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Apple execs say App Store search has changed after new antitrust concerns come to light

Key Points
  • Apple tweaked its App Store in July to reduce the frequency of its own apps in search results, two top Apple executives tell The New York Times.
  • Competitors have raised concerns about Apple's App Store to regulators and courts around the world.
  • The Apple executives say the change was not made to fix a "mistake," but rather to help other developers.
Phil Schiller, senior vice president of worldwide marketing at Apple Inc., speaks at an Apple event at the Steve Jobs Theater at Apple Park on September 12, 2018 in Cupertino, California.
Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

Apple has tweaked its App Store to reduce the frequency of its own apps in search results after competitors raised antitrust concerns with regulators around the world, two executives told The New York Times in an interview published Monday.

A Times analysis found that results for popular search terms often surfaced several Apple-made apps, even when they were less relevant than apps by competitors. For example, a search for "podcasts" in May 2018 would first show Apple's podcast app, followed by 13 other Apple-made apps that had little or nothing to do with podcasts, according to the Times.

The two Apple executives in charge of Apple's apps and the App Store told the Times they stopped the App Store search algorithm from stacking results with Apple-made apps in July. As of July 12, the Times reported, only two Apple apps appeared in top results for "TV," instead of four.

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In an interview with the Times, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide marketing Philip Schiller and senior vice president of internet software and services Eddy Cue said the change was not made to fix a mistake. Rather, it was simply a decision to help developers at Apple's expense.

Apple did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment.

Apple's control of the App Store has been a focus of several legal and regulatory threats to the company. In March, Spotify filed a complaint with antitrust regulators in the European Union, alleging Apple's control over the search engine reduces choice for consumers in order to benefit Apple's own music streaming service that launched in 2015. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in May that iPhone users could pursue an antitrust lawsuit against Apple that alleges the company's 30% commission on sales through the service is an unfair use of monopoly power.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren proposed separating Apple's control of the App Store and ability to market its own apps on the platform as part of a broader plan to break up Big Tech.

Apple is well aware of these concerns. In May, Apple launched a new website that attempts to quell concerns over the fairness of its App Store. The site calls the App Store, "A store that welcomes competition," and responds to common criticisms of the product.

Schiller and Cue told the Times that Apple apps tend to rank high in their store due to their popularity and generic names that tend to line up with common search terms. Before the July search change, the executives said the algorithm sometimes grouped apps by their developer, causing Apple apps to fill some top search results.

Schiller told the Times that the change had not been "corrected."

"It's improved," Cue said.

Read the full report at The New York Times.

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