How Apple stacked the App Store with its own products

When I saw the New York Times headline, I immediately went straight to skeptical. But.

Follow the headline link, then start scrolling, slowly. You’ll start with:

If you opened the App Store on an iPhone in May 2018 and typed “podcast” in the search box, you would have seen something like this.

No surprise, it’s Apple’s podcast app. Fair enough. But keep scrolling.

On some days, you would have had to scroll through as many as 14 Apple apps before finding one made by a different publisher.

It does seem logical for Apple’s podcast app to come first in search results. It’s free and it’s from Apple. But the follow on results make the Times’ case here.

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.

The two senior execs are Phil Schiller and Eddy Cue.

The executives said the company did not manually alter search results to benefit itself. Instead, they said, Apple apps generally rank higher than competitors because of their popularity and because their generic names are often a close match to broad search terms.

Next, the article posts an interactive search for the term “music” over the years:

  • Before Apple Music arrived in the App Store, Spotify was for years the first result in searches for “music.”
  • Shortly after Apple Music was released in June 2016, it took the top spot. By then, Spotify had fallen to fourth place.
  • In Feb. 2018, Apple apps suddenly appeared in the top six results for “music”
  • By the end of 2018, there were eight, some of which were unrelated to music. At this point, Spotify was the 23rd result.

There’s a lot more detail in the article, all very interesting. A final bit:

Over the past several months, Apple engineers said, they began noticing how the algorithm was packing results with Apple apps. First, they stopped the algorithm from doing that for certain searches. In July, they turned it off for all Apple apps.


Mr. Schiller and Mr. Cue said the algorithm had been working properly. They simply decided to handicap themselves to help other developers.

I’ve long wished for Apple to take the side of developers, given them precedence over Apple, help make it easier for indie developers to make a living on the App Store.

But there’s a flip side. Should Apple not include a built-in flashlight to avoid stepping on developer toes? I can absolutely see the logic in Apple wanting to build in a certain level of functionality to compete with Android. And Spotify. It’s a bit of a balancing act, one that’s getting trickier all the time.