Search on Apple's Safari a Big Prize for Search Engines

There's a quiet, yet potentially game changing tempest brewing in the background in the world of search. This might be surprising, considering everyone knows Google won the search wars, but what is even more interesting is that the key player is Apple. Or rather, the desktop and mobile empire united by Apple's Safari Web browser.

At issue is Google's long-standing deal with Apple to be the default search engine on Safari. No one who's talking knows exactly when that deal will expire, but there has been increasing speculation that it's "soon." Like, within-the-next-6-to-18-months soon. And that has companies jockeying for position and observers speculating on who will win that spot next.

He—or she—who wins Apple's search business will be in an excellent position to gain (or keep) share in the search business. That's because while Safari is not the biggest browser on the Internet, Safari represents more than its share of valuable users.

As analyst Mark Ballard of RKG said earlier in 2015:

Phones and tablets already produce between 40-50 percent of paid search clicks and Apple’s iOS devices account for about two-thirds of that. Add desktop Safari traffic on top of that and we’re talking about roughly half of total paid search traffic being at stake in 2015 if the Safari search default is really up for grabs across devices, as reports suggest.

US Browser Share

U.S. Browser Share

Source: StatCounter

The Usual Suspects

Google, Bing, and Yahoo! are the usual names assumed to want the gig. I'd add that Baidu is in an excellent position to get the job in China. Some folks are also hypothesizing that Apple could be waiting for its deal with Google to expire before launching its own search engine.

I'm a big fan of that option. Two years ago, I penned a piece titled, "Apple Needs to Go into Search." More recently, I looked at developments in Spotlight in OS X Yosemite and iOS 8 as examples of Apple just outright leapfrogging search as we know it.

The reality is that both options are complementary. Apple can leapfrog traditional search by providing information before we get to a search engine and back it up with its own search engine.

But Apple has to get it right. The company's less-than-perfect entry into map services was surely a big lesson. Apple took so much heat for that, CEO Tim Cook might have even decided to leave such specialized services to those who do it best. Like Google, Baidu, Yahoo!, or Bing.

To that end, Bing powers search for Siri and it powers that search I mentioned for Spotlight. But Google is still the default search engine for Safari, and Apple earns what is reportedly $1 billion a year from Google for that privilege. That billion is almost all profit, too—it's a lot of money—even for Apple—for doing very, very little.

Let It Burn

Greg Stirling at Search Engine Land noted that it would be a safe bet Apple would want to burn Google at all costs if Steve Jobs were still with us. Sadly, Mr. Jobs is gone, and Tim Cook is the kind of leader focused on making decisions that allow Apple to best serve its highly profitable customers.

Who can offer the best results? My money is on Google for that. I think Google still does search better than everyone else, and if Bing became my default search engine in Safari, I'd change it back to Google.

I've spent little time with Yahoo!'s search in recent years—Baidu is irrelevant outside Asia for the nonce—but I don't think any company can out-Google Google in search. It would take a major improvement from another search engine to get me to switch, and we're not seeing that improvement anywhere on the horizon.

We all know the only company likely to bring such an improvement to market is Apple. And that's what makes all this speculation interesting.