The single most visited page on the internet is undergoing its most radical change in 25 years.
On Wednesday, Google introduced a major overhaul of its search results page that infuses the screen with AI. Called the Search Generative Experience (SGE), the new interface makes it so that when you type a query into the search box, the so-called “10 blue links” that we’re all familiar with appear for only a brief moment before being pushed off the page by a colorful new shade with AI-generated information. The shade pushes the rest of Google’s links far down the page you’re looking at — and when I say far, I mean almost entirely off the screen.
The current version of Google’s search results page isn’t perfect. It’s often cluttered and filled with links from sites that have gamed the system to get there. But the new version completely changes how we get information. In some ways, those changes might be for the better — but they also have the potential to be much worse.
Google has been headed in this direction for a long time
Google has been headed in this direction for a long time. The company has continually pushed UI changes that present answers within its own ecosystem instead of third-party sources. These include the Knowledge Graph (launched in 2012!) and featured snippets. I take many of these tools for granted, as they’re helpful for simple queries like converting time across time zones or finding the full cast of a movie. They push the traditional blue links farther from the top of the page, but they also sometimes succeed at getting an answer to you faster.
SGE is the logical next step in this process: it wants to give you an answer without sending you to a source. The ideal result is no longer 10 blue links, and it hasn’t been for a long time. I’m going to sound like a curmudgeon here, but I really don’t like that, and I especially don’t like these changes, which push the familiar list of links down to the center of the Earth. Maybe I’m an outlier; I’m a journalist — I love to examine sources! But I’m not yet ready to trust Google’s summarized search results in favor of ones that I can sift through myself.
To see just how transformative SGE might be, just look to Google’s demo from Wednesday. This is Google’s showcase — its chance to show the tech in its best light — and we see SGE driving its list of links nearly entirely off-screen.
In a live demo shown on a Pixel, SGE is even more demanding, with the list of links being pushed far below the bottom of the phone screen. Heck, you can’t even see all of SGE’s results until the presenter expands the summary box or scrolls down.
The problem seems like it will be even worse when ads appear on a page with SGE. Onstage, Google briefly showed how ads might show up on “commercial queries.” In the given example, the ads took over the result and pushed most of the SGE results far down, meaning the list of links isn’t visible at all.
Google argues that AI will have a transformative effect on searches and be worth the real estate. “With this powerful new technology, we can unlock entirely new types of questions you never thought Search could answer, and transform the way information is organized, to help you sort through and make sense of what’s out there,” Elizabeth Reid, VP and GM of Search at Google, wrote in a blog post. For certain queries, an AI summary sounds very handy.
But given how often AI language models confidently lie, SGE could be a disaster at scale — especially when I’m already somewhat distrustful of what Google shows for searches right now. Take this basic example: as of Thursday, May 11th, when I asked Google, “When does the new Zelda come out,” the first suggestion was Breath of the Wild’s March 2017 release date instead of Tears of the Kingdom’s May 12th launch, which was in smaller font below that. I have even less faith in Google’s AI suggestions given that the company’s flagship chatbot, Bard, seems like it’s wrong more often than it’s right.
Google is aware of these objections. SGE does have an alternative to links; as the company explained to my colleague David Pierce, a set of cards appear to the right of the SGE-made summaries that link to websites to “corroborate” what’s written. But links are no longer supposed to be your primary destination; instead, Google is making them supplemental. And Google isn’t the only AI company that is facing this criticism; the new Bing chatbot can show its sources, but it’s unclear if people are clicking through those citations at a meaningful rate.
SGE could have a dramatic effect on publishers
SGE, if rolled out more broadly, would also likely have a dramatic effect on the ad-supported media ecosystem. This ecosystem relies on people clicking through Google links to read articles with ads on them so that the publisher can get paid by the advertiser. If SGE rolls up all that information into a confident summary at the top of search results that people believe is true, they may not actually click any links, chipping away at publishers’ revenue. That’s worrying in a media environment that’s already reeling from other platform shifts, and it’s a dynamic that my colleague James Vincent has already written about following I/O in 2021.
Fortunately, if you would also prefer to see the list of links in your results, SGE won’t be forced on everyone, at least at first. Currently, it’s an experimental feature that you can only access after signing up for a waitlist. That said, given how much Google talked about AI at this year’s show, it’s not hard to imagine a future where Google fully integrates this into everyone’s Search experience — especially with Microsoft nipping at its heels. If Google keeps relying on AI to answer things for you, it might keep pushing the list of links farther and farther away.