Apple’s options for search

I did a post for Insiders last week about Mozilla’s new search deal with Yahoo which replaces Google as the default search engine in Firefox in the US. But as part of that post, I also briefly touched on the fact Apple is also a major referrer of search traffic to Google and has the potential to make a much more disruptive move should it choose to replace Google as the default search engine in iOS. I wanted to explore that idea a little further this week, especially since The Information is reporting this deal is up for renewal next year.

A precedent in iOS 6 and Maps

As I mentioned in that piece, the best starting point for a discussion about what Apple should – and will – do when this decision comes around is what Apple did with Maps in iOS 6. If you cast your mind back a couple of years, Apple had a long-standing relationship with Google as the provider of tiles and data for the iOS Maps application and, in 2012, Apple decided not to renew that relationship and instead decided to go its own way with maps, creating its own application and sourcing data from a variety of providers in order to make the switch. How you see that decision in retrospect likely significantly impacts your view on whether Apple should or will make the switch away from Google as the default search provider in Safari.

So, did the Maps decision turn out to be a good one or a bad one? Was it a rare exception to Apple’s usual focus on putting the user experience first and therefore a mistake, or was it a calculated strategic move which had short term downsides but long term benefits, both for Apple and its users? I did a post a year ago on this topic on my personal blog and the conclusion I reached then was it likely benefited Google, which went from not monetizing any of its iOS usage to monetizing all of it, albeit with a smaller share of total usage. Meanwhile, Apple got a black eye in the press and with users over the inferior original experience, but around 60% of iOS users now use Apple Maps at least once a month, suggesting they consider the experience good enough. Overall, I’m inclined to think Google didn’t come off too badly and Apple likely thinks the tradeoff was worth it over the long run, despite the pain in the short run.

Limits to the precedent

However, this isn’t an exact like-for-like decision. Search and Maps are very different services, and Google’s position in both services is very different too. Though the iOS Maps app was based on Google Maps data and tiles, it wasn’t a fully Google-branded experience – it had something of an Apple wrapper around it and the Google branding was subtle. The new app therefore looked different, but wasn’t obviously badged differently. In addition, Maps is an occasional use service – something you use when you don’t know where you’re going, or are looking for some place new. Search is something many people use on a daily basis and both Google’s brand and its dominance in search are greater than either are in Maps, despite its strengths. Some 90% of US smartphone users access Google’s various sites through their browser in a given month, compared with just 45% or so for the Google Maps app. As such, swapping out the default search provider has the potential to be much more disruptive on an everyday basis to most users than swapping out maps data.

On the other hand, there are reasons why this might actually be easier: part of what was so jarring about Apple’s Maps experience was the look and feel changed significantly, not just the underlying data. It was a very noticeable change. On the other hand, with most search providers now offering, visually at least, an almost indistinguishable list of ten blue links, switching the default search provider might actually be less jarring visually, with the exception of the logo in the top left corner. I’ve experimented with changing the default search provider on my iPhone over the last few months and it often takes me a second to remember I’ve made the switch, at least visually (I cynically speculated last week that Yahoo’s revamped “search experience” in Firefox is designed to look as similar as possible to the Google search results page). However, it’s been more noticeable in the search results themselves which, for less mainstream queries, have been clearly inferior both for Microsoft’s Bing and DuckDuckGo. For popular queries, the results are comparable, but for more obscure or detailed searches, Google still comes out on top in my experience. And that’s the worry here – just as the switch away from Google Maps produced a worse user experience, at least in the short term, so might a switch away from Google search.

Bad for Google, likely bad enough for Apple not to do it

For Google, the switch in search would be far more damaging than the switch in Maps. With Maps, though Google no doubt generated useful data from iOS users, it generated no direct revenue, since it couldn’t serve up ads within the iOS interface. Once it switched to a third party app, it was able to monetize it, even with a smaller share. However, Google significantly monetizes the search traffic it gets through iOS today, to an extent its payments to Apple each quarter are in the hundreds of millions of dollars. As such, a switch away could put a significant dent in Google’s overall search revenues, especially since many people don’t change defaults.

