Are Apple Building a Search Engine?

Google currently pay Apple billions to be the default search engine on Apple devices including the iPhone and iPad. It’s a cosy relationship that he drawn the attention of regulators in the recent antitrust hearings.

Although is it reasonably simple to change your default search engine, a very small percentage of users ever do. Google argue this is because users are happy with the experience and search results but their competitors and the regulators are calling for more transparency and an end to tie-in deals like the one Google currently has with Apple.

What are Apple doing about it?

There’s growing evidence that Apple may be building their own search engine to replace, or at least offer an alternative to, Google on their devices and in a recent update to iOS (the operating system for iPhone and iPad) they began showing their own search results as well as results powered by Google.

This is an important change not just for Apple and Google, but for businesses all over the planet.

Two and a half years ago, Apple poached Google’s head of search, John Giannandrea. Apple frequently advertise for search engineers to “define and implement the architecture of Apple’s groundbreaking search technology”.

SEOs are also seeing increased activity from Applebot, Apple’s web crawler. This increased crawl rate, most SEOs agree, is a definite sign that Google is ramping up its search effort and increasing the size of its index.

Most significantly, iOS 14 replaced Google for certain search functions. Queries made in the search window accessed by swiping right from the iPhone’s home screen now show an Apple-generated list of search suggestions rather than Google results. These results include “autocomplete”-style suggestions generated by Apple; a possible clue that Apple are already learning from the searches of its 1bn users.

Can Apple succeed with their Search Engine?

It’s Apple’s 1bn strong user base that could be the key to Apple succeeding when others, including Microsoft, have failed… unseating Google as the king of search.

Apple has a long history of developing tight integration between its services, software, and hardware. It builds proprietary chips when other hardware manufacturers buy in. It writes it’s own operating system while it’s competitors hitch their wagon to Microsoft or Google. Leaning into Google for search is an anachronism in their landscape, albeit a lucrative one.

Yet Apple has stuck with Google as the iPhone’s default search engine for more than a decade. Why?

Maybe it’s that 8 billion dollars?

The US DoJ has estimated that Google pays $8bn-12bn annually to be the iPhone’s default search engine. That gives you some idea of just how lucrative advertising to iPhone users is.

But, Apple is currently fighting with just about everyone when it comes to their role as “gatekeeper” between their users and other peoples services and the heavy price they charge for access whilst, at the same time, advertising their platform as being “privacy-first” for their users, a position that’s somewhat incompatible with passing a whole load of search info to a third party.

With these battles mounting up and the very real prospect of the DoJ blocking any future “sweetheart” arrangements between Google and Apple, it makes a lot of sense for Apple to invest in search.

Google are still a competitor to Apple in the mobile, tablet, and laptop space. Maybe Apple finally realised that if Google are willing to pay $12B to access their customers, the advertising revenue from their customers must be worth a lot more than $12B. Taking access away from Google and positioning themselves as a powerful new player in the online advertising space would be very smart business for Apple. If they did this without the DoJ’s approval it could be yet another problem but, if they are told that they can’t buy search from Google any more…

Suddenly, introducing their own search engine and making it the default on iOS fits very well into the likely future of Apple.

What should you do about Apple’s new search engine?

Right now, there’s very little you can do – it’s impossible to start optimising for a search engine you can’t see or work with.

What you should start planning for is how you might diversify your CPC and SEO spend if and when Apple’s search engine becomes active. iPhone users tend to be a higher converting and higher spending demographic, so advertising on this platform is going to be very important. Equally, if you are out-sourcing your SEO at the moment, expect to see price increases from your SEO provider if they have to double their efforts to cover two major search engines instead of one.

Now really is the time to make sure that you are in control of your own search engine optimisation tools and workflow to protect your business and give yourself the best chance of success in a world where there might be more than one major search engine.

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