Google’s Change To Search Engine Results With AI Is Raising Concerns For Online Publishers

At its recent annual developer conference in Mountain View, California, Google unveiled a host of new features, such as innovative writing tools for Gmail and immersive directions in Google Maps. However, one announcement that may have slipped under the radar could potentially bring about the most significant transformation to the internet since Google became the world’s leading search engine in the early 2000s.

Google intends to revolutionize the way it displays search engine results by leveraging artificial intelligence (AI). To avoid exaggerating the possible implications, this shift could be akin to detonating a nuclear bomb on an already beleaguered online publishing industry.

During the conference, Google showcased its plans to incorporate generative AI in search engine results—a feature not yet available to the general public. They demonstrated this using a sample search query: “what’s better for a family with kids under 3 and dog, Bryce Canyon or Arches?” In traditional Google Search, this question about U.S. national parks might not yield a comprehensive answer. However, as shown in the screenshot below, the AI-driven search generates a response in a conversational tone that takes into account both the children’s ages and the dog.

So, how does generative AI accomplish this? It’s akin to a magic trick. The AI is trained by “reading” all accessible content on the open web and uses that information to formulate answers to questions conversationally. Google clarified in its presentation, “Then if you want to dig deeper, there are links included in the snapshot.”

Why might this spell trouble for the online publishing industry? Because Google is essentially crafting answers to complex questions using all available content on the open web without requiring users to visit the pages containing that information. Modern online publishing relies on users visiting a page to convert views into advertising revenue and subscriptions. This holds true for major publishers like the New York Times and Forbes, as well as independent authors and journalists writing on platforms like Substack and Twitter.

The million-dollar question is whether the links on the right, which I’ve circled below, will ever receive clicks.

Google claims that its new AI-driven search feature will generate clicks, as it aims to be transparent about the sources of its information. However, one could argue that this is similar to expecting users to click on Wikipedia’s sources listed at the bottom of each entry. While a small percentage of users deeply interested in a topic might click on those links, most will simply read the Wikipedia entry without concern for the sources.

This behavior is understandable, as users typically just want quick answers to their questions without any additional effort. For instance, when someone wants to know Walt Disney’s birthplace, they aren’t looking for an assignment; they just want a trivial fact. Disney was born in Chicago, and while Wikipedia cites a 2009 Chicago Sun-Times article as its source, very few people will actually click on that link. This is how Google Search’s AI-generated responses could potentially cannibalize content currently provided by newspapers, magazines, and online news outlets.

Some may even view this as a form of plagiarism, as one tech critic pointed out in a recent Substack post. Regardless of what it’s called, the outcome will likely involve fewer views for content creators’ websites and more for Google, which essentially compiles the world’s information and aims to keep users within its ecosystem. Google can then monetize those views through advertising – revenue that might have otherwise gone to publishers on their own websites.

As views are the lifeblood of the commercial web for content creators, it’s challenging to envision many websites surviving such a drastic change to Google’s flagship product. The analogy of a nuclear bomb being dropped on the web is fitting, considering Google Search’s dominant market share both in the U.S. and worldwide. Google Search is the go-to method for most people seeking answers to their questions, whether it’s about a baseball game’s schedule or a chicken noodle soup recipe.

The exact launch date for Google’s new Search capability remains unclear. The company plans to roll it out on a trial basis in the coming weeks, taking a cautious approach, as reported by The Verge. However, with competitors like ChatGPT gaining popularity, it’s difficult to imagine Google allowing other tech companies to surpass it. Many users have already replaced Google searches with ChatGPT, which is precisely what concerns Google.

While some critics argue that AI technology is overhyped and won’t work as advertised, this concern may be beside the point. The real question is whether these tools will alter how internet users consume information, and it appears the answer is a resounding yes.

Predicting the future is always challenging, but if one were to speculate about the impact of Google’s Search plans on the open web, it seems likely that it would:

  1. Devastate the already struggling ad-supported industry on which many newspapers and magazines depend, and
  1. Push more content creators to implement paywalls, another strategy previously unthinkable for some, including Paleofuture.

Google is poised to unleash a bomb that could obliterate countless websites, though the exact timeline remains uncertain. The efficacy of conventional defenses—such as subscriptions and Facebook-driven traffic—against this impending threat is also questionable.

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