As of Tuesday morning, searches for iOS apps on Google weren't resulting in overt links to Apple's iTunes Store. Direct links to apps on iTunes appeared deeper within Google's search results than usual.
Reports of the quirky search results were first made public on Facebook by AppsFire co-founder Ouriel Ohayon. "Something really weird start to happen on google [sic]," he said. "It has become impossible to find iPhone and iPad apps looking for them in the search engine with a normal query."
To be fair, finding links to iPhone and iPad apps on Google wasn't impossible, just a tad harder. Other iTunes-centric oddities in Google's search results were also documented by TechCrunch and TheNextWeb.
Naturally, some out-there conspiracy theories sprang up quickly, with some speculating that Google was deliberately trying to make links to iTunes much harder for users to find. For Google, however, the integrity of its search algorithm and corresponding results is something it takes extremely seriously. A deliberate move to sandbag iTunes results for iOS apps would be atypical, to say the least.
So just what, exactly, was going on?
Well, The Verge reached out to Google for comment, and there appears to be a plausible explanation behind the lower profile iTunes links. A Google spokesperson explained:
We've been having some issues fetching pages from the iTunes web servers, and as a result some people may have had problems finding iTunes apps in search easily. We're working with the team there to ensure search users can find what they're looking for.
Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land, who posted a Twitter conversation between Ohayon and Google search savant Matt Cutts where Cutts notes some issues loading iTunes web pages, speculates that the problem may be the result of duplicate content on Apple's end.
Sullivan posted the following image of a query for WhatsApp Messenger as an illustrative example. The arrows below point to listings for the app that are essentially the same, albeit from different national instances of the iTunes Store (the US and St. Lucia, in this case).
"This suggests that Apple might have a duplicate content issue happening," Sullivan writes, "perhaps one that's become recent, for some reason. With duplicate content, you have two or more pages that are virtually identical to each other. That can confuse search engines and sometimes have the effect of 'splitting the vote' when it comes to ranking, so that neither page wins."
While this problem may have cropped up in parallel with the 403 page loading issue that Cutts cites, Sullivan does note that Microsoft's Bing search engine seems to have no trouble locating the iTunes pages for apps. Bing might be crawling iTunes pages on a different schedule, or Microsoft's culling algorithm for pages with access issues might be less aggressive. In any event, Cutts insists that the issue isn't on Google's side.
Rest easy, conspiracy theorists. Google may be challenging Apple with Android, but it's unlikely that it's purposefully manipulating its search results to obscure iOS apps.