Ultimately though, the question comes down to this: is Apple willing to sacrifice the user experience in the short term to serve strategic objectives, as it did with replacing Google Maps? Or does it now view that as a strategic mistake it doesn’t want to repeat? Whether or not Apple ends up replacing Google as the default search provider depends to a great extent on how it answers that question internally. I suspect Apple will come down on the side of keeping Google and preserving the best possible user experience, at the expense of its strategic objectives, and Google’s iOS-driven search revenue is therefore likely safe. However, I also think it’ll continue to bolster its efforts to answer users’ queries before they ever reach the list of blue links, in Siri, in Spotlight and elsewhere, which will continue to have a smaller but significant impact over time.

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Jan Dawson

Jan Dawson is Founder and Chief Analyst at Jackdaw Research, a technology research and consulting firm focused on consumer technology. During his sixteen years as a technology analyst, Jan has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. As such, he brings a unique perspective to the consumer technology space, pulling together insights on communications and content services, device hardware and software, and online services to provide big-picture market analysis and strategic advice to his clients. Jan has worked with many of the world’s largest operators, device and infrastructure vendors, online service providers and others to shape their strategies and help them understand the market. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Jan worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as Chief Telecoms Analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally.

23 thoughts on “Apple’s options for search”

    1. Interesting, but in a similar way to when Steve Jobs explained his decision to drop Flash, I would go as far as to say that search is a technology that is on its way down. Instead, social and apps are what are trending upwards.

  1. Apple switching from Google to Yahoo will be similar to the move by some merchant that want to force user to use their inferior current C payment system instead of Apple Pay.

      1. do you expect the same thing for Apple which forced IOS user to use their inferior product such as Map by making it the only one available as default?

        1. In August, PC mag tested Apple maps for iPhone and said “searching worked well in our tests…graphics look great…the flyover feature is lots of fun.” And Google Maps is available on iOS, so users have a choice if they want it. I don’t expect Apple to regret anything.

        2. “default” and “only one available” are two different things. It will not be the only one available; default simply means it will be the one activated until the user chooses otherwise.

          And, no, it’s not quite the same thing as stores choosing CuurentC over Apple Pay. Apple Pay uses existing NFC equipment already in a Stores, and some stores switched NFC off entirely, making Google Wallet users (all ten of them), etc. suffer as well. On iOS you canuse Google’s map app, and you canuse Google Search.

          1. the way i see is that Apple has locked their suite of service as default in their OS for the same reason that the Current C consortium switched NFC off entirely for Apple Pay.

            is to prevent a third party acting as a middle men in partnership with their business enemy from making money of their consumer while getting leverage over them which may result in higher Fee to their merchant and your reaction is a little bit hypocritical

        3. Kenny try to remain within reality, you can use Google maps as your default map app, well you can’t obviously but everyone else can.

  2. Go Strategic Nuclear on Google search, went to other searches and am totally happy with the results. I own Apple products, Google won’t ever own me and my info. Peariod.

    1. I use StartPage which piggybacks off Google, SP becoming your deliverer and you become anonymous to Google. It’s one of those few cases where you actually do get to eat your cake and have it too.
      Namaste and care,

  3. Jan, I don’t know anything about the business case for Apple Maps but I can tell you that as a user I only had to try Apple Maps once, and I dropped Google immediately and never went back.

    For some reason Google made the dumb mistake of replicating the print version of maps and divided their product up into pages. In the print version of a map that’s absolutely necessary if you don’t want the map to be as big as a wall, but there is no reason to do that when a map is on a computer. Apple Maps for the area where I live (Northern Virginia) is all one single continuous map.

    You just type in the address you want to look at, and it comes up on your screen. You can zoom in or out and if you want to move in a particular direction, you swipe two fingers on your trackpad and the whole map – not the cursor – moves the way you want to go. Let’s say you want to follow a road for several miles (which seems to happen often). You just keep swiping your trackpad and the road passes by as you watch. It’s effortless and you can follow the road as far as it goes, even if it goes for miles. If you try that with Google you’ll soon hit the edge of a page. Then you have to notice that the road ends at E8 at the edge of the page, flip to the next page, look for E8 on the *opposite edge*, pick up the road again, and follow it until it soon hits the edge of that page, and then repeat the whole process for the next page. It’s very tedious, and there’s no need for it when a map is on a computer.

