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Apple Strengthens its Focus on Search at WWDC 2014

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While Apple CEO Tim Cook did not make any hardware announcements during his 2014 Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) keynote, the company did address some significant changes to its operating systems for computers (Mac OS X “Yosemite”) and for smartphones and tablets (iOS 8).

As expected, many of the announced changes were geared toward the developer community; however, there were a few updates that stand to influence the way people engage with Apple products from a consumer search standpoint. This post outlines the new features that could alter user search behavior and how these new services could impact marketers.

Desktop Search via Mac OS X “Yosemite”

Apple announced several features that could change the way users search on their Mac computers:

  • Spotlight makes integrated-OS querying easier and more appealing. Apple announced a new version of Spotlight, OS X’s integrated search tool. Current users have had to engage with a small magnifying glass in the menu bar in order to use this tool and had results docked in the top-right of the screen. Yosemite users will now be able to type their queries in the middle of the desktop, and results will be more visually appealing.
  • Spotlight gets expanded search results. In the current version of OS X, Spotlight can search the user’s computer for relevant results (applications, documents, music files, etc.), and it has had the ability to search the web and Wikipedia. Spotlight on Yosemite will search for content in a user’s calendar, find locations in Apple’s Map application, suggest software in the Mac App store, deliver movie show times and more.
  • Spotlight leverages Bing results over Google. Current Spotlight users seeking information from the Web will be served Google SERPs within their default browsers. Moving forward, Spotlight on the Mac will display results from Bing, though users who click on Spotlight’s web search result option will still be directed to their selected browser and search engine (Apple still has its Safari browser and Google’s search engine as the defaults).
  • Search was upgraded in other OS X applications. Safari’s new, streamlined toolbar prominently places its web address/search box in the top-center of the browser, and searches performed there display suggested queries and information from sources like Wikipedia, Bing, iTunes and more. Additionally, new search functionalities were introduced in the iPhoto app, allowing users to look for photos based on location, times and albums.

Mobile Search via iOS 8

Apple also announced several features that could change the way users search on their iPhones and iPads:

  • Spotlight is coming to iOS 8. iOS has had integrated search capabilities for searching the web, contacts, applications, and more for some time, but Spotlight was available only  on the Mac. iOS’s Spotlight will have many of both OS X’s new and familiar features (ability to search Wikipedia, the wider web, the app store, movie show times and so on), but given that iOS serves mobile devices, capabilities such as searching for nearby places are being highlighted by Apple.
  • Bing and Google will both continue to deliver iOS search results. Bing has been the go-to search engine for populating content within Siri’s results, and it will provide results for Spotlight in iOS like it does for the Mac. Google will remain the default search engine for Safari.

Importance for Marketers

As the user search experience within Apple devices evolves, there will be new trends, opportunities and watch-outs for brands to keep an eye on in the coming months. Here are some of the key themes we expect to emerge as these feature updates take hold:

  • Apple is continuing its battle with Google. With Apple displaying information within the OS and its applications, searchers can get their information without having to engage with Google’s ads. Since Bing provides results in Siri and Spotlight, it could see query growth as it feeds Apple’s users requested information.
  • However, Apple will continue to drive queries to Google. Safari, with Google as its default search engine, will continue to be the default browser due to contractual agreements between the two companies.
  • Apple’s partnership with non-Google search engines could help drive market share and revenue for other players. DuckDuckGo, a search engine that focuses on privacy and does not collect search query data, is now an optional search engine for Safari. Given the current issues surrounding privacy, increased usage of DuckDuckGo’s traffic could help Yahoo as well because Yahoo syndicates ads on DuckDuckGo’s SERPs.
  • An increased focus on search could hint at the expansion of iAd. Launched in 2010, Apple’s iAd advertising platform originally allowed marketers to serve display ads in apps across iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad – and it has since expanded to audio ads in iTunes and Apple TV. With Apple’s increased focus on search, combined with the ability to keep consumers in the Apple ecosystem for potential cross-device reporting, iAd could gain in importance and reach if it goes live in Spotlight and Siri.

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Traditionally, search has been an important channel for finding and consuming information, and the recent changes to OS X and iOS show that Apple is taking serious actions to be a part of that process. With an essentially closed ecosystem, Apple is in a unique position to integrate and track cross-device searches, which could have major implications on the way marketers approach (and fund) mobile search.

It is unlikely that Apple will develop its own search engine, but the company may still alter the search landscape significantly. Marketers will now need to monitor how Apple’s new OS features influence search behavior, and be ready to make strategic and tactical adjustments accordingly.