Apple today claims it does not favor its own apps when ranking search results for the iOS App Store, pushing back against findings in an investigation by The Wall Street Journal published this afternoon showing how less popular Apple apps often rank higher than better-reviewed software from third-party competitors. The WSJ found that Apple’s own apps ranked first in 60 percent of app categories on the App Store, including for categories like books and maps where Apple’s own offerings were far less popular than options from competitors like Amazon and Google.
For instance, Apple’s own Apple Books app, which doesn’t have a listed five-star rating or a number of downloads publicly available, is listed as the number one result when searching for “books” in the US version of the App Store. (Rankings can change slightly in other countries, but The Verge has confirmed Apple options often still hold No. 1 spots in the UK.) Yet Apple Books is listed as the 168th most popular app in the category by downloads.
Amazon’s Kindle app, which has a 4.8 rating and has been rated 1.2 million times, is found lower than Apple Books in search results, at No. 2 with a Featured App ad in between. It is ranked as the third most popular app in the Books category. The same situation plays out for Maps, where Apple’s offering, which doesn’t even rank in the top 100 navigation apps, is found higher in search results than Google Maps and Waze, which both sit at the first and second spot respectively in the category.
In fact, Apple reportedly once mulled over forcibly removing all apps with less than a two-star rating, but former App Store review lead Phillip Shoemaker told WSJ that his team, which proposed the removal in 2015, was told it would kill Apple’s own Podcasts app, which has less than a two-star rating at the time. Many of Apple’s own apps no longer have ratings attached.
Apple denies manipulating its search result rankings in cases like the ones we’re highlighting, saying it uses both name matches and “user behavior data,” among dozens of other factors, to make determinations about how to rank results. In fact, the company told the WSJ it has a total of 42 factors it takes into account when ranking search results, but it keeps that ranking algorithm secret allegedly to prevent manipulation of search results by third-party developers.
“Apple customers have a very strong connection to our products and many of them use search as a way to find and open their apps,” Apple told the WSJ in a statement. “This customer usage is the reason Apple has strong rankings in search, and it’s the same reason Uber, Microsoft and so many others often have high rankings as well.”
Effectively, Apple seems to be saying that because users use iOS Spotlight search to locate apps they have already downloaded, that its own apps with correlating names are boosted higher in search. So searching for Google Maps with just “maps” may be inadvertently making Apple Maps the top-ranked result on the App Store, apparently.
Apple was not immediately for comment.
Apple is currently facing renewed scrutiny over its operation of the App Store, amid a swell of antitrust sentiment brewing in both Europe and the US. And among the easiest targets for regulators searching for anticompetitive behavior are search rankings and corporate self-promotion. The latter was the foundation of the landmark antitrust case against Microsoft in the ‘90s, and the combination of using search results to boost a company’s own offerings is what got Google slammed with a multi-billion antitrust fine in the EU back in 2017.
Apple claims it does not operate a monopoly, because of the fairly small market share iOS commands when compared to Google’s dominant Android operating system. Yet there are other ways the company could be targeted by regulators and the legal system. The US Supreme Court ruled in May that Apple could be sued by app buyers, opening the company up to class-action lawsuits from users of the App Store, instead of just developers. And two developers have also filed a lawsuit against the company claiming the App Store is an illegal monopoly for the ways Apple controls pricing and discovery, charges developers 30 percent of every transaction, and for its restrictions on distributing apps outside the App Store.
Apple has also run into a number of controversies over the past few years with how it handles apps that compete with its own offerings. The company found itself in hot water after banning a number of parent control apps earlier this year, claiming they were violating user privacy by accessing certain iOS developer tools. After an outcry that accused Apple of shutting down competitors to promote its own Screen Time feature, Apple began restoring some of the parent control apps it banned just last month.
Spotify has also spurred an investigation in the EU into Apple’s 30 percent cut of in-app purchases, with Spotify claiming it gives Apple Music an unfair pricing advantage if Spotify is forced to price its own offering at a higher rate to make up for Apple’s cut. Amazon, Netflix, and others have responded to Apple’s approach at times by refusing to let users make in-app purchases at all on iOS, to avoid Apple’s cut and because the company will often hold developers in update limbo if they try and bypass Apple’s payment system.
These controversies will likely influence how regulators view Apple’s approach to the App Store, and its defense in this case of search results rankings, in the coming months and years. As it stands right now, Apple has complete control over the iOS app ecosystem, but that can all change if it’s found to be an unfair steward of an uneven playing field.