Could Apple’s Search Engine Actually Beat Google?

Ryan Bednar

Ryan Bednar

12 / 01 / 2021

Could Apple’s Search Engine Actually Beat Google?

Ryan Bednar

12 / 01 / 2021

There’s no greater name than Google in search.

The brand is synonymous with searching, like Kleenex is to tissues. Google is the gateway to the internet for most people and has a whopping 80-90% share of the search engine market. Demands for legislatures to regulate Google are on the rise, with many fearing a future dictated by the whims of the search giant.

But rumor has it that another dominant technology company is working on a search engine—that company being none other than Apple. In fact, if you have an iPhone, chances are that you’ve utilized Apple’s search engine before.

Currently known as Spotlight, Apple’s search engine is native to every iPhone. As Spotlight is developing its features and maturing algorithmically, it’s starting to resemble the search engine that we’re most familiar with today, except for several key differences.

Here’s how Spotlight works and why it could soon give Google a run for its money.

What is Spotlight?

Grab the nearest iPhone. Swipe down from the middle of the homescreen (or for some older systems, swipe left to right). See that search bar at the top? Guess what powers that?

video showing how to find apple spotlight on iphone
Source: Apple

Let’s try another exercise. If you’ve got a Mac, click the magnifying glass icon in the top-right corner of your top menu bar. Voila! You’ve just fired up Spotlight.

Spotlight has been in the works since 2004, when it was first introduced at an Apple Worldwide Developers Conference. It was name-dropped again this past spring, when Tim Cook took the stage and announced iOS 15.

Cook unveiled some of the latest updates to Spotlight (and some of the largest ones to date), including greater accessibility and the ability to search information about your favorite actors, musicians, movies, and TV shows.

Spotlight’s other strengths and charms include:

  • The ability to query local files, texts, apps, and more in addition to web results
  • The ability to view web results on your phone without having to navigate to Google at all
  • A section called “Siri Knowledge” that displays snippets of web articles directly on your screen
  • “Siri Suggest Web Results” that feature personalized search results
  • Access to Spotlight from both the lock screen and unlocked screen of your phone

While Spotlight is still in its adolescence, it is increasingly stirring up interest and rumors that it may be Google’s biggest rival.

Google search vs. Apple’s Spotlight search

When compared side by side, there are many things that distinguish Spotlight from Google. Below are some major differences that can be spotted (no pun intended) today.

Organic results 

Google uses automated web crawlers to scour the internet for new or modified web pages. These URLs are then indexed based on the content found on their pages and sorted into categories (which you can selectively browse), including images, maps, news articles, videos, and product listings.

Google’s “secret sauce” is its PageRank algorithm. The algorithm uses more than 200 ranking factors to match web results with a user’s search, alongside NLP and other AI technologies that predict a user’s search intent. Each Google SERP is famously tailored to the user’s physical location, search history, browsing history, social connections, and more. For some searches, Google may also show a Knowledge Graph (akin to Spotlight’s Siri Knowledge) that offers concise answers to frequently asked questions directly on the SERP.

Spotlight is a selection-based search system that creates an index of all the files and metadata on your iPhone or Mac. Similar to Google’s crawlers, Spotlight’s “bots” ingest basic information about a file (name, size, and dates) in addition to some content and info on how that content is formatted. Its indices are constantly updated, ensuring that you only see the most recent and relevant results.

Unlike Google, however, Spotlight isn’t limited to web results. Its system is built to search local, cloud-based results and web results. In other words, when you perform a search through Spotlight, you can search everything from YouTube videos to your personal photos, Wikipedia articles to your text messages. Spotlight’s SERPs are even more personalized than Google’s in that vein but can also become more cluttered.

Ads

Google has been the top online advertising platform for over a decade. In 2021, it captured 29% share of digital ad spending worldwide. Ads are featured prominently on top-of-the-fold positions on Google SERPs, where 50% of people between the ages 18 and 34 have trouble distinguishing between an ad and organic result.

Spotlight is notably ad-free. Spotlight SERPs aren’t bifurcated by paid versus organic results. Rather, rankings are device-centered. The order by which results are shown are heavily influenced by what you already have stored on your device. In essence, App makers don’t have to pay Apple extra to be displayed as a top result. They only have to add a few lines of code to make their apps discoverable by Spotlight. (That said, there is still work to be done on Apple’s end to improve the relevancy of results. One test conducted by 9to5Google revealed that Google Assistant outshined Siri significantly in being able to understand the full context of a search.)

User interface

Google has long shaped our understanding of how a search engine should look and behave. Its minimalist UI has remained intact for years, undergoing modifications that sometimes only the trained eye of an SEO can spot. In recent years, for instance, Google has tested nested feature snippets, indented URLs, and “short video” sections within SERPs.

screenshot of a tweet by lily ray

It’s worth noting that though Google Chrome is the dominant web browser on desktop, Safari reigns on mobile. Safari arguably offers a more flexible UI than Chrome on smaller screens.

Spotlight requires a bit of a learning curve. But as with everything Apple-related, Spotlight can—and likely will—be quickly learned with time and wider user adoption. Apple, after all, is best known for its experiences. (Meanwhile, Google has the upper hand in terms of the sheer amount of data it collects.)

Spotlight’s biggest hurdle will be to declutter SERPs, as it delivers information from a large range of sources. As it currently stands, you may have to scroll through multiple sections to find the type of content you’re looking for (be it a definition, app, text, image, etc.) prior to being able to filter for exact information. But once you land on the information you’re looking for, Spotlight allows you to perform various functions in fewer taps: install apps, visit web articles, and access emails or other files directly within Spotlight.

Privacy

Google has been subjected to criticism before because of its tracking practices, which serve as the main engine for its targeted ads. Consider how when you google a new watch, your friend who’s on Instagram in another room may see an ad for that same watch. Google uses your IP address and social graph to deliver ads that might be interesting to you and your network, blurring more lines than many are comfortable with.

“Chrome is the only major browser that doesn’t offer meaningful protection from tracking,” Mozilla told Forbes following a technical analysis of Google’s user tracking. While Google offers incognito mode, a study by Vanderbuilt University discovered that the internet giant still collects user data—sparking a $5 billion class action lawsuit.

Apple, on the other hand, has been a champion of user privacy. iOS 15 offers a slew of privacy features, including Record App Activity, Mail Privacy Protection, and better Intelligent Tracking Prevention. All of these ban apps and advertisers from collecting information about you through pixels, IP tracking, and other methods.

In the same vein, Spotlight offers a safer system for exploring online and local information. Aside from steering clear of ads and monetizing information stored on your device, Apple claims that they do not create user profiles like traditional search engines. Any user data stored by Spotlight never leaves your device. And Spotlight noticeably tries to direct users away from Google web results, working with developers to make app data available in Spotlight—which, in turn, means that you can search and access app content directly from Spotlight.

The verdict 

At its core, Apple is a hardware company. Google’s talent is in search.

Google sits on a stockpile of data. Meanwhile, Apple sits on a bed of innovation.

The two are not direct competitors and they likely never will be. However, as Apple establishes its own way for performing searches on Mac and iPhones, it will likely excel in a few key arenas: privacy, interactivity, and cohesion across its many devices.

Google will likely have trouble finding its footing on the mobile front, especially as Apple blocks access to user data and delivers more personalized results through its own search. This begs the question, what comes next? How will developers pivot to make their apps more discoverable via Apple SERPs? Where else will Apple leverage Spotlight?

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