🔒 Google’s new AI Overviews search engine: Bad news for the web economy – Dave Lee

In the digital age, Google’s handshake with web content creators has been a defining force. But now, with the introduction of “AI Overviews,” that handshake is unravelling. This groundbreaking update to Google’s search engine promises users instant answers without the need to visit websites, potentially crippling traffic for content creators. As Google steps into the role of ultimate information provider, the web economy faces a bleak future, with experts predicting a significant drop in search engine traffic.

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By Dave Lee

For more than two decades, a simple handshake has shaped how people find information online. It works like this: Websites allow Google’s web crawler to index their content so it can appear in search results. The websites get traffic, and Google gets to be Google — one of the most valuable companies on Earth, on account of organizing all this information, putting ads alongside it and building lucrative tools on top of it all. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

But what happens when one half of that bargain disappears? That was on my mind Tuesday when Google unveiled “AI Overviews” at its annual developers’ conference. It’s an unassuming name for a hugely significant update to its search engine, one that — if it works as intended — could significantly reduce the amount of traffic that websites receive.

AI Overviews builds on something Google has been doing for a while but takes it significantly further. Many will be familiar with what happens when they search for a celebrity’s name. Before the “organic” list of search results, the user is presented with a fact panel that pulls in information from sources — typically Wikipedia — to provide basic information without needing to visit the website containing the source material.

Soon, AI Overviews will step in for a far broader array of uses. On stage, head of Google Search Liz Reid described how information on movies, travel, books “and more” will be served. A video demo showed a person asking Google “Why does my candle burn unevenly?” and is quickly shown a paragraph’s long explanation and solution. No more clicks needed.

Of course, Google didn’t write that information — someone else did. Or, more likely, a number of people did; their expertise has been synthesized into one clear answer. The AI-powered panel does contain links to related content on the web, for sure, but there’s often little reason to click it. It’s efficient for the user and certainly good for Google, but the handshake has been broken.

Rolling out in the US this week, and in much of the world by the end of the year, AI Overviews is a troubling development for the wider web economy. Think of Wikipedia as a canary: When Google started sourcing its information directly in search results, traffic plummeted because of what analytics firm SimilarWeb called the “zero click” effect — users obtaining the information they were seeking without needing to click through to the source. 

Every “zero click” is a blow to web publishers. Already suffering huge drop in traffic from social media companies less interested in carrying current affairs, publishers will be similarly deprioritized by Google as it strives to compete head-on with know-it-all AI tools like ChatGPT and Perplexity.ai. The outlook is bleak: Gartner predicts a 25% drop in search engine traffic by 2026, an estimate that seems conservative. An SEO expert told the Washington Post that publishers are expecting to be “bludgeoned.”

For its part, Google disagrees with this assessment. In a blog post, Reid noted that: “We see that the links included in AI Overviews get more clicks than if the page had appeared as a traditional web listing for that query” — though that says nothing of the impact to other links that would typically appear on a search results page but will now be pushed way below the AI content. A Google spokesperson stressed that the company realizes that, to have content to build into AI, content creators must have an incentive to create it in the first place — so Google said it would be monitoring closely the effect AI Overviews has on traffic (though how much the public will know about these metrics is not clear). 

What Google is essentially selling is a cleaner, simpler way to use the internet, one that strips away many of the modern web’s annoyances and just gives users the information they are seeking. Everyone might welcome that, but it has to be acknowledged that the big reason much of the web is a mess is because of Google. For years, websites have scrambled to please Google’s ranking algorithms, cramming articles with keywords, employing little tricks — some innocent, others not — to give content the best shot of rising to the top, because winning on Google means surviving. 

AI Overviews is Google cleaning up its own mess, but it’s a blow to content creators in the age of AI.

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