In an interview with the New York Times, Apple executives Phil Schiller and Eddy Cue revealed that Apple has adjusted the App Store algorithm to ‘handicap’ its own apps from appearing too much in search results.
Following press attention from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, Apple found that the App Store was deciding to show a lot of Apple apps for common search terms. For instance, a search for ‘music’ would show not only Apple Music but up to seven other first-party apps in the first ten spots.
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Apple says this happened due to a feature of the App Store ranking engine where apps from the same developer are often shown together. This feature can be helpful, for instance when customers search for “office” they can see most of Microsoft’s suite.
However, the outsized popularity of Apple’s stock apps was causing the grouping behavior to dominate too much. Part of the cause is that some iPhone and iPad customers apparently use App Store search to find apps that are already installed on their phones. When users would click on an Apple app, its popularity rises disproportionately to third-parties.
In the “music” case, Apple Music would rank first. But Apple’s apps like GarageBand, iTunes Remote, Music Memos, iTunes Store, iMovie, and even Clips would fill the next places… meaning Apple Music competitors like Spotify would struggle to gain any visibility.
As of July 12, Apple has turned off the grouping feature of the algorithm for all Apple apps. The New York Times cites data from Sensor Tower that indicates the change has made a difference:
On July 12, many Apple apps dropped sharply in the rankings of popular searches. The top results for “TV” went from four Apple apps to two. “Video” and “maps” changed from three top Apple apps to one. And Apple Wallet dropped from the No. 1 spot for “money” and “credit.”
It seems that Apple’s apps like Apple Music will still regularly get prime placement at the top of the search results list, but other less-relevant Apple apps will no longer be included.
Apple is not positioning the change as a correction. The executives indicate that the algorithm was working properly and the ‘handicap’ was instated to help other developers at Apple’s expense. The grouping factor remains for third-party developers.
You can read the full report on the New York Times’ website, which includes an interactive illustration of the problem that was uncovered.
As the monopolistic positions of big tech companies continue to be highlighted, Apple reiterated its stance that the App Store is a fair and open market for app developers:
“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,” Mr. Schiller said. “We’ll present results based on what we think the user wants.”