“Like dropping a nuclear bomb”: Will Google turn digital publishing upside down with AI search?

From What’s New in Publishing:

Google announced a raft of releases at its I/O 23 developer conference. From changes to its Maps functionality to a new ‘Magic’ photo editor and composer, the tech giant unveiled a host of AI-driven features designed to improve customer experience.

One, the introduction of generative AI search, has been called the most radical change the internet has seen since Google came to dominate search back in the early 2000s.

A ‘nuclear bomb’

Google announced plans to change the way search engine results are presented, demonstrating search results generated using AI. Writing on Forbes.com, consumer tech reporter Matt Novak said:

At the risk of overstating the potential consequences, it will be like dropping a nuclear bomb on an online publishing industry that’s already struggling to survive.

Novak’s reaction was sparked by a search query that asked “What’s better for a family with kids under 3 and dog, Bryce Canyon or Arches?”. In a traditional search, this query would likely have surfaced a host of travel articles that compared these US national parks as a family-friendly vacation destination.

Instead, the AI-powered search delivered a conversational style answer that directly addresses the suitability of the parks both for the children and the dog.

AI-powered search delivered a conversational style answer

Complex searches

At the moment, complex searches have to be broken down into smaller parts, leaving users to filter information to piece together the exact answer they want. With generative AI, Google Search will be able to understand the original query.

Users will see suggested next steps along the AI-powered ‘snapshot’ of key information. Tapping a suggested next step takes users to a new conversational mode where they ask more about the topic, with context carried over from question to question.

Lost referral traffic

The problem for publishers lies in the fact that AI search is delivering direct responses to users’ queries. Online publishers currently rely heavily on the referral traffic generated from search engines; users visiting web pages for more information are monetized through ad impressions.

If Google Search is using content scraped from the open web to compose answers, users will have no need to click through to the web pages that form the raw material for the AI’s answers. 

Google says its suggested next steps links will generate clicks and that it is trying to be completely transparent about where it is getting the information for its answers. But Novak argues that this is like expecting people to click on Wikipedia source links. He said:

Sure, someone who’s intensely interested in the topic might click on those links. But the vast majority of users will just read the Wikipedia entry without worrying about all the sources.

Link to the rest at What’s New in Publishing

PG recalls that when the internet was spreading like wildfire many years ago. There were a huge number of “End of the World” articles, some online, others on paper. (Yes, children, PG is that old.)

The internet changed lots of things, but PG doesn’t remember seeing people starving in the streets or jumping out of windows from the 49th floor with such frequency that it was dangerous walking on the sidewalk in any large cities.