Much has been made of Apple’s decision to incorporate ad-blocking into iOS9, with many seeing it as a direct barrage aimed at Google’s traditional ad-revenues. However, there’s another update in the new OS that could potentially have a much greater impact on the search giant’s income — a much-improved Spotlight search. While it isn’t intended to be a direct salvo in the same way ad-blocking is – this change has the opportunity to gradually choke off the search giant’s ad revenues.

So what’s changing?

To understand the issue, it is important to take a step back and look at the relatively niche world of App Search Optimisation (ASO). Up until now, this has been a very limited tactic, as developers and marketers have only ever been able to promote the app listing page with no method for search engines to gain access to the content of the app itself. However, Apple, Google and independents like, and other deep-linking start-ups are now actively indexing in-app content.

With these new indexes, come new ways to promote the content within apps. This drives engagement and conversions as it essentially makes for a search experience similar to traditional web usage, only from within apps. In turn, developers experience an increase in usage, OS providers get more revenues, and end users have easier access to better content.

Ultimately, this puts people in a place where they can essentially create a curated web on their device. Just by downloading the apps and services they want it creates a selective pre-built ‘pool’ of content to search within. This is already a tectonic shift which begins to set sail from the Google anchor.

What’s Apple doing?

From what we’ve discovered in iOS9, Apple is now indexing app content and serving the results when people search with Spotlight or Siri, crucially before a user hits Google or Bing for their search result.

Apple has very cleverly considered the personalised nature of mobile to create a store of results that sits locally on a user’s device. This keeps personal data safer and ensures search relevancy as it’s hyper-personalised and in the eyes of the user, higher quality.

The company has also combined this local index with a public cloud index that stores publically available results. Crucially, the cloud index also provides methods to submit app content so the users can also be served an in-app result without having that specific app on their device. The result is that when users search, they’ll see results for the apps on their device AND the apps not on their device. This will keep even more people on the iOS ecosystem, and crucially, away from Google.

If it was anyone but Apple, this could just be shrugged off. However, the company’s scale means signposting users towards the Apple ecosystem in this way has massive significance for search providers. Somewhere inside Cupertino, a butterfly is beating its wings trying to cause a storm in Mountain View.

Obviously, Google has not been slow to react to this changing market. The company has been building out its own indexes to improve app search and has been presenting app results for a while. Google Now, for example, has been working with select publishers to start serving relevant content within the Google Now app.

However, the problem that Google will have is that iOS users are uniquely quick to uptake anything new. Apple customers display an innate (almost fanatical) loyalty in new services pushed to their devices, at the same time as being a very tech-savvy demographic. This combines to ensure that the typical ‘hockey stick’ of adoption is very steep by comparison with Android. As more and more users find what they want through the new Spotlight, Google’s traditional ad revenues from mobile will begin to wilt.

It will be interesting to see how this new OS dependent episode of the mobile search battle unfolds. These early skirmishes will see Apple moving fast, allowing it to quickly gain ground. The question will quickly become whether Google will be able to rally its larger, slower moving, army and claw back lost territory. While it is premature to predict a new world order for search, the giants are shaping up to do battle, and it will be fascinating to watch.

Emma Crowe is Chief of Client Strategy at Somo, which has been developing with iOS9 for the last couple of months, taking it apart in a series of hack days to get under the hood and see just what it can do.

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