In November of 2014, webmasters noticed a new crawler showing up in analytics named “applebot.” Originating from servers known to reside in Apple’s Cupertino campus, many speculated exactly what the data gleaned by the crawler would eventually power. Last week, the company officially unveiled the program as a way to improve the results returned by the iPhone’s Siri search.
A Smart(er) Assistant
Apple announced Siri as an update to their popular iOS operating system in October of 2011. The digital assistant allowed users to control many aspects of their device by voice, such as setting an alarm, sending a text, or adding an event to their calendar. Powered by Bing and the mathematical search engine Wolfram Alpha, Siri also promised to answer questions posed to it, everything from “how many feet are in a mile” to “where can I pick up a pizza.”
While Apple wasn’t the first to allow their customers to speak questions instead of typing them, they were the first major company to offer a program that spoke the answers back. If an iOS user asked a question Siri didn’t know the answer to, the assistant would return traditional search results in the form of a text list. While this information was useful, the experience felt inferior to most users used to their phones finding the right answer and speaking it back to them.
Unfortunately for the phone manufacturer, Google soon unveiled an update to their own search app. Dubbed “Google Now,” the service not only returned relevant answers faster Siri, but it featured a new contextual mode that promised to provide useful information before customers had to search for it based on what they looked for previously. Recently, Microsoft announced Cortana, the digital assistant for their struggling Windows Phone platform, would soon be available for iOS as well.
With applebot, Siri can hopefully provide answers often enough to draw users back to Apple’s platform, keeping valuable data from the two search engine rivals.
Applebot won’t take on Googlebot directly
As early as November, search industry experts speculated that applebot could be the first tentative step Apple makes towards eventually unveiling their own search engine to compete with rival Google. As the manufacturer of one of the most popular smartphones in the world, the company stands a better chance at competing than even Microsoft, since 2015 is the first year search primarily shifted to mobile.
Despite Google maintaining Android, iOS’s primary competitor, Apple must maintain a relationship with the search engine since it remains the most popular choice for their mobile customers when it comes to search, email, and other web-based services. This puts the company in the uncomfortable position of increasing the profitability of their rival with every device sold since Google generates ad revenue from searches made on the iPhone and iPad. If Apple created a competing search engine, they could possibly cut off that revenue stream.
For the time being, the possibility of Apple creating a search engine is remote. Traditionally search engines rely on advertising to generate a profit and the Cupertino computer company seems either unwilling or uninterested in selling consumer data in a way that makes current search engines possible. In fact, the company uses consumer privacy to market their product of the rival Android, famously unveiling a new encryption policy that made it impossible for Apple to access your data, even under court order.
Unless they discovered a new way to make a search engine feasible without advertising, it’s unlikely that Apple will enter that market anytime soon. Instead, applebot is likely to be exactly what the company says it is, a way to improve Siri, though it’s still to early to see what other uses the company might find for the data.
The Future Is Contextual Search
Even if Apple never creates a search engine, the growing popularity of digital assistants, together with Google’s “Knowledge Graph” show an interesting shift in user behavior. Customers want to get the right answer quickly, and they’re often willing to accept whatever these instant results provide, trusting Google, Apple, or Microsoft to find accurate information for them.
This shift to contextual search provides new challenges for webmasters and their agencies, and it will be interesting to see how applebot contributes to the shifting landscape of SEO in the coming months.