Epic test email suggests that Apple manually improved the ranking of its Files app in the App Store search results for Dropbox in 2017; Apple says it was a simple mistake (Sean Hollister / The Verge)

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In 2019, facing down extensive investigations by The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times that showed Apple’s App Store clearly and consistently ranking its own apps ahead of competitors, Apple claimed it had done nothing wrong — a secret algorithm containing 42 different variables was working as intended, top executives told the Times, insisting that Apple doesn’t manually alter search results.

Why do I bring this up? An intriguing email chain has surfaced during the Epic v. Apple trial where it sure looks like Apple did the exact opposite — seemingly admitting it manually boosted the ranking of its own Files app ahead of the competition for 11 entire months.

“WHO GREEN LIT PUTTING THE FILES APP ABOVE DROPBOX IN ORGANIC SEARCH RESULTS?”
“We are removing the manual boost and the search results should be more relevant now,” wrote Apple app search lead Debankur Naskar, after the company was confronted by Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney over Apple’s Files app showing up first when searching for Dropbox. “Dropbox wasn’t even visible on the first page [of search results],” Sweeney wrote. You can read the whole email chain embedded a little ways below.

As you’ll see, Naskar suggested that Files had been intentionally boosted for that exact search result during the “last WWDC.” That would have been WWDC 2017, nearly a year earlier, when the Files apps first debuted.

The email chain actually reflects fairly well on Apple overall. Apple’s Matt Fischer (VP of the App Store) clearly objects to the idea at first. “[W]ho green lit putting the Files app above Dropbox in organic search results? I didn’t know we did that, and I don’t think we should,” he says. But he does end the conversation with “In the future, I want any similar requests to come to me for review/approval,” suggesting that he’s not entirely ruling out manual overrides.

Besides, the distinction between a “manual” boost and any other kind of boost may be purely academic. Algorithms are written by people, after all. If Apple can build a 42-factor algorithm that gives its own apps favorable results, why would it need to override that algorithm and risk its emails getting caught up in a lawsuit years from now?

It could just tweak that algorithm at will — which is exactly what it did to resolve the WSJ and NYT’s scrutiny two years ago. It only took a single engineer to change the algorithm in July 2019, according to the Times, and Apple’s own apps immediately fell in App Store rankings. But that time, executives said the previous formula wasn’t a mistake. Apple simply wanted to make it look less like its own apps were getting special treatment. So it “improved” the algorithm to achieve the new result it wanted.