Apple "improved" App Store search after its own apps unfairly dominated results

Apple's iOS application store greatly favored the company's iPhone and iPad applications and ranked them above the most popular third-party options until a recent algorithm change, according to a new report from The New York Times . The Times studied the App Store search results (dating back several years) for common queries such as "music" and "podcasts" and discovered that Apple regularly directed customers to a handful of its own applications, including unrelated results such as Compass and Find My Friends, before accessing external developer options.

The Wall Street Journal conducted a similar review of the historical results of the App Store in July and also concluded that Apple's applications had a clear and significant advantage.

Apple told the Times that the App Store really worked as designed in these cases. "There is nothing in the way we run the search in the App Store designed or intended to boost Apple's downloads of our own applications," said Phil Schiller, vice president of Apple who oversees the App Store, in an interview on the subject . "We will present results based on what we believe the user wants." The idea that someone "wants" to see iTunes Remote applications or Clips before Spotify or Pandora when searching for "music" frankly seems a bit of an idiot. That reasoning does not really hold.

But there was another culprit. Apple says it had an algorithm in play that often grouped the same developer's applications into the results. Since Apple applications have basic names like Podcasts or Music, they will appear first, followed by a batch of other irrelevant Apple applications right after.

The algorithm was updated in July, a few months after Spotify filed a formal complaint about Apple's tactics, and the search results quickly seemed more sensitive and balanced later. As the company faces an EU antitrust investigation, Apple executives were careful to avoid admitting irregularities or damaging errors. "It is not corrected," Schiller said of the algorithm. "It has improved," added Eddy Cue, who ran the App Store before Schiller took on those tasks.

The App Store team did not notice for months and to what extent the company's own software was filling the precious slot machines in the search results. Eventually, they did, however, and "a single engineer decided to change the algorithm," which takes into account a long list of criteria when creating search rankings in the App Store.

The algorithm examines 42 different signals, they said, including the relevance of an application for a given search, its rankings and its popularity based on user downloads and clicks.

Apple presented a very public defense of its App Store practices earlier this year and portrayed the digital market as a game changer for application creators. It certainly has been that: Apple says developers have raised more than $ 120 billion in digital sales. But as the only place where iPhone users can download native software, the App Store has faced more thorough scrutiny in recent years. Former employees have also expressed concern regarding the decision making of the company's application store.

Application developers could criticize Apple's propensity to highlight its own software efforts, but the company refuses to give up an inch by recognizing that it could have done something to harm the competition. "We make mistakes all the time," Cue told the Times. Without losing the rhythm, Schiller added that "this was not a mistake."

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