The Impact of Apple TV Universal Search on Content Apps

by Ian Rosenwach on 9.16.2015

Summary: If universal search for Apple TV is widely adopted there are implications for viewer behavior as well as media companies and their Apple TV content apps. They may no longer play the role of gatekeeper, and instead need to focus on the user experience and structuring data to appear high in Apple TV search results. There are also many unknowns about the logic Apple will apply to the universal search results. 

One big feature announced at last week’s Apple event was the addition of “universal search” to the Apple TV via Siri, and only Siri it seems.

With universal search Apple TV users will be able to search for a movie, TV show, or even an episode of a TV show across content apps (Hulu, Netflix, HBO, ESPN, etc.), and by extension see a search results page that includes content from multiple apps.

This is akin to the change in how people navigate the web, moving from a directory model (Yahoo!) to search (Google).

Competing Interests

One question this brings up is which content apps will people choose to watch when the same content – be it a movie, TV show, or episode – is available on multiple apps? To complicate things more, some services of which the user may subscribe to and some they don’t. Lastly, many of these shows and movies are going to be available on iTunes for purchase or rent.

Quite a few powerful interests to navigate there (just ask Google).

Will Apple try to create a level playing field, or create a business model around universal search? (True, Apple has search today in iTunes so that’s nothing new. But including other content providers in the results is and changes the game completely).

Changes in User Experience Change the Game

Today on Apple TV the user selects the content app first, then chooses the show or movie they want to watch. This means the content partner decides what content to feature prominently in their app; a powerful way to showcase certain content and a benefit they can offer creators.

It also means that today brand matters – when we see Disney, ESPN, HBO, Netflix, and more on our Apple TV a big part of our decision on what to watch is based on brand trust. Not so with universal search, as that aspect of the user experience doesn’t exist. The names of the individual shows, movies, and episodes gain some influence at the expensive of the media company brands.

Here’s what we know based on how Apple describes the universal search experience –

Searching for a movie used to take almost as long as actually watching the movie. With Siri, you can quickly search for a movie or TV show across popular services, including content apps such as iTunes and Netflix. All your viewing options are displayed on the screen, so you can see where a movie or show can be found. You’ll also see if it’s available to rent, buy, or watch with a subscription (if you don’t already have one).

Without a screenshot this doesn’t tell us much, but the phrase in parentheses is an important one. It implies that if you have an existing subscription to a service (Hulu, Netflix, HBO GO, etc.) those content apps will be favored in search results.

Apple’s Options

There’s a number of different approaches Apple could take.

If Apple follows the Google model content apps would pay to have sponsored listings that show up prominently in search results. I think we can discount that possibility, if for no other reason than Apple would be accused of copying Google.

Or perhaps users can set a preference. Let’s say I subscribe to Hulu, Netflix, HBO GO, and more. As a user I can prioritize my services based on personal preference, and Apple TV would honor that. This doesn’t seem likely because it would add some complexity and barriers to adoption, usually a no-no for Apple unless absolutely required.

There is some similarity with how Apple handles search in the App Store, which has given birth to the ASO (App Store Optimization) field. But there’s far more signals Apple can use in the App Store results- namely download data, reviews, ratings, and more. Apple TV will have a much smaller universe of apps to start with, and fewer signals.


  1. If universal search is Siri-only there will be a slow path to mass adoption
  2. Apple prioritizes iTunes when the content is available on Apple TV but not in a service the user subscribes to
  3. If the content is available from multiple apps that the user subscribes to, Apple shows the results in alphabetical order in a grid-like view (total guess. this is the most interesting scenario)
  4. It becomes increasingly important for content apps on the Apple TV to structure their data in a way that is optimized for Apple TV search (SEO for Apple TV)
  5. Apple will take a cut of revenue generated from purchases made on the search results page

A Negotiating Tactic?

Around the time that universal search was announced it also became known that Apple was delaying the launch of its cable bundle – a reported $40/month package designed to replace our cable subscriptions.

Perhaps these two things are related. Apple may have reached a logjam in their cable negotiations and decided to release universal search to reduce the influence of their negotiating partners and to see the impact of universal search on viewing behavior.

This should get interesting.

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