Friday, June 11, 2021

Removing the Manual Boost

Keith Collins, in 2019:

But as Apple has become one of the largest competitors on a platform that it controls, suspicions that the company has been tipping the scales in its own favor are at the heart of antitrust complaints in the United States, Europe and Russia.

Apple’s apps have ranked first recently for at least 700 search terms in the store, according to a New York Times analysis of six years of search results compiled by Sensor Tower, an app analytics firm. Some searches produced as many as 14 Apple apps before showing results from rivals, the analysis showed. (Though competitors could pay Apple to place ads above the Apple results.)


Spotify complained to European regulators in March that Apple was abusing its role as the gatekeeper of the App Store. By April, all but two of Apple’s apps disappeared from the top results for “music.”

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

Just like it has never tried to calculate whether the App Store is profitable. Phil Schiller and Eddy Cue said that Apple wasn’t putting its thumb on the scale. Rather, “the algorithm had been working properly. They simply decided to handicap themselves to help other developers.”

However, the Epic trial has revealed an e-mail from Tim Sweeney reporting that Apple’s then-new Files app was ranking ahead of Dropbox when searching for “Dropbox.” In the replies from Apple employees, we learn from Debankur Naskar, the lead for “SEO experiences in the App Store”:

I think the Files app was manually boosted on the top for the query “Dropbox” during last WWDC. We are removing the manual boost and the search results should be more relevant now[…]

It would be nice if we could chalk this up to one rogue employee, but the e-mails show that Naskar’s boss, VP Matt Fischer, didn’t admonish him for gaming the search results, but rather for doing so without first getting his approval to do so. It sure doesn’t sound like Apple has ruled out such manipulation.

Somewhere there’s probably a similar e-mail explaining Bing’s recent accidental human error.

Sean Hollister (Slashdot):

Apple tells The Verge that what we think we’re seeing in these emails isn’t quite accurate. While Apple didn’t challenge the idea that Files was unfairly ranked over Dropbox, the company says the reality was a simple mistake: the Files app had a Dropbox integration, so Apple put “Dropbox” into the app’s metadata, and it was automatically ranked higher for “Dropbox” searches as a result.

I’m slightly skeptical of that explanation — partially because it doesn’t line up with what Naskar suggests in the email, partially because Apple also told me it immediately fixed the error (despite it apparently continuing to exist for 11 months, hardly immediate), and partially because the company repeatedly ignored my questions about whether this has ever happened with other apps before.


Besides, the distinction between a “manual” boost and any other kind of boost may be purely academic. Algorithms are written by people, after all. If Apple can build a 42-factor algorithm that gives its own apps favorable results, why would it need to override that algorithm and risk its emails getting caught up in a lawsuit years from now?

It could just tweak that algorithm at will — which is exactly what it did to resolve the WSJ and NYT’s scrutiny two years ago.


Update (2021-06-13): See also: Hacker News.

13 Comments RSS · Twitter

I guess I’m having trouble understanding why we should be concerned about this. Apple’s Files app exists in the App Store so that a user can restore it if they delete it from their system — it’s a standard part of iOS and iPadOS. It doesn’t have any in-app purchases, nor does it prompt you the user, upon opening, to upgrade your iCloud storage (which is a separate, though integrated, service which does actually compete with Dropbox.) Files and Dropbox have similar functionality, but they aren’t exactly competitors (as pointed out, Files integrates and exposes the Dropbox service.)

This isn’t like Apple creating their own Roblox clone and then favoring their app in the keywords over the original Roblox. Files vs. Dropbox isn’t apples to apples. I think there’s plenty of other anti-competitive stuff to ding Apple for in their management of the App Store, but this one just seems like a bit of a stretch.

"Algorithms are written by people, after all."

I don’t think that statement is true (anymore).

When we talk about "the algorithm" making decisions, we’re almost certainly talking about some intransparent machine learning beast. It’s fed by people, not designed.

Apple users are probably very likely to click on Apple‘s own apps. If that’s fed in the algorithm, they get a boost without Apple explicitly favoring them. It’s well known that ML reinforces existing biases. The result might be the same as a intentional bias, but the fix is very different, because stopping to actively discriminate just isn’t enough in the ML world.


  • I think it’s pretty clear that Files was also in the App Store for promotional purposes, i.e. users may not have known that they had it or what it did, then they do a search and learn that it exists.
  • The fact that it was trying to embrace extend Dropbox, while taking advantage of private APIs and privileges, doesn’t make it less of a competitor.
  • Filling up iCloud Drive will naturally lead to system prompts to buy more storage, so there’s no reason for the app to prompt at launch.
  • But if the motivation for manipulating search was internal politics/metrics, I’m not sure how that’s better.
  • Even if you don’t care about Files/Dropbox, this raises the question of whether Apple is manually boosting or de-boosting other apps that you do care about.
  • And that the execs seem to have lied about it has even broader relevance.

