Is Apple really trying to create a search engine to rival Google? Reuters

Apple has confirmed it owns a website-crawling robot, but claims it is merely looking to improve Siri and Spotlight searches, and not create its own search engine to rival Google, as speculators are suggesting.

Rumours of the iPhone maker getting into the search market began late last year when webmasters started seeing web crawlers visiting their sites from IP addresses beginning with 17. This was unusual because the block of addresses starting with 17 is entirely owned by Apple.

The company has now published a support document explaining that it is operating its own web crawler called Applebot.

Apple says the bot is "used by products including Siri and Spotlight Suggestions. It respects customary robots.txt rules and robots meta tags. It originates in the net block."

Despite the bot existing since at last the autumn of 2014, Apple didn't create the support page until February, and it was only populated with content in April.

Although this could be a simple explanation for what is going on, it's interesting to note that Apple didn't say the bot is being used solely or exclusively for the two search services mentioned. Also intriguing is why Apple would need to index the web, when Siri mostly relies on Bing and Wolfram Alpha for its search results.

Job vacancy for 'search platform' at Apple

The news comes just weeks after a (now-removed) job vacancy at Apple was discovered, looking for a project manager to work on "a search platform supporting hundreds of millions of users" and "play a part in revolutionising how people use their computers and mobile devices."

While some Apple gossipers will take this as evidence that an iSearch engine is coming to take on Google at its own game, others aren't so sure. Ben Lovejoy of 9to5Mac sees Apple as mostly a hardware company, whose online presence and services mainly act as ways of selling its latest products, not as businesses in their own right. "The ecosystem is really there to sell shiny new toys," he says, adding that Apple "has long rejected ad-funded models."

Indeed, company CEO Tim Cook stated in 2014 that free online services, like search engines, turned users into a commodity to be sold. Cook said: "A few years ago, users of Internet services began to realise that when an online service is free, you're not the customer. You're the product. But at Apple, we believe a great customer experience shouldn't come at the expense of your privacy.

"Our business model is very straightforward: We sell great products. We don't build a profile based on your email content or web browsing habits to sell to advertisers."