’s an example of just how bad search has been on the App Store and how blatantly developers have been manipulating with complete impunity[…]


Apple might not be lying about manipulating search themselves, but it’s 100X more embarrassing that they have allowed one of the most important experiences on their $50B/yr platform to be so broken and easy to manipulate for more than a decade.

See also: Jason Fried and Hacker News.

Update (2019-09-13): John Gruber:

Barnard’s whole thread is worth reading, and I found myself nodding along in agreement. Basically, The Times’s results are much better explained by the theory that App Store search sucks than the theory that Apple has been gaming results to harm competitors.


The fact that Apple made both Schiller and Cue available to The Times shows how seriously they take accusations of anti-competitive behavior. Let’s hope they start taking accusations of incompetent stewardship of App Store search just as seriously.

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> Search is one of the biggest problems with the App Store. Why does it have such a small team?

If I had to guess, this is another effect of Apple’s pivot to services revenue: Instead of addressing the poor quality of App Store search, they turned it into a revenue opportunity through paid ads. They’re literally making money off the problem by not fixing it.

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