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Can Google provide AI answers without disrupting the web?| GuyWhoKnowsThings

Over the past year and a half since the launch of ChatGPT, a terrifying question has been on the minds of major online publishers: What if Google decides to overhaul its core search engine to include generative artificial intelligence more prominently and ruin our business in the process? ?

The question speaks to one of the most fragile dependencies in today's online media ecosystem.

Most big publishers, including The New York Times, get a significant portion of their traffic from people going to Google, searching for something, and clicking on articles about it. That traffic, in turn, allows publishers to sell ads and subscriptions, which pay for the next wave of articles, which Google can then show to people searching for the next thing.

The whole symbiotic cycle has worked well, more or less, for a decade or two. And even when Google announced its first generative AI chatbot, BardLast year, some online media executives took solace in the idea that Google wouldn't include such erratic and untested technology in its search engine, or risk ruining its lucrative search ad business, which generated $175,000. million dollars in revenue last year.

But change is coming.

At its annual developer conference on Tuesday, Google announced that it would begin showing AI-generated responses, which it calls “AI summaries,” to hundreds of millions of users in the United States this week. More than a billion users will get them before the end of the year, the company said.

The responses, which are driven by Google's Gemini AI technology, will appear at the top of the search results page when users search for things like “vegetarian meal prep options” or “day trips in Miami.” They'll provide users with concise summaries of what they're looking for, along with suggested follow-up questions and a list of links they can click on for more information. (Users will also still get traditional search results, but they will have to scroll down the page to see them.)

The addition of these answers is the biggest change Google has made to its main search results page in years, and stems from the company's fixation on pushing generative AI on as many of your products as possible. It may also be a popular feature among users: I've been testing AI summaries for months through Google's Search Labs program, and have generally found it useful and accurate.

But editors are right to be scared. If the AI ​​answer engine does its job well enough, users won't need to click on any links. Whatever they're looking for will be there, on top of their search results. And the grand bargain on which Google's relationship with the open web rests (you give us articles, we give you traffic) could crumble.

Google executives put a positive spin on Tuesday's announcement, saying the new AI overviews would improve the user experience by “taking the legwork out of search.”

But that legwork pays for a lot of journalism and many other types of online media (fashion blogs, laptop reviews, restaurant listings) without which the Internet would be much less useful. If Google's AI overviews starve these websites of traffic, what will happen to them? And if large portions of the web disappeared entirely, what would AI be left to sum up?

Google clearly anticipated these fears and its executives had the answers ready.

At a briefing this week ahead of Google's developer conference, they said the company's testing had found that users shown AI summaries tended to perform more searches and visit a more diverse set of websites. . They also said that links appearing in AI summaries got more clicks than links showing on traditional search results pages.

Liz Reid, Google's vice president of search, said in a blog post on Tuesday that the company would “continue to focus on sending valuable traffic to publishers and creators.”

But look at these answers carefully and you'll see that Google isn't saying that publishers' overall search traffic won't decrease. This is because Google can't really predict what will happen once it starts showing AI-generated summaries in billions of search results per day, and how user behavior may change as a result.

At the beginning of this year, I wrote about perplexity, an AI-powered “answer engine” that shows users a concise summary of a topic they are researching rather than giving them a list of websites to visit. I thought the experience was clearly better than a traditional search engine for some types of searches and generally gave me more useful information faster.

But I was also nervous, because during my own Perplexity test, I basically stopped clicking on any links. In a world where AI can browse the internet for me and paraphrase what it sees, I discovered that I simply didn't need them. And I was worried about what would happen if all Perplexity users were like me and got into the habit of relying on AI-generated summaries instead of original sources.

I have the same concerns about Google's new AI overviews, but on a very different scale.

The perplexity is minimal: only 10 million monthly users, in February. Google, by contrast, has billions of users and accounts for more than 90 percent of the global search market. If you make a change to your search engine that reduces outbound traffic by just a few percentage points, all publishers will feel it.

It's unclear how big the effects of Google's AI overhauls will ultimately be. An analyst firm, Gartner, has foretold that traffic to the web from search engines could fall 25 percent by 2026. And many publishers are bracing for double-digit drops in traffic this year.

Perhaps these fears are exaggerated and the editors have not worried about anything. But after Tuesday's announcement, Google made it clear that they're about to find out either way.

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