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Apple Abused Market Power By Placing Their Own Apps At The Top Of App Store Search Results

In a surprise to no one, Apple was abusing their market power to place their own apps at the top of App Store search results. Apple and Google have a duopoly on mobile app distribution. They decide which developers can enter the mobile app market place and they also decide who can succeed in that marketplace. It’s rigged beyond belief and this is just one more example of their abuse of market power. The Department of Justice is currently investigating Big Tech companies for antitrust behavior. This is where their focus should be.

Top spots in App Store search results are some of the most fought over real estate in the online economy. The store generated more than $50 billion in sales last year, and the company said two-thirds of app downloads started with a search.

But as Apple has become one of the largest competitors on a platform that it controls, suspicions that the company has been tipping the scales in its own favor are at the heart of antitrust complaints in the United States, Europe and Russia.

Apple’s apps have ranked first recently for at least 700 search terms in the store, according to a New York Times analysis of six years of search results compiled by Sensor Tower, an app analytics firm. Some searches produced as many as 14 Apple apps before showing results from rivals, the analysis showed. (Though competitors could pay Apple to place ads above the Apple results.)

Presented with the results of the analysis, two senior Apple executives acknowledged in a recent interview that, for more than a year, the top results of many common searches in the iPhone App Store were packed with the company’s own apps. That was the case even when the Apple apps were less relevant and less popular than ones from its competitors. The executives said the company had since adjusted the algorithm so that fewer of its own apps appeared at the top of search results.

The Times’s analysis of App Store data — which included rankings of more than 1,800 specific apps across 13 keywords since 2013 — illustrated the influence as well as the opacity of the algorithms that underpin tech companies’ platforms.

Those algorithms can help decide which apps are installed, which articles are read and which products are bought. But Apple and other tech giants like Facebook and Google will not explain in detail how such algorithms work — even when they blame the algorithm for problems.

Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president who oversees the App Store, and Eddy Cue, the senior vice president who oversees many of the Apple apps that benefited from the results, said there was nothing underhanded about the algorithm the company had built to display search results in the store.

The executives said the company did not manually alter search results to benefit itself. Instead, they said, Apple apps generally rank higher than competitors because of their popularity and because their generic names are often a close match to broad search terms.

“There’s nothing about the way we run search in the App Store that’s designed or intended to drive Apple’s downloads of our own apps,” Mr. Schiller said. “We’ll present results based on what we think the user wants.”

Apple added its apps to the App Store in June 2016. Since then, it has been the top result for many popular search terms, according to the Sensor Tower data. Those Apple apps held on for years while top rivals remained stuck below, sometimes hundreds of spots down the list, the data shows.