Spotlight Search. It’s a feature of the iPhone that we don’t spend much time talking about. In fact, it’s a feature that iOS users do not interact with much either, with a recent study by Branch showing that only 0.3% of users click on Spotlight links. However, we’ve noticed a new feature in iOS 10 that indicate some big changes for Spotlight Search in the future.

Spotlight Search iOS timeline

Let’s start at the beginning.

Spotlight Search has developed immensely since its initial release in 2009 with iOS 3.0. Initially, it pulled information such as contacts, mail metadata, calendars and media, on a separate page. With the release of iOS 4, users could also search text messages. Eventually, Apple made the feature easier to access by pulling down on the home screen with the release of iOS 7. Apple then included web results in searches with iOS 8.

The most prominent change came with the release of iOS 9, as searches surfaced the content from apps. In the US, Apple released Universal Search which was a big deal for content app owners. They could now make their content surface for searches on devices that did not have the app downloaded.

Fast forward to today. iOS 10 gives you the power to customise the functionality of Spotlight Search on your device. Users can now control the ‘suggested’ capability (which is based on usage and history) in your settings. If turned off, only content that lives on your phone will surface for searches. Apple also scrapped the Define feature and replaced it with the new Look Up feature. This was the start of advancing the functionality of Spotlight Search.

The Look Up feature

yodel mobile marketing spotlight search

So, what exactly is the Look Up feature? Well, it wasn’t given much attention when iOS 10 was released, apart from angry tweets of individuals who missed the simplicity of Define. Look Up is activated when highlighting a word. Instead of offering a basic definition of a word or term, it offers similar suggestions provided through Spotlight Search. This includes relevant information from the App Store, maps or web results. The feature is an indication that Apple are testing out new ways to make Spotlight Search a more prominent feature. And recently, we’ve noticed other interactions that prompts the Look Up feature…

Look Up in iMessage

On iMessage, certain terms are become targeted for the Look Up feature. Apple now subtly underline the names of particular film titles and artists within a text message on iMessage. When clicking through the link, it produces Spotlight Search results from the web, Apple Music, YouTube and more.

Currently, only some titles and names offer Spotlight Search results. We carried out some testing to see when the feature would prop up.

Our Results

yodel mobile marketing spotlight search

Upon testing, it became clear that Apple’s knowledge graph has some depth to it. When including the title of popular film, Lost in Translation (which also doubles as a commonly used phrase), the Look Up feature is only activated if the term is used in context. When including words like “seen” in the sentence (offering the indicative context) the words were underlined with the ability to produce Spotlight Search results. The first result is from iTunes with the ability to purchase or rent the directly.

In contrast, when searching popular artist names that are unlikely to change meaning, context is not applicable. One example was the mention of Spice Girls, which remained underlined even when placed in an irrelevant sentence. The results showed iTunes, Wikipedia and suggested website results.

What are Apple trying to do with Spotlight Search and what can we expect for iOS 11?

Our testing of the Look Up feature in iMessage suggests that Apple are making their search functionality more intuitive and sophisticated. Spotlight Search is brushed under the carpet by a lot of users. Instead, Apple is trying to bring the feature into a more personal space, like the context of your messages. Seeing the feature available for only a small pool of artists and film titles could mean that Apple are still testing. Soon enough the Look Up feature could appear for majority of artists, film titles and song names and geographical mentions. It could also offer the opportunity for content within that are not installed on your phone apps to surface the results. If this was the case, it opens an array of discoverability opportunities. These are all things we can potentially anticipate for the next iOS release.

Furthermore, with the recent developments of Google Home, Amazon Echo, and the launch of Google’s Assistant on iOS, Apple is trying to stay ahead of the game. Apple also recently acquired Lattice in an attempt to make Siri more intelligent. Siri, together with Spotlight Search and Safari, make up the trinity that is Apple Search. The advancements of the Look Up feature could be part of Apple’s focus on developing on their search capabilities overall.

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