Who Will Be Safari’s New Default Search Provider?

If you own an iPhone or a Mac, you likely use Safari to browse the internet. And you’re probably used to typing search terms into the bar at the top—the same bar where you type URLs. What you may not realize, as you peruse the search results, is that they’re served up by Google.

That may change next year, according to Search Engine Land. Apple has long had a contract making Google the default search provider for Safari, across all devices and regions. Given that “iPhone” and “smartphone” are nearly synonymous, at least in the US, that’s no small market. (Safari users can manually change their default search engine to a different provider, but very few actually do.) But that contract is set to expire in 2015, and it seems that the bidding war is on.

Safari

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Google will lose Safari, but Bing and Yahoo have both thrown their hats in the ring—separately, even though Bing actually provides search results for both companies.

Would Apple Really Ditch Google?

The choice of search provider will supposedly be based “on the quality of the product as much as the potential money made from search ads.” But Google leads the search market in most of the world, and there’s no sign that Safari users have been unhappy with their results; it would be hard for Bing or Yahoo to offer a better product. It could be that Apple is entertaining the other bids only as a bargaining tactic, hoping Google will pay more in order to keep the lucrative Safari market.

But there’s good reason to believe Apple would be happier, at least strategically, to break up with Google on this one. The two companies aren’t direct competitors in this market; Apple offers no search engine of its own. But Apple’s dominance of the mobile device market has been heavily threatened by Google’s Android-based devices. Letting your mobile competitor provide a crucial service on your own mobile platform isn’t exactly a cozy business relationship.

The Challengers

Meanwhile, Yahoo and Bing are going through growing pains of their own. The two entered a 10-year contract starting in 2010, under which all Yahoo search results and search ads come from Bing (with Yahoo getting a share of the ad revenue). Even under the contract, it makes sense for Yahoo to bid separately for Safari—more searches through the Yahoo gateway mean more revenue. But the extra ad share isn’t Yahoo’s only reason for bidding against its partner. According to many in the industry, Yahoo wants out.

That’s because the Bing deal hasn’t been as lucrative as Yahoo had hoped, and also because Yahoo and Bing together haven’t really managed to steal market share from Google. Yahoo could seek to exit the contract as early as next year.

Safari’s Smartest Choice

None of Safari’s three choices are great. At a glance, Yahoo would be best: it’s the only contender that doesn’t compete with Apple in the mobile market, meaning that it’s the most harmless choice of bed partners. And it makes sense to give the contract to tiny Yahoo, because boosting the market underdog makes a lot more sense than feeding your nearest competitor. A stronger Yahoo means a weaker Bing and Google.

But the solution isn’t so straightforward. Many believe that if Yahoo does get out of its Bing contract, it will only turn around to offer the same arrangement to Google. That means that in less than a year, a Yahoo deal could just be Google by another name.

(That doesn’t make Bing, whose mobile devices also compete with Apple, any more attractive of an option.)

So far, all the companies involved have maintained the illusion that search is a wholly separate market from mobile—that contracting your mobile rival’s search service is just business as usual. Ultimately, Apple may keep on with that policy and make the choice based only on revenue. In that case, Google’s lucrative search ads will likely win out.

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