@ Michael: then why aren’t apps that can’t be removed in the Store, with a simple Open button? If I search for Safari, I get Firefox and Chrome. (Arguably, the experience here would be better for users _and_ Apple if Safari showed as a result.)

@Sören I don’t understand. Are you asking why Apple only promotes certain first-party apps in the store?


Apple is lacking a product person. A person who deeply understand how, product, technology, user, services, and business.

I honestly don’t see the problem here. If I go to the supermarket, they promote their own brands; why should this be any different?

@Quizzical There is no other supermarket that you can go to. Also, Dropbox wasn’t even on the first page. So this is more like putting the store brand Os in the “cereal” aisle while hiding Cheerios somewhere else. If a supermarket did that, you’d assume Os were all they had.

Apple clearly saw that it was at least a PR problem, because it told journalists and the court that it was unintentional and changed the behavior.

"I honestly don’t see the problem here. If I go to the supermarket, they promote their own brands; why should this be any different?"

The behavior of supermarkets is *also* a problem. Once supermarkets reach a certain size, they have the exact same tendency Apple has: based on internal data, they create competitor products to products from small companies, then substitute their own product in their stores, and then the small companies go out of business.

This is *also* bad. It destroys small companies, it destroys jobs, it removes choice, and it makes incredibly wealthy and powerful companies even more wealthy and powerful.

It's probably a bit less bad than Apple's behavior, since Apple's store is the only store iPhone users have access to, while most people probably have access to more than one supermarket, and have at least some ability to avoid these companies' behavior, and access products from smaller brands.

But none of this is good. This is all bad. Pointing out to a bad thing to justify another bad thing is not good.

Why is anyone even defending these companies? These companies are not your friends.

@ MIchael: I suppose? You wrote:

>I think it’s pretty clear that Files was also in the App Store for promotional purposes

Maybe, but I see no reason they wouldn't be putting all their major first-party apps (for which third-party alternatives exist, so Settings doesn't qualify) in the store, with a dummy page, if that's part of the reason it's there.

Scott Boone

This reminds me of when FaceTime was appearing in the Top 10 Paid of the App Store charts on Mac. This happened for YEARS after Apple had begun including FaceTime as a feature of macOS (remember, it originated as a for-pay download!). It was pretty clear that Apple was counting the "registering" of the pre-installed version of the app as a "sale", and therefore pushing the app into the Top 10 (because every new Mac user was adding to the total "sales").
Now… you might say, how does that matter? Well, for one, it took a spot on the Top 10 list that rightly should have gone to another developer; Apple stole that exposure through, uh, what, incompetence? ignorance? Because, again, this went on for YEARS. It was obvious that no one was actually minding the store. But worse, you could read the reviews and learn that new Mac owners—unaware that this trendy new "FaceTime" feature they were using with family on their new iPhones was ALREADY baked into macOS—were actually PAYING for the old version of the app that was offered on the App Store! They were getting fleeced, financially! By Apple!
And I say it was "obvious" that no one was minding the store because I tried to communicate it to them! I filed bug reports, closed with no action. I emailed and tweeted at Tim Cook and Phil Schiller and Eddie Cue. No response. I tried to get several Mac pundits to talk about it on their podcasts, didn't happen. If somebody in the exec suite was bothering to look at the Top 10 list even on a weekly basis, this wouldn't happen, right? Phil would have asked, "Hey, why is out FREE app still ranking in the Top Paid??" I was actually told at one point that the FaceTime app was ranking because of all the 10.6.8 users buying it… which was after 10.6.8 support was officially dropped. There simply just could NOT have been that many folks running 10.6.8 without FaceTime and willing to spend 99¢… it was a ludicrous assertion… but that was Apple's "official" position.
At some point, FaceTime finally disappeared for good from the Top 10. (I think Gruber finally listened to me and groused about it a few times, and soon enough it got "fixed".) But… I was convinced, Apple is corrupt. Because they couldn't be that incompetent.

Old Unix Geek

The behavior of supermarkets is *also* a problem


It used to be: "we think this is good, see if you think so too. If you agree, you'll like our store more".

Now it's: "let's nudge the consumer into whatever makes us the most profit."

From what I can tell scenario 2 started first in the US, is probably now rife in Europe, but has yet to hit Japan.

More monetization of trust, but since trust is the fabric of civilization, that's bad for all of us.

Don't worry, Japan will catch up in about 20 years. They're just now hearing about Web 2.0

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