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AI is about to make Google Search unrecognisable

OPINION: Google’s shift change to AI in search could forever change the online economy. Right now few can predict the consequences.

Google this week revealed the biggest change to its core Search platform since its inception. Pretty soon, the web’s vast archive of knowledge on the user’s query will be distilled down into a couple of AI-generated paragraphs atop the search results.

As part of the “integrated search results page” (see the video below) Google will add a trio of links, citing the sources of this information. Users will be able to read up further by clicking one of them. They’ll also be able to explore further, ask follow-up questions in perfect context, and even converse with Google to dial the request in even further.

So, while this all sounds pretty neat from a consumer perspective, the consequences could (and probably will) drastically affect the online economy. Such is its immense power, at present, only a select few websites could possibly survive without Google diverting traffic from search queries.

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If you didn’t know this, many online publications hold their breath every time Google announces it is tweaking the algorithm, let alone altering the essence and focus of the results page. The changes announced at Google I/O will suck the air right out of them. Perhaps permanently.

While the slightest changes to the algorithm can wipe out years of work building towards high rankings in Google search results, the pending changes are in an entirely different stratosphere.

Many questions, zero answers

Google’s Cathy Edwards, the VP of Engineering, announced AI in search with extreme excitement, but there’ll be a lot of people in a lot of industries feeling very, very nervous about what’s to come.

Will people’s search habits now change? Right now, most people don’t go beyond the first results page on Google (hence why everyone works so hard to get on to it in the first place). Moving forward it might be a race to become one of those three links featured above the page fold, within the generative AI summary.

That’s if those three links are even clicked. Right now you kind of have to visit the sites in question because you get the headline and the excerpt. Now you’ve got a full few paragraphs from multiple sources without having to visit another website. It’s all right there. Will people do anything beyond reading this summary?

Does this risk an AI-powered homogenisation of content on the internet? Where one voice, the very well trained Google natural language model, is the only one that really cuts through?

Where’s the money, Lebowski?

The other main question is, you know, when are we all going to get paid for this?

Because Google didn’t venture to answer this during Google I/O. Google doesn’t own the information used to train the AI and didn’t do any of the work in creating it. For example, it didn’t test the product you might want to buy. It didn’t visit the national parks and blog about them so you can decide which to visit, and it didn’t dedicate a life to gaining an education so you can read groundbreaking scientific research that manifested from that education.

So in what universe is it fair or morally correct for the company to gobble up every morsel of published information, distil it, repackage it, paraphrase it and not even provide proper attribution, let alone proper financial compensation? My guess is that it’ll happen eventually, but after a long and protracted fight with governments outside of the US stepping in to ensure homegrown businesses and industries aren’t completely decimated by this wholesale siphoning of copyrighted information.

Right now, there’s an accepted trade-off; a quid pro quo. Google delivers readers to publications ads can be served, subscriptions can be purchased and new fans can be harnessed. Everyone’s happy. What happens when those people aren’t clicking through anymore because Google has distilled everything the searcher needs to know into that paragraph above the search results?

Google may feel backed into a corner over this. It has seen the writing on the wall in terms of artificial intelligence in Search. It has seen how others’ work (not Microsoft’s) in AI has given Bing a possible lifeline. Of course, Microsoft has far less market share and can probably try new things without quite so much risk.

It will be loathed to surrender any of its advantages in search, which remains the goose that laid the golden egg. It perhaps sees going all in on AI as the only way to maintain that advantage. A £1749 folding phone isn’t going to fill that hole.

Contrary to Microsoft’s opportunistic and brazen approach to integrating AI within everything, I’d initially applauded Google was expressing a modicum of caution. I thought wrong. This wasn’t Google I/O, it was Google AI. And there’s no going back.

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