Apple manipulated App Store search to favor its own apps over the competition
Back in 2019, after investigations done by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, it appeared that Apple was ranking its own apps ahead of competitors' similar apps in the App Store search feature. This is an issue that lawmakers are seriously concerned with and it has been associated with other companies that sell their own products alongside third-party brands.
Google and Amazon are two companies that have been accused of such behavior. Apple denied that it had done anything wrong and as reported by The Verge, the company pointed to a secret algorithm it uses with 42 variables to prevent it from manipulating the App Store search results.
Email shows that Apple manipulated App Store search results to favor its own app
But now it appears that Apple did boost App Store search results. Email that was released during the Epic vs. Apple lawsuit showed that the tech giant apparently admitted that it had boosted the placement of its own Files app above listings for the competition during a time period that lasted 11 months.
Apple app search lead Debankur Naskar hinted that some hanky panky was going on at Apple when he wrote in an email "We are removing the manual boost and the search results should be more relevant now."
Apple app search lead Debankur Naskar admits in an email that Apple was manipulating App Store search results
Naskar was responding to an email from Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney who was a major Apple partner at the time. Sweeney had "confronted" Apple after the latter's Files app landed first in the App Store's search results when he searched for Dropbox. While you might not be able to tell the executive's tone from written words, you can imagine Sweeney sounding incredulous when he emailed Apple to say that "Dropbox wasn’t even visible on the first page [of search results]."
Apple explained away the issue by telling The Verge that its Files app had a Dropbox integration. Thus, Apple included "Dropbox" in the metadata for its Files app and as a result, Files was always ranked ahead of Dropbox. This response doesn't match Naskar's comments about "removing the manual boost."
The late Steve Jobs wanted Dropbox dead after it turned down his offer to buy the firm for Apple
Dropbox has been a problem for Apple going back to 2009 when then Apple CEO Steve Jobs said that iCloud would help kill off Dropbox after Jobs could not convince Dropbox CEO Drew Houston to sell what was then a start up company to Apple.
One engineer at Apple changed the algorithm for App Store search in July 2019 dropping the placement of Apple's own app in the search results. The New York Times back in September 2019 showed how those searching the App Store for "music" would see streamer Spotify at the top of the list with Pandora eighth. Repeating the same search in 2016 resulted in Apple Music appearing at the top of the list with Spotify fourth.
Two years later, the top six results under "music" consisted of Apple's own music based apps. Pandora remained in eighth place. By December 2018, the first eight search results were all for Apple's own apps, some unrelated to music: (Apple Music, Garage Band, iTunes Remote, Music Memos, Logic Remote, iTunes Store, iMovie, Clips) while Spotify was number 23.
After Spotify complained to European regulators, the results for April 2019 were much different with iTunes and Apple Music numbers 1-2, but with Spotify fourth and YouTube Music fifth. Apple had no other apps appearing under a search in the App Store under "music."
Apple released a statement to The Verge that says, "We created the App Store to be a safe and trusted place for customers to discover and download apps, and a great business opportunity for all developers. App Store Search has only one goal — to get customers what they are looking for."
More importantly, Apple added that "We do that in a way that is fair to all developers and we do not advantage our apps over those of any developer or competitor. Today, developers have many options for distributing their apps and that’s why we work hard to make it easy, fair and a great opportunity for them to develop apps for our customers around the world."