Apple claims it does not favor its own apps when they ranked the search results for the iOS App Store and pushed back against findings in a survey by The Wall Street Journal published this afternoon showing how less popular Apple apps often rank higher than better-rated software from third-party competitors. WSJ found that Apple's own apps ranked first in 60 percent of the app categories in the App Store, including categories such as books and maps where Apple's own offerings were far less popular than alternatives from competitors such as Amazon and Google.
For example, Apple's Apple Books app, which does not have a listed five-star rating or number of downloads publicly available, is listed as the first result when searching for "books" in the US version of the Store app. (The rankings may change slightly in other countries, but The Verge has confirmed that Apple options often hold # 1
Amazon's Kindle app, which has a 4.8-star rating and has been rated 1.2 million times, is found lower than Apple Books in the search results, at Nr. 2 with a Featured App ad in between. It is ranked as the third most popular app on the Books tab. The same situation plays out for Maps, where Apple's offerings are higher in search results than Google Maps and Waze, which are ranked first and second in the category, respectively. (Map, similar to Calendar and Calculator, is not ranked among other navigation apps because it is pre-loaded on iOS.)
In fact, Apple has once mulled over removing all apps with less than a two-star rating, but the previous App Store leader Phillip Shoemaker told WSJ that his team, who proposed removal in 2015, was told it would kill Apple's own Podcasts app, which had less than a two-star rating at that time. Many of Apple's apps no longer have rankings associated with.
Apple denies manipulating search results rankings in cases like the The Verge pulls out, saying it uses both name hits and "user behavior data," among dozens of other factors to make decisions about how to rank results . In fact, the company told WSJ that it has a total of 42 factors it takes into account when ranking search results, but it keeps that ranking algorithm secret, supposedly to prevent manipulation of search results by third party developers.
"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 to WSJ in a statement. "This customer use is why Apple has strong rankings in search, and that's the same reason why Uber, Microsoft and so many others often have high rankings as well."
Effectively, Apple seems to say that because users are using iOS Spotlight searches to find apps they have already downloaded, their own apps with correlating names increase in search. So searching for Google Maps with just "maps" can apparently make Apple Maps the top-ranked app in the App Store.
Apple was not immediately available for comment.
Apple is currently reviewing the operation of the App Store, amidst a tumor of antitrust feelings brewing in both Europe and the United States. Among the simplest goals of regulators seeking for anti-competitive behavior are search rankings and corporate self-promotion. The latter was the basis of the landmark antitrust case against Microsoft in the 1990s, and the combination of using search results to increase its own offering is what made Google slam with a multibillion-dollar antitrust bot in the EU back in 2017.  Apple claims it does not operate a monopoly because of the relatively small market share of iOS commands compared to Google's dominant Android operating system. Nevertheless, there are other ways in which the company can be targeted by regulators and the judicial system. The US Supreme Court ruled in May that Apple could be sued by app buyers, and opened the company for appeals from users of the App Store, rather than just developers. Two developers have also filed a lawsuit against the company claiming the App Store is an illegal monopoly for the ways Apple controls prices and discoveries, developers charge 30 percent of each transaction, and the deployment restrictions outside the App Store.
Apple has also entered a number of controversies over the past few years with how it handles apps that compete with their own offers. The company was in hot water after banning a number of parental controls earlier this year, claiming that they violated users' privacy by accessing certain iOS developer tools. Following a shout accusing Apple of closing competitors to market its own Screen Time feature, Apple began recovering some of the parental controls it banned just last month.
Spotify has also spurred a survey in the EU about Apple's 30 percent cut in app purchases, with Spotify claiming it gives Apple Music an unfair price advantage if Spotify is forced to praise its own offer at a higher price to do up for Apple's cut. Amazon, Netflix and others have responded to Apple's approach at times by refusing to allow users to make purchases in the app at all on iOS to avoid Apple's cuts, and because the company will often keep developers in update limbo if they try to bypass Apple's payment system .
These controversies are likely to affect how regulators see Apple's approach to the App Store, and its defense in this case of search result rankings, in the coming months and years. As it looks right now, Apple has complete control over the iOS app's ecosystem, but it can all change if it is found to be an unfair manager of an uneven game field.