Google and Apple Are in a War for the Future of Search

By Natalie Burg August 17th, 2015

A war is escalating under our fingertips. While most of us mortals remain unaware, the battle between the gods of information access has reached a new front: the global migration to the mobile web. This shift in user behavior has given Apple an opening to move into the search space, and the company is marching its geeky troops right through it.

Apple’s opponent in the search war is, naturally, Google. Just how much of a threat does Apple pose to the search engine that enjoys 89 percent of global market share? According to various tech industry observers, Apple is either creating a “search engine to destroy Google,” “actively trying to keep users away from” Google or “likely has absolutely no interest in getting into the search market.”

Why the conflict of opinions? According to the mobile marketing specialist at MobileMoxie, Emily Grossman, there just isn’t a straightforward answer. This is no one-to-one competition; it’s not as if Apple is launching an (or! or!).

“It’s kind of nuanced,” Grossman says. “It definitely seems like Apple intends to be a threat here. They’re trying to, at least for iOS users, inhibit them from using Google. They are trying to cut them off at the pass and take that search traffic for themselves.”

Apple’s ambush

Here’s how Apple intends to take some of that search traffic. First Apple swapped Google for Microsoft’s Bing last year to power searches within Siri and Spotlight, the on-device search function within iOS and OS X. Then, during this year’s Worldwide Developers Conference in June, Apple announced that its search functions, as Grossman describes it, are becoming “more rich and more functional.”

Though the exact details of how this will all function remain to be seen pending iOS 9’s release, it appears that when a user searches for a phrase in Safari using the forthcoming iOS 9, Spotlight (which previously had limited web search capabilities) will chime in with some search suggestions. If the user chooses a Spotlight-powered suggestion (i.e., one that shows up in the dropdown menu) before hitting enter to execute a Google-powered search (which is still the default for Safari, though this could change), they’ll reach their destination without ever interacting with Google. It’s what Grossman calls “cutting in line.”

What’s more, included within those Spotlight-powered search suggestions will be deep app content—in other words, content that exists within apps. Looking for a job listing? You could be directed to’s app or the LinkedIn Job Search app, prompting you to either download the app or open it if it’s already on your system.

“This is very huge. For Apple, apps are a huge ecosystem,” Grossman says. “This is where they make a ton of money.”

While Google has also begun surfacing deep app content on mobile devices though Android and the main web search engine, its offering is currently more limited. Google is only indexing deep app content with web parity, meaning content that exists on a website as well. Apple will be able to surface content that only exists in apps. For app developers, this is no small distinction, with their content suddenly discoverable in much more accessible way.

This all amounts to Apple potentially undercutting major swaths of Google’s traffic, thanks to improved speed and convenience—and bringing users further into an Apple-controlled mobile ecosystem.

Apple and Google’s visions for mobile search

According to Re/code, Apple reported generating $10 billion in revenue for developers last year through the App Store, and that number is expected to double by 2018. So, while being no fan of Google may be one motivator for Apple getting into search, by and large this move seems to about cultivating its highly lucrative app ecosystem. When users are exposed to in-app content that answers their search queries, Apple is betting they’ll be more likely to download them, which will help drive profits. Apple, Grossman explains, gains the most from an app-run mobile world, whereas Google benefits the most from a web-run mobile world.

And we living in an increasingly app-based world. The fact that mobile search users in the U.S. alone are expected to almost double, to 215.8 million, between 2014 and 2019 is creating an opportunity for Apple to wedge itself between Google and at least a portion of its massive marketshare. After all, while plenty of OS X users download Chrome or Firefox onto their MacBooks, iPhone users tend to stick with Safari.

“I have a lot of very technically savvy friends who would never use Safari on a desktop,” Grossman says, “but even if they have other browsers installed on their iPhone, they will just naturally choose Safari because it’s right there in the dock.”

Research agrees. According to StatCounter, while just 10 percent of desktop searchers use Safari, the Apple browser claims 55 percent of all mobile browser usage in the U.S. And as of 2013, just 3 percent of iOS users were using Chrome—making the search functions in Safari, Spotlight, and Siri a major part of how iPhone users access the web.

“That could be pretty powerful,” Grossman says. “We might see a completely different shift in how iOS users are navigating the web because of this. Or it might completely change certain apps’ or certain website’s traffic when this rolls out.”

Should Google be worried?

But while this could matter significantly to individual app developers, it’s probably best to categorize Apple’s foray into search as a skirmish rather than a war. No matter how successful Apple may be in its endeavor, Google’s a long way from taking any serious damage.

“For Google’s bottomline business, it probably won’t have as big of an impact as one might think,” says Grossman. “It’s easy to think of this as a bigger threat if you live in an iOS-dominated world, which a lot of us do … but when we look at all of the devices that exist worldwide, Android is really dominant there.”

Because even if Apple succeeds in channeling all iOS users and OS X users (good luck!) away from Google, that’s all the market share it’ll ever get. It can’t reach users who aren’t already Apple customers—namely those on Anroid-enabled phones. Google, on the other hand, can be accessed anywhere from any device. Unless Apple plans to launch a cross-platform search solution, it’s just not capable of waging an all-out search assault.

What about users?

The final, and perhaps most important question: How will Apple’s growing search functions affect users, the innocent bystanders in all of this? In a word, subliminally. When you get an automatic suggestion while typing a search query, how many people consider which company has powered those suggestions? Users are just looking for the information, and as long as the experience is high quality, they likely won’t care who is pulling the strings. Spotlight offers them everything from web content to third-party apps to their own on-device content, which will only give users a better chance of finding what they need.

“We might end up seeing changes in consumer behavior, but they might not be aware of those changes,” says Grossman. “Apple trying to get more app results in their search tools is something a consumer might not notice, but as an app developer, you might get tons more engagement in your app.”

So while Apple’s venture into search is a big deal for Apple and a big deal for app developers, it’s unlikely to be a big deal for users. And for Google? If there is a midway point between TP-ing the Googleplex and burning it to the ground, this is it. Apple does stand a chance at stealing a significant amount of iOS traffic and even some OS X traffic from Google, but as things stand today, that’s as much as the battle can accomplish.

Image by rvlsoft
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