Should Apple Move On From Google Search?

    December 22, 2013
    Chris Crum

Could Apple take on Google in search? Apple has been making some rather interesting moves of late, and some of them are search-related, and lead one to wonder if Apple could legitimately give the search giant a run for its money in its core business.

Do you think Apple could ever compete with Google in the search space? Share your thoughts in the comments.

First off, consider how much searching is done from mobile devices now, and how that will only continue to grow for the foreseeable future.

The three major search engines have each put out their year-end lists of top trending searches, including in the gadgets category, and Apple’s products dominate all of these. The top searched global consumer electronics trend in 2013 on Google was the iPhone 5s. The iPad Air came in at number 7. On Yahoo’s top ten list for gadget/tech searches, iPhone (including 4, 5, 5s, 5c, 6) was number one. Siri was number 3. iPad cases was number 4, Apple iPad was number 7, and iPad 5 was number 10. On Bing’s most searched entertainment electronics list, iPhone was number 2 (only to Xbox), and iPad was number 3.

Suffice it to say, Apple’s products are incredibly popular, as if that wasn’t already a well-known fact. In terms of sheer volume, few would be better poised to take on Google in search from mobile (and tablet devices).

Siri has gotten a lot of attention since it launched, but that doesn’t mean it’s quite as popular as the devices it resides on. Apple’s personal assistant got a big upgrade with the release of iOS 7 this year. It got some major features that an Apple search product would need to truly compete with Google. In addition to understanding more types of commands, it added the ability to search Twitter, Wikipedia integration (one of Google’s favorite sources of search results), and of course Bing web search results. Bing is obviously Google’s main search rival, powering search results on Yahoo and Facebook outside of its own site.

A couple months ago, a survey found that hardly anyone is actually using Siri, but that could change for several reasons, but most notably, one in particular. Apple could get rid of Google Search as the default search for iOS, and force users into a Siri-based experience. Keep in mind, it’s already given such treatment to Google Maps. Getting rid of Google could mean a significant revenue hit for its main rival and a potential new revenue source of its own, should it choose to go down that road.

InvestorPlace contributor Brad Moon ponders the scenario that many of us have, pointing out that iOS was responsible for generating 50% of global mobile advertising in Q2 2013, and saying, “This is an opportunity for Apple and a risk for Google. The opportunity is for Apple to snatch a chunk of that mobile advertising revenue by implementing its own search functionality in Safari, Maps and Siri instead of relying on Google Search or Microsoft’s Bing. Google recognizes the threat, which is one reason why it’s willing to give up some of what could be Android’s killer features — Google Now, Google Maps and the Chrome web browser being prime examples — by developing native versions for iOS and keeping them competitive with the Android versions.”

Of course, we could theorize and speculate all day, but there are some very real pieces of the puzzle already falling into place. Apple has recently made two very interesting, search-related acquisitions: Topsy and Cue (formerly Greplin). Topsy automatically gives Apple something Google doesn’t have – legitimate realtime search by way of Twitter.

Regardless of what Google wants Google+ to be and what Facebook wants itself to be, there is no service that caters to realtime search like Twitter does. If you want to know what people are saying about something right now, you go to Twitter. Simple as that. Well, you go to Twitter or something that can search Twitter as well or better than Twitter Search itself can. Enter Topsy.

Topsy launched a new Twitter search engine in September, indexing every public tweet, and making them all searchable, creating what some would consider a better Twitter search engine than Twitter’s own search feature. In fact, various reports have indicated that Twitter almost bought Topsy itself.

Apple reportedly paid over $200 million for Topsy, and wouldn’t reveal its plans for the acquisition, but a powerful search tool related to Siri and iOS, which already has significant Twitter integration, would give Apple a powerful search weapon that Google wouldn’t apparently be able to compete with. In the realtime vertical that is.

Apple’s other search-related acquisition is just as interesting. Cue has been doing personalized search for a long time. It was pretty interesting when it launched (as Greplin), and illustrated another seemingly vital search vertical that Google wasn’t delivering on – the ability to search across Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc., in a way that would let you get results from your personal networks and files. Google has dabbled in related concepts (like with Search Plus Your World and the search “field trial,” which added results from Gmail, Drive and Calendar at varying degrees of helpfulness). But none of these efforts have been as useful as they could be. Google just doesn’t have access to the necessary data, like private Facebook and Twitter data, for example.

With heavy Facebook and Twitter integration in iOS, this seems like another big opportunity for Apple to do something useful with search that Google isn’t doing.

Pieces of a puzzle.

Earlier this year, a report from Morgan Stanley said Google could pay Apple over $1 billion to remain the default search on iOS (as in Safari). That was before Bing became the default for Siri, and started getting the ability to suggest to iPhone users to switch their default to Bing, but Google is still the default for now.

Google reportedly paid Apple $82 million for it this year, with the price set to go up, based on what is believed to be a per-device deal that keeps growing.

As Romain Dillet wrote, covering the Morgan Stanley report, “Over the years, Apple has gotten more revenue from Google as Microsoft has been pushing very hard and bidding to make Bing the default search engine. For example, Bing is now the default provider on Nokia and BlackBerry devices. Money is a major incentive for Apple. But selling a Google-free iPhone could dictate the company’s next move.”

“Yet, Apple shouldn’t shy away from $1 billion,” added Dillet. “As a company, profit is the most important metric. Google provides an easy way for the company to cash in a significant sum of money every year. At the same time, Google pays more money to Apple than it directly generates from iOS users. But user data is worth a lot.”

So far, Siri has left a lot to be desired, but not really because of Bing, and it seems that Apple will only be working hard (and spending a lot of money) to make it better. With Bing playing a role here, it could open the door for a more unified search experience across iOS from Siri to Safari, and that could mean Google getting shut out (at least at the default level, which is certainly significant). We’ll have to wait and see.

Either way, Google’s own efforts are improving. It’s only getting better when compared to Siri, which is certainly good news for Android.

With apps being such an important part of the mobile experience, it’s also interesting to see how Google and Apple stack up to one another when it comes to app store search and app discoverability. The Pfeiffer App Store Maturity Shootout report was released last month looking at these things. According to that, Google is better at search, but Apple is way better at discovery assistance and content curation.

For search, the study took into account natural language search, queries containing typing mistakes (positive results), support for search operators, advanced search options and the ability to refine search. Here’s how the two (as well as Amazon) looked for that:

Clearly there’s a lot of room for improvement here, even from the reigning king of search.

Discovery assistance and content curation which is related to search in some ways, looked at the number of sub-categories, number of specifically selected groups of apps, and number of specifically selected apps. Apple blew the competition out of the water in this department.

Let’s put it this way, Apple just needs needs to improve search a little to be as good as Google, while Google needs to improve a whole lot to compete with Apple in the other category.

Since that report, Apple has actually made adjustments to its App Store search algorithm, and has improved how the search engine handles misspellings and typos.

While Siri, search in Safari and App Store search are all separate things, all of this shows that Apple is taking search more seriously than ever before, and makes you wonder what its next move is, especially with regards to a deal with Google.

Wired senior editor Ryan Tate says Apple is “betting big on search,” concluding that we should not think of Apple as a hardware company, but “as a tech empire, something that will rival every bit of Google and Facebook.”

What do you think? Can Apple compete with Google in search? Should it ditch Google altogether? Share your thoughts.

Images: Pfeiffer


Chris Crum
Chris Crum has been a part of the WebProNews team and the iEntry Network of B2B Publications since 2003. Follow Chris on Twitter, on StumbleUpon, on Pinterest and/or on Google: +Chris Crum.