    If you want to stay in one area and wander around it, you can move the cursor (instead of the map) by swiping one finger instead of two on your trackpad, and use the cursor to pinpoint the spot you want to look at. As far as errors go, I’ve been using Apple Maps for months and I’ve only seen one minor error: a street that’s only a few hundred feet long was missing. I’ll never go back to Google maps.

  4. PLEASE tell Tech.pinions to STOP putting a big block of color on the left side of the page with Facebook, Twitter etc. in it. It partly hides text on the left side and it’s really annoying!

  5. Ultimately though, the question comes down to this: is Apple willing to sacrifice the user experience in the short term to serve strategic objectives, as it did with replacing Google Maps?

    I have two questions;

    Could you please share if you have any estimates on the extent to which Google’s financial results will suffer? I think it could be quite a lot. Given Tim Cook’s recent attitude towards Google, I think the amount of damage inflictable would be a strong factor in Apple’s decision.

    Me and you, who like to Google to research lot’s of stuff on the web, will ultimately use Google, even on smartphones. The results are different enough to strongly affect productivity. However, I have very little idea how most people use search, especially on mobile. It seems that they don’t search much at all on mobile. I suspect that even if they did, they wouldn’t be looking for an obscure blog post, but they would rather simply be searching for a newspaper website or something very simple. In these scenarios, alternative search engines might already be good enough.

    Do you have an idea of what most people search the web for? Are simple queries dominant? Do most people need the more advanced and precise searches that Google provides? Would they notice?

    My hypothesis is that Google Search is already overshooting the demands of most people, especially on mobile. The rise of apps and the small amount of time spent on the web seems to indicate this. I think that therefore, there is a possibility of low-end disruption by in this case, Bing and DuckDuckGo. I also think that there is a possibility that the rules (business models) of the game may change in Search, something that DuckDuckGo seems eager to do, and this will accelerate disruption.

  6. I’m not sure it’s the either or case you’re laying out. First, we know that desktop and smartphone users have different use cases for search. On the former, Google search as default in Safari is more critical than on iPhones where apps play a significant role in replacing search in iOS Safari. Second, Apple is already rejigging search so that results from Bing (?) show up before Google results when using Safari search despite Google being the default search engine. If the goal is to screw Google without a substantial dip in the quality of results Apple perhaps has other small ways to zap Google without going nuclear by switching to Bing or some homebrew (see what I did there?). My guess is that Apple will continue to marginalise Google on OSX and iOS as much as possible while avoiding a Maps like cold turkey switch.

  7. Apple’s decision to leave Google’s map data wasn’t just strategic. Google refused to provide turn by turn directions and other features unless Apple agreed to hand over user data to Google and provide stronger “Google” branding on the Apple refused to do that, so it’s not like Apple had any other choices if they wanted a mapping service comparable to the one Google provided on Android. Apple could have waited another year, but what would be the point in waiting longer?

  8. Jan, there is one major difference between Apple’s decision to drop Google Maps and the potential decision to drop Google as the default search option. According to reports I read at the time, Google made the decision to end the Maps relationship as much as Apple did. Google was insisting on adding all of the monetization to the app that Apple had always forbidden. While there was some short term pain in the switch to Apple’s own Maps data (not for me, since Apple Maps was more accurate in Boston than Google Maps), in the long term, more iPhone & iPad users use Apple Maps than Google Maps (according to Daniel Eran Dilger of Apple Insider), and Apple has maintained the ad-free, user-friendly experience of the Maps app. In terms of search, so long as Google is not making the experience worse for Apple users than users of other operating systems, Apple will continue to make Google the default option.

  9. Another thing about maps is that the experience changed depending on where you were, in China for example maps improved dramatically. In the UK and Spain I haven’t noticed any difference. So it could easily be ‘you win some, you lose some’. Search I think would be different and in serch Apple and Google are both interested in giving IOS users the best experience.

  10. Great topic but I have a few questions Jan.

    Does the current Google Maps on iOS automatically log me into my Gmail account like YouTube, Gmail and every other Google service?

    ie If I log into Gmail app on iOS, does that automatically let Google add location data to my Google “profile?

    What maps does Uber use on iOS?

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