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Explaining Siri Suggestions and Spotlight Search in iOS 9

iOS 9 is out, and when you upgrade, you will find that Spotlight Search, Apple’s name for its amalgam of search technologies, offers you more than ever before when you perform a search. But with broader, deeper searches comes some complexity, especially when you want to control the look and type of search results that you get. To help you understand how the various pieces that make up Spotlight Search work together today, let’s look back a few iOS versions ago.

Spotlight Search in iOS 5 and 6 — Although Spotlight Search goes back even earlier, the version in iOS 5 is a good place to start. In that version of iOS, you used Spotlight Search to find stuff on your iOS device: just slide right from the first home screen to type a search query. But aside from using Spotlight to find and launch apps or play a particular song or video, you could use it only to find content stored within a few select Apple apps: Calendar, Contacts, Mail (headings only), Messages, Notes, Reminders, and Voice Memos.

You could also tailor the order of search results in iOS 5 by rearranging the order of searchable items listed in Settings > General > Spotlight Search, and you could disable searching for particular types of information (Don’t care to see Voice Memo results? No problem!).

Spotlight didn’t change much in iOS 6, save for a couple of small niceties added, such as providing the name of the folder containing the app in app search results.

Spotlight Search in iOS 7 and 8 — The biggest change to Spotlight Search in iOS 7 was where you found Spotlight in the first place. Instead of swiping right until you got to the screen to the left of the first home screen, iOS 7 made Spotlight Search available from any home screen: you would just swipe down in the middle of the screen. You could still rearrange the searchable items and enable or disable particular ones in General > Settings > Spotlight Search, and the kinds of items you could search remained similar to those in previous iOS versions.

Aside from being available from any home screen, which was handy given how iOS had provided the capability for many more such screens, and showing off the translucency features of iOS 7 by superimposing your search results on a frosted-glass pane above whatever home screen you were on, Spotlight in iOS 7 didn’t do a whole lot more. That whole lot more arrived in iOS 8 with Spotlight Suggestions.

Spotlight Suggestions brought the outside world, or, at least, a tiny sliver of the outside world, into your Spotlight searches. Although the Spotlight screen had previously provided the separate capability of explicitly performing Web and Wikipedia searches, Spotlight Suggestions integrated results from Bing searches and from Apple’s digital store searches directly into your search results. It would also include such real-world information as movie showtimes, nearby places, and even news stories within those search results. Naturally,
results from all the traditional search items, such as Contacts and Notes, could show up in your search results as well. Seldom would you go hitless when searching — unless, of course, you turned off Spotlight Suggestions.

Spotlight Search, App Content Search, and Siri Suggestions — And that brings us to Spotlight Search in iOS 9. First of all, iOS 9 changes, yet again, where you find Spotlight. In iOS 9 you can perform Spotlight searches either by swiping down the center of any home screen or by swiping right on the first home screen.

iOS 9 also changes how you arrange the results that Spotlight returns: right now you can’t. That might be because the list of items that provide search results has become much longer: it includes every app you have installed. That’s not to say you can get results from every app — apps must be specifically designed to provide Spotlight with search results.

iOS 9’s Spotlight Search, by default, enables every app in the Search Results list no matter whether it can provide search results or not. Why? Because the alternative is too painful: imagine having to visit Settings > General > Spotlight Search each time a developer upgraded an app for Spotlight compatibility just to let Spotlight know you wanted to see results from it.

Spotlight Suggestions remains in iOS 9, though it’s no longer at the top of the Search Results list in Settings > General > Spotlight Search. Scroll down that long list and you’ll see it among the other items in the list that begin with S. Spotlight Suggestions provides the same sorts of results as before, with the exception of Bing, which is now a separate item in the list (look for it among the other items that begin with B).

But probably the marquee feature in iOS 9’s Spotlight Search is Siri Suggestions (it must be a marquee feature because you find it located atop everything else in Settings > General > Spotlight Search). Siri Suggestions doesn’t enhance the searches you perform, though. Instead, it provides a sort of pre-search for you. That is, it provides suggestions the moment you swipe into a Spotlight Search screen, before you enter anything into the screen’s search field. Such suggestions come in two forms, depending on which search screen you invoke.

When you swipe down from the center of a home screen to start a search, Siri Suggestions displays a small list of apps. The apps you see listed vary; Siri Suggestions generally displays a few apps that you use most often as well as a few that you have used most recently. The rest of the Spotlight Search screen remains empty.

When you swipe right on the first home screen to start a search, Siri Suggestions provides a richer set of pre-search suggestions. You see a list of recent and frequent contacts, possibly a book you’ve been reading or some other media, and, as on the swipe-down search screen, a list of recent and frequently used apps. The screen also offers icons you can tap for maps to nearby places, divided into categories like Nightlife and Gas. If Spotlight Suggestions is also enabled (which it is, by default) the search screen also
includes a helping of news stories, possibly along with some other items.

Siri Suggestions doesn’t change the contents of your search results when you type a query into the search field, no matter which search screen you use to perform a search. Nor do such results vary depending on whether Siri Suggestions is enabled or not. The results you get when you perform a search are controlled by the items enabled in the Search Results list in Settings > General > Spotlight Search.

To anticipate your search interests, Siri Suggestions collects information about how you use your iOS device and refines the kinds of suggestions it makes over time. If that sounds a little creepy, you needn’t worry that Siri is spying on you and transmitting the results back to the mothership: Apple claims the information that Siri collects never leaves your device.

If you want to clear all the suggestions from the swipe-right search screen, swipe down from the middle of the screen.

Summing It Up — The evolution of Spotlight Search over the last several releases of iOS has resulted in search capabilities that now comprise the following in iOS 9:

  • Spotlight Search: This is how you find stuff stored on your device. Originally capable of finding and launching apps as well as returning information stored within a small set of Apple-developed apps, Spotlight Search can now return results from any app that stores data — if that app has been updated to allow Spotlight to peruse its data.

  • Spotlight Suggestions: This feature provides search results from outside your device from a small set of information sources. Such sources include Apple’s own media and app stores, services that return movie showtime information, news outlets, map services that return information about local businesses, and so on.

  • Bing Web Results: Previously part of Spotlight Suggestions, this feature adds Web search results to the other results returned by Spotlight Search.

  • Siri Suggestions: This new feature in iOS 9 attempts to provide search results before you actually perform a search. Siri Suggestions uses a continually updated pool of information about how you have been using your iOS device to anticipate some of the things you might want to search for. These suggestions can include apps, contacts, media, and local businesses.

But what if you simply want a nice clean search environment, uncluttered by results from Apple’s various stores or from any source beyond the contents of your device? It’s simple enough to set such an environment up: turn off Siri Suggestions, Spotlight Suggestions, and Bing Web Results in Settings > General > Spotlight Search.

Meanwhile, as app developers upgrade their apps to add Spotlight searching compatibility, your Spotlight searches, however you configure them, should gradually become smarter and more detailed over time. Whether many developers will provide in-app search compatibility with Spotlight, only time will tell — so far, Siri remains silent on the issue.

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