Rumors that Apple might be creating its own search engine started doing the rounds last fall, when webmasters started seeing web crawler visits from IP addresses starting with 17 – the IP address block owned entirely by Apple. Apple has now officially confirmed in a support document that it is operating its own web crawler called Applebot.
Applebot is the web crawler for Apple, used by products including Siri and Spotlight Suggestions. It respects customary robots.txt rules and robots meta tags. It originates in the 188.8.131.52 net block.
While the wording is clearly intended to suggest that this is just business as usual, both the fact that Apple is running its own web crawler at all, and the somewhat vague wording, are interesting …
Siri mostly uses Bing and Wolfram Alpha for its web searches, so one could ask the question why Apple would need to do its own indexing of the web? The wording of the support document too is somewhat vague: products including Siri and Spotlight Suggestions. This would certainly leave open the possibility that Apple is working on something bigger.
Is it likely that Apple is developing its own search engine, with plans to take on Google, Bing and Yahoo? I think not, for two reasons. First, Apple remains a hardware company using online services primarily to increase the attractiveness of its physical products. Sure, iTunes would be a Fortune 500 business in its own right – and will grow further when the revamped Beats Music service is launched later this year – but the ecosystem is really there to sell shiny new toys.
Second, Apple has long rejected ad-funded models, Tim Cook stating last year that free online services turned users into a commodity to be sold.
A few years ago, users of Internet services began to realize that when an online service is free, you’re not the customer. You’re the product. But at Apple, we believe a great customer experience shouldn’t come at the expense of your privacy.
Our business model is very straightforward: We sell great products. We don’t build a profile based on your email content or web browsing habits to sell to advertisers.
The likelihood, then, is that Applebot is exactly what it seems: simply a tool to supplement existing third-party search engines to ensure that Siri and Spotlight are delivering the best results. Google, Bing and Yahoo are likely to remain in competition to be Apple’s default search engine for some time yet.