Search Results Manipulation

In July 2019, according to the WSJ “Rankings from search results in Apple’s store can make or break an app.  The company [Apple] says searches lead to 65% of all app downloads.”

As the New York Times recently reported, “[t]op spots in App Store search results are some of the most fought over real estate in the online economy.” 

Apple designs and controls the Search interface in the iOS App Store.

For years, Apple manipulated the Search feature in its iOS App Store to push consumers away from third-party software and towards Apple’s own software offerings.  Additionally, Apple intentionally took steps to “lock in” competition from a limited number of players in key application categories, including the mail application category, to impose additional barriers to entry for new and innovative software in those categories – ensuring that Apple would face substantial competition from only a known group of existing entrants.  As the New York Times noted recently:

Apple has used its control of the iOS App Store to artificially inflate Apple’s search ranking for a variety of keywords and in a variety of categories.  Apple does this to award itself the coveted top spots when a user searches for apps. 

As the New York Times reported, “Apple’s apps have ranked first recently for at least 700 search terms in the store,” and “[s]ome searches produced as many as 14 Apple apps before showing results from rivals”:  

When presented with the New York Times’ analysis of the iOS App Store, and confronted with evidence of Apple’s efforts to artificially inflate the search rankings of Apple software, “two senior Apple executives acknowledged [to the New York Times] that, for more than a year, the top results of many common searches in the iPhone App Store were packed with the company’s own apps.”  These executives further admitted that this “was the case even when the Apple apps were less relevant and less popular than ones from its competitors.” 

Caught red-handed, Apple admitted that “the company had since adjusted the algorithm so that fewer of its own apps appeared at the top of search results.”  But Apple’s pattern of manipulating search results in order to promote its own apps at the expense of competitors appears to have persisted for years – apparently beginning in or around June 2016, when Apple began offering its own apps in the iOS App Store. 

According to a New York Times analysis, when Apple first introduced its applications to its iOS App Store, Apple immediately took the top search result for many popular search terms, and “Apple apps held on [to that search ranking] for years while top rivals remained stuck below, sometimes hundreds of slots down the list.”

This was vividly illustrated by the New York Times, which chronicled Apple’s quick rise to the top of – and then occupation of nearly the entirety of – the top 10 search rankings for keywords such as “music.”   

The New York Times’ Sept. 2019 report also explained that experts in the search field agree Apple has intentionally manipulated search rankings to promote its own applications, at the expense of competitors, finding it “hard to believe that organically there are certain Apple apps that rank better than higher-reviewed, more downloaded competitors.” 

The New York Times offered other examples in its Sept. 2019 report to illustrate Apple’s manipulation of search rankings and its promotion of Apple’s own applications, at the expense of Apple’s rivals.  For example, “[o]n March 25, the company unveiled an Apple-branded credit card that can be used via the Apple Wallet app.  The next day, Apple Wallet was the No. 1 result in searches for ‘money,’ ‘credit’ and ‘debit.’  The app had not ranked for those search terms before then.”