The big winner in Apple’s recent switch to Google for search may be Siri. Last week Apple confirmed that its personal assistant will still use Microsoft’s Bing for its image searches, but that Google will provide the web search, and YouTube will provide the video search. Apple will also use Google for searches in iOS, and in Spotlight in macOS.
Apple suggests that it made the decision to reduce Bing’s role for consistency reasons. “Switching to Google as the web search provider for Siri, Search within iOS and Spotlight on Mac will allow these services to have a consistent web search experience with the default in Safari,” the company wrote in a statement. “We have strong relationships with Google and Microsoft and remain committed to delivering the best user experience possible.”
But that last part–about “the best user experience”–probably relates most closely to the real reason for the change. It’s arguably less important that searches via Siri be consistent with searches on other Apple platforms because people come to Siri searches with different needs, and the queries are spoken, not typed or tapped. The switch is likely due to the fact that Google’s web search is just better. (Just web search mind you; Bing’s image search is very good.) And Google’s ranking system and results format are better suited to Siri users’ needs.
“Google is much better at extracting information from web content and presenting it to the user in a list format, which is created on a query by query basis,” says Scott Zimmerman, technical SEO analyst at Walker Sands. “The quality of results, especially as it relates to long-tail queries that are typical for voice search, are significantly better on Google.”
And it’s those “long tail” questions people ask that have sometimes got Siri in trouble.
Siri will not find answers to very specific or specialized queries like “Siri how do I make raised flower beds?” in its own knowledge base, so it goes to the web search tool. If it can’t find a direct answer to the question, it delivers a list of links to websites that may contain relevant information.
If assistants fail to deliver relevant and useful search results, users can be unforgiving. And this this has been one of the knocks on Siri in the past–that it’s not always able to answer specific or specialized questions that require a web search.
Ben Bajarin at Creative Strategies has done research on user perceptions of Siri, including the assistant’s use of search.
“In a number of interviews we conducted prior to our study, we heard consumers say things like “Siri doesn’t always answer my question,” or “Siri is not reliable (referring to a search query),” and often times we heard “Siri is dumb,” Bajarin writes in a research brief.
“The last one ,’Siri is dumb,’ had nothing to do with the consumer thinking the product is dumb, just that they didn’t feel she knew anything useful,” Bajarin wrote. “And further digging showed this was specific to searching the internet with a question or general search query.”
Web search is (ideally) not the most important thing a digital assistant does. It’s usually used as a fall-back or catch-all when the assistant can’t satisfy the user’s request by accessing the user’s personal data or by hitting up its own knowledge base. But it’s important because it often ends up being the factor that distinguishes a helpful assistant from a helpless one.
Or, the reasons for Apple’s move toward Google could be financial ones. Google is already paying Apple billions for the privilege of providing search on Apple’s various platforms; Google may have decided to sweeten the deal to win a larger share of that business. It’s also possible that Microsoft was paying megabucks to provide web search and simply decided it wasn’t worth it anymore.