Personalisation vs privacy: why Apple should enter the search engine fight

"Google it" has become the shorthand, but what about a future where we "Apple it" for online searches? Nick Beck, CEO and founder of Tug, explores the possibilities.

Speculation about an Apple search engine has spun around the digital rumour mill for over a decade. But recent signs the tech giant might be stepping up its search game are now sending these rumours into overdrive.

Evidence isn’t just about changes to Spotlight Search, which has started returning its own results and linking iPhone users directly to webpages since the iOS 14 update. Applebot, Apple’s tool for crawling the net and adjusting search functions, has apparently been more active lately and its support page also includes new details about how searches are ranked. Combined with the previous hire of ex-Google search lead John Giannendrea, and recent job postings for search engineers, and it seems the rumours may actually be true.

But if a search battle is on its way, the real question is whether Apple should tackle the global market’s most powerful player, and what that would mean.

Is it worth the risk?

In short, yes. Apple’s entry into the search engine fight would bring refreshing competition and represent a genuine challenge to Google. With Safari the second most popular browser, not just in Australia, but also worldwide — and 1.4 billion devices in use —  it’s arguably the only contender powerful enough to break the monopoly on search and data mining.

There are also many positives for Apple. While it would lose the billions Google allegedly pays to be the default Safari search option, Apple could benefit from greater control of its ecosystem. Plus, providing a search alternative would help keep pace with rising antitrust initiatives across the US, UK and closer to home; including the Department of Justice investigation into its current Google deal.

What an Apple engine might look like 

Much of Google’s dominance is driven by advanced data use, with the tech giant tapping vast insight about recent searches and factors, such as location, to refine results and boost relevance. To siphon users away, it’s likely Apple would play a different trump card: privacy.

Apple has strong privacy credentials — as shown by ever-stricter versions of the Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) feature and further cemented by the ability for users to opt out of app ad tracking in iOS 14. Chances are therefore high that, if Apple does build a search engine, it would be firmly privacy-first.

Given the generally increasing focus on digital privacy, this would probably tempt many users to switch. But it’s also possible that others used to the convenience of Google might be less enthusiastic about non-tailored search; even if it is simpler to default to Apple settings. It’s easy for consumers to say they value privacy above everything, but does that outweigh the negatives of using a potentially less efficient tool? It would be interesting to find out.

Overall, the safest bet for Apple would be an even mix: a search product that respects privacy, but still offers refined customisation and streamlined user experience.

How could it affect the wider industry?

Accurate predictions for industry impact are hard to make without a defined idea of what form Apple’s product will take, if any. But several key outcomes are likely.

The arrival of a new search product would almost inevitably create new opportunities for digital marketers previously not available with other engines, especially when it comes to mobile campaigns. Similarly, search professionals could gain an additional avenue for pay-per-click advertising (PPC) and search engine optimisation (SEO) efforts that can be easily harnessed using existing tactics – as long as Apple’s algorithms aren’t drastically different from Google’s.

Obviously, there would be some challenges. For example, the realisation of theories about stringent privacy measures would mean limited tracking capacity and data access from an advertising perspective, forcing brands and agencies to find different ways of targeting ads if they want to capitalise on Apple’s huge user base. But with the right team in place, and a focus on privacy-friendly solutions — including more use of first-party data and closer partnerships with publishers — these issues shouldn’t be insurmountable.

All the industry ultimately has to go on for now is hearsay and conjecture. But making sure they are prepared for the biggest search shakeup in years is still a wise move for everyone – brands, agencies, and search professionals alike. Whether or not we are about to witness the ultimate clash of insight-driven tailoring versus privacy-first search, there’s a sense that change is coming regardless. Amid growing recognition of the need for a privacy-secure search to build more meaningful and honest dialogue between brands and empowered consumers, it’s looking likely that someone will step in to fill the gap — even if Apple doesn’t get there first.

Nick Beck is the CEO and founder of Tug.


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