Apple accused of pushing its own apps to the top in App Store search results

What you need to know

  • The App Store uses an algorithm powered by machine learning and past consumer preferences.
  • This algorithm causes search results that fluctuate.
  • All apps are subjected to this algorithm, including Apple's.

When it comes to the competition in the App Store, it's already a cutthroat market. According to a report by The Wall Street Journal, Apple's own apps are appearing first in App Store searches, making it unfair for third-party developers.

For example, if you do a search on the App Store for "maps," Apple's own Maps app ranks first, and appears right underneath an ad for Google Maps. Underneath Apple Maps, you'll see Google Maps, Waze, and other map apps. If you search for "music," Apple Music shows up prominently at the top (including an ad), followed by other options like YouTube Music, Spotify, and more. A search for "books" returns Apple Books at the top, followed by Amazon Kindle, Audible, Nook, and more.

The WSJ's own testing with App Store search revealed that Apple's apps ranked first over 60 percent of the time. The apps that generate revenue for Apple, like Music or Books, showed up at the top in 95 percent of searches relating to those terms.

However, Apple responded to this report by the WSJ by doing their own testing, and getting different results. According to Apple, the App Store uses an algorithm that utilizes machine learning, and past consumer preferences. The result of this algorithm are results that often fluctuate. Apple believes that their apps ranked first in WSJ's testing due to the fact that they are popular with consumers. Apple claims that all apps are subjected to the same algorithm, including their own.

"Apple customers have a very strong connection to our products and many of them use search as a way to find and open their apps," Apple said in a statement. "This customer usage is the reason Apple has strong rankings in search, and it's the same reason Uber, Microsoft and so many others often have high rankings as well."

The reason for having Apple's own apps in the App Store is because while all of Apple's apps are installed by default on iOS devices, users can delete them if desired. If they change their mind later on and want to get those apps back, all they need to do is re-download them from the App Store.

One of the highlights from the WSJ's report is the audiobooks category. AudioBooks.com held the top spot for two years before Apple Books ranked first last September. Because of this dethroning, AudioBooks.com had a 25 percent decline in daily app downloads.

WSJ believes that Apple's dominance over third-party developers and services gives Apple the upper hand, since their default apps are not held to the same standards that third-party apps must adhere to. For example, Apple apps do not have ratings or reviews, which usually influence an app's rankings in search results.

In fact, there are 42 factors that help determine where apps rank in search, including: downloads, ratings, relevance, and user behavior. To elaborate, user behavior includes things like the number of times that users select an app from a search and then actually go on and download it.

If you want to read the full report by The Wall Street Journal, you can find it over on their website (subscription required).