Malice or Incompetence: On the Rankings of Apple’s Own Apps in App Store Results

Jack Nicas and Keith Collins, reporting for The New York Times on Monday (the day before Apple’s event):

Presented with the results of the analysis, two senior Apple executives acknowledged in a recent interview 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. That was the case even when the Apple apps were less relevant and less popular than ones from its competitors. The executives said the company had since adjusted the algorithm so that fewer of its own apps appeared at the top of search results. […]

Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president who oversees the App Store, and Eddy Cue, the senior vice president who oversees many of the Apple apps that benefited from the results, said there was nothing underhanded about the algorithm the company had built to display search results in the store. […]

“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.”

The clear implication of The Times’s story, despite Schiller and Cue’s denials, is that Apple is engaging in anti-competitive behavior to favor its own apps in search results. That’s certainly worth an investigation. And it’s also the case that just about every antitrust investigation of Google, globally, centers on how they rank their own properties atop search results.

The Times story is worth reading, and as Matthew Panzarino observed, worth appreciating for the way its graphics were presented interactively. Excellent data presentation.

The best response I’ve seen, though, is developer David Barnard’s. Barnard is a longtime iOS developer and keen observer of how the App Store — whether through design, ineptitude, or chicanery — affects third-party apps. On Twitter, Barnard wrote:

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” App Store search has been an unmitigated disaster since the App Store was released in 2008. Apple has been blind to so many issues (including blatant manipulation) and completely inept at improving it.

Barnard’s whole thread is worth reading, and I found myself nodding along in agreement. Basically, The Times’s results are much better explained by the theory that App Store search sucks than the theory that Apple has been gaming results to harm competitors. Even The Times’s first interactive graphic bears this out: it shows how a search for the word “podcast” ranked Apple Podcasts first, followed by 13 other Apple apps, starting with Compass, Find My Friends, and Tips. Tips! Those are just shitty search results — Apple’s own Podcasts app surely deserves to be ranked first, but no one — no one searching for “podcast” wants the Compass app, yet it’s ranked second. Burying third-party podcast apps 15 results down isn’t anticompetitive, it’s stupid.

Barnard, later in the same thread:

Apple might not be lying about manipulating search themselves, but it’s 100X more embarrassing that they have allowed one of the most important experiences on their $50B/yr platform to be so broken and easy to manipulate for more than a decade.

The fact that Apple made both Schiller and Cue available to The Times shows how seriously they take accusations of anti-competitive behavior. Let’s hope they start taking accusations of incompetent stewardship of App Store search just as seriously.