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Could an Apple search engine give Google a run for its money?

Categories: SEO

Rumours of Apple building its own search engine intensified towards the end of 2020 after a key update in iOS 14. In the latest version of Apple’s mobile OS, users can now search the web through Spotlight, a built-in search feature that was previously limited to finding files and apps on the device itself.

This comes as new antitrust cases look into the multibillion-dollar payments Google makes to Apple so that it can remain the default search engine on iOS devices.

Now, leading voices in the tech industry speculate that Apple is building its own dedicated search engine, which would provide its own alternative should authorities block the existing deal with Google, and make Apple less reliant on the world’s top search engine.

The question is, could an Apple search engine ever compete with Google?

What do we know about Apple’s rumoured search engine?

First of all, Apple has said nothing about building a standalone search engine or changing the current deal in place with Google – this is all speculation from within the tech industry. However, we do know that Apple has the capability to launch its own search engine and all of the key functionality is already present in iOS 14.

For certain search functions, iOS 14 bypasses Google entirely. Users can swipe right from the home screen of their iPhones to access the “Today View” and search queries typed into the search window generate a list of Apple search results, not Google.

Apple search feature

Source

These results include autocomplete suggestions, which tells us that Apple’s own search algorithm is already learning from its 1+bn iPhone users.

In October last year, the Financial Times published an article covering the latest rumours on Apple’s search engine, citing digital marketing consultant, Suganthan Mohanadasan, who said Applebot had started showing up on his clients’ website “a ridiculous number of times”.

As the same FT article notes, Apple hired Google’s head of search, John Giannandrea, in 2018 although the official word is that he was brought in to develop the AI capabilities of Siri.

Either way, Apple has all of the tools it needs to launch its own search engine, should the company decide this is the path to follow.

Does it make sense for Apple to go it alone?

Financially speaking, this question hangs on the outcome of antitrust investigations looking into the deal between Google and Apple that keeps Google Search as the default search engine on iOS devices.

While 83.3% of Alphabet’s revenue in 2019 came from Google, roughly half of the search giant’s traffic comes from Apple devices. As a result, Google is believed to pay anywhere between $8 and $12 billion a year to Apple for a simple line of code that keeps Google Search as the default search engine in apps like Safari – a hefty increase from $1 billion in 2014.

So any ruling that interrupts this relationship is going to cost Apple money and it would also lose the benefit of having the world’s favourite search engine set as the default on iOS.

The good news for Apple is that it’s got the user numbers to take a crack at launching its own search engine. Yes, it would create a fragmented search experience across platforms but a court ruling would justify the move to any users frustrated by the change and, presumably, users would still be able to manually set Google as their default search engine.

The challenge for Apple would be filling that $8-$12 billion hole in annual revenue.

Apple has experience in going it alone and taking on industry monopolies, though. The company has just released its first range of M1 Mac devices, featuring its own ARM Silicon chips, breaking away from its dependence on Intel. Now, Apple is building its own machines, its own software and even building the internals – all the way down to the chips powering its phones and computers.

Apple now manufactures its own chips for the new range of Macs
Apple now manufactures its own chips for the new range of Macs (source).

The M1 machines are shaping up as an instant success, too.

Another key area where Apple is paving its own path is the tentative subject of privacy. In March, Apple updated its own Safari browser with a feature that blocks third-party cookies as part of the company’s new direction on data protection. Google plans to do the same by 2022 but Apple is putting itself at the forefront of the privacy movement, most evident in its feud with Facebook over a proposed iOS feature that will require users to give their permission for apps like Facebook to collect their data.

Could an Apple search engine ever compete with Google?

Again, Apple’s biggest strength is its loyal base of users and the key question is this: how important is Google Search to these people? It’s also worth noting that Apple has positioned itself as the champion of user privacy (even though it still guzzles up plenty of user data itself) and this could be the selling point that sets it apart from Google and the usual competitors like Bing.

This leads on to another important point: how will Apple monetise its search engine?

Google relies on its ad business, which also relies heavily on capturing user data so that advertisers can target the right audiences, but Apple is under no obligation to follow the same business model.

Unlike Google, Apple builds all of its own devices, most of its own software and now even builds the chips powering its machines. Sure, Apple could monetise its search engine with ads but it doesn’t need to and this could give it another vital selling point to command market share – an ad-free search engine that doesn’t watch your every move.

If Apple takes the ad-free approach, though, it will have to find another way to plug that $8-$12 billion gap.

Either way, there’s no pressure on Apple to become the world’s biggest search engine – that all lies on Google. It was the same story with Apple Maps, which endured a rocky launch but established itself as the default maps app for 60% of iPhone users in the UK within its first year. More recently, Apple Music has risen to become the second-biggest name in music streaming, only beaten by Spotify. While Apple Pay is a resounding success for the company, accounting for 5% of all global transactions and calculated to reach 10% by 2025.

Number of Apple Pay users worldwide as of Sept 2020
The rise of Apple Pay is another example of Apple entering and disrupting new markets (source).

In reality, it would take a lot for Apple to truly rival Google in the search game but the fact is, it doesn’t need to. The loss of a multibillion-dollar deal would hurt but Google would stand to lose significantly more if a sizeable chunk of iOS users started using another search engine.

What would an Apple search engine mean for marketers?

This is actually the most difficult question to answer because we don’t know what a future Apple search engine would look like. From an SEO perspective, an Apple search engine wouldn’t change a great deal although a less mature algorithm than Google’s could have an impact on the keyword opportunities available on Apple’s search engine.

The big question is whether Apple would monetise its rumoured search engine with paid ads.

If Apple breaks the trend and builds an ad-free search engine without any user tracking, every user that turns its back on Google in favour of Apple’s search engine would be another user marketers and businesses couldn’t reach through search ads – and this would be significant.

The questions keep coming, though, and we have to ask how long Apple could resist the lucrative pull of monetising through ads?

If Apple takes the paid advertising route, the battle between Google and Apple could get interesting and the emergence of a new advertising channel would be welcomed by marketing and businesses, increasing competition and keeping prices in check. Not only would this be less disruptive for marketers, it would open up new opportunities and place increased pressure on the likes of Google and Facebook to keep advertisers happy.

Another key factor would be how the company would deal with rolling out this rumoured search engine. Apple has a history of building very US-centric experiences and then gradually rolling out across Europe and Asia before global releases. This would mean companies in the UK would have more time to adapt to any disruption and we would get a preview of what to expect based on how things go in the US.

What happens next?

The big story to follow is the antitrust case filed by the US Department of Justice against Google, which accuses the company of unlawfully maintaining its monopoly on search and paid advertising.

This legal battle could run on for years but the outcome could shape the future of search and paid advertising, not only for Google but all search providers and any potential Apple search engine.

Some analysts suggest the outcome could even spark a new wave of antitrust cases against the likes of Facebook, Amazon and Apple – for example, Apple’s own App Store policies – which could shake up the entire tech industry, if Google loses this first, crucial legal battle.

Until a verdict in Google’s case is reached, it’s anyone’s guess as to what the tech landscape is going to look like in five years’ time. However, we can be sure that tech giants like Apple will be looking at a wide range of strategies to survive potential outcomes and capitalise on the losses of any competitors.

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Lee is Head of Services for Vertical Leap, after previously heading up the SEO department. Lee joined Vertical Leap in 2010 after running digital departments since the early 2000’s. Prior to joining Vertical Leap, Lee had experience setting up and running his own company focused on search marketing, as well as working in-house, growing a national company into international audiences through online development. Lee can be found regularly writing about the SEO industry and has authored two SEO industry books.

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