Can Google Give A.I. Answers Without Breaking the Web?

For the past year and a half since ChatGPT was released, a scary question has hovered over the heads of major online publishers: What if Google decides to overhaul its core search engine to feature generative artificial intelligence more prominently — and breaks 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, receive a significant chunk of 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 who go searching for the next thing.

The whole symbiotic cycle has worked out fine, more or less, for a decade or two. And even when Google announced its first generative A.I. chatbot, Bard, last year, some online media executives consoled themselves with the thought that Google wouldn’t possibly put such an erratic and unproven technology into its search engine, or risk mucking up its lucrative search ads business, which generated $175 billion in revenue last year.

But change is coming.

At its annual developer conference on Tuesday, Google announced that it would start showing A.I.-generated answers — which it calls “A.I. overviews” — to hundreds of millions of users in the United States this week. More than a billion users will get them by the end of the year, the company said.

The answers, which are powered by Google’s Gemini A.I. 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 give users concise summaries of whatever they’re looking for, along with suggested follow-up questions and a list of links they can click on to learn more. (Users will still get traditional search results, too, but they’ll have to scroll farther down the page to see them.)

The addition of these answers is the biggest change that Google has made to its core search results page in years, and one that stems from the company’s fixation on shoving generative A.I. into as many of its products as possible. It may also be a popular feature with users — I’ve been testing A.I. overviews for months through Google’s Search Labs program, and have generally found it to be useful and accurate.

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