In 2019, downward comprehensive surveys of Wall Street Journal and New York Times showing that Apple’s App Store clearly and consistently ranked its own apps ahead of competitors, Apple claimed it had done nothing wrong – a secret algorithm containing 42 different variables worked as intended, top executives said Times, insists that Apple does not manually change search results.
Why am I taking this up? An exciting email chain has emerged over the course of Epic v. Apple try, where it certainly looks like Apple did the exact opposite ̵
“We’ll remove the manual boost and search results need to be more relevant now,” wrote Apple App Search Manager Debankur Naskar after the company faced Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney over Apple’s Files app, which first appeared when they searched for Dropbox. “Dropbox was not even visible on the first page [of search results], ”Sweeney wrote. You can read the entire email chain embedded a little below.
As you will see, Naskar suggested that Files had been intentionally boosted for the exact search result under “last WWDC.” It would have been WWDC 2017, almost a year earlier, when the Files apps first debuted.
The email chain actually reflects pretty well on Apple in general. Apple’s Matt Fischer (VP of the App Store) is clearly protesting at first with the idea. “[W]ho turned on green by putting the Files over Dropbox app in organic search results? I did not know we were doing it and I do not think we should, ”he says. But he ends the conversation with “In the future, I will have similar requests to me for review / approval”, which suggests that he does not completely rule out manual overrides.
But Apple tells The edge that what we think we see in these emails is not entirely accurate. While Apple did not challenge the idea that Files was unfairly ranked above Dropbox, the company says the reality was a simple mistake: The Files app had a Dropbox integration, so Apple put “Dropbox” in the app’s metadata and it was automatically ranked. higher for “Dropbox” searches as a result.
Does Apple manually increase its first-party apps in search results? Funny, I want someone to testify under oath that it never happens https://t.co/mTgnw8d8CK
– Steve Troughton-Smith (@stroughtonsmith) June 7, 2021
I’m a little skeptical about this explanation – partly because it does not agree with what Naskar suggests in the email, partly because Apple also told me that it immediately fixed the bug (despite the fact that it apparently continued to exist for 11 months, hardly instantly) and partly because the company repeatedly ignored my questions about whether this has ever happened to other apps before.
The most thing Apple would tell me is that it did not manually boost Files across competitors, and that “we do not distribute our apps over any developer or competitor” as a general rule.
But honestly, it might not matter about Apple manually boosted its own apps or not. What matters is the result: For 11 months, Apple’s new Files app owned exact searches for its competitor Dropbox, a company that Steve Jobs claimed he wanted to kill, and it took the CEO of a prominent Apple partner, who emailed the company before Apple did anything about it. And based on Wall Street JournalApple’s investigation may not have done much: The Files app still ranked # 1 in the App Store for cloud storage in June 2018, a month after this email chain was released, according to an infographic that came with WSJ history.
Moreover, the distinction between a “manual” boost and any other kind of boost can be purely academic. After all, algorithms are written by humans. If Apple can build a 42-factor algorithm that gives its own apps favorable results, then why should it have to override this algorithm and risk its emails getting caught in a lawsuit years from now?
It could just fine-tune this algorithm of its choice – which is exactly what it did to solve the problem WSJ and NOW‘s control two years ago. It required only a single engineer to change the algorithm in July 2019, according to Times, and Apple’s own apps immediately dropped in the App Store ranking. But at the time, executives said the previous formula was not a mistake. Apple would simply make it look less as if its own apps were receiving special treatment. So it “improved” the algorithm to achieve the new result it wanted.
Apple made this statement:
We created the App Store to be a safe and reliable 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. We do this in a way that is fair to all developers, and we do not distribute our apps over any developer or competitor. Today, developers have many opportunities to distribute their apps, which is why we work hard to make it easy, fair, and a great opportunity for them to develop apps for our customers around the world.