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As Execs Gush Over AI at Google I/O 2024, Creators and Publishers Left Out to Dry

 As Execs Gush Over AI at Google I/O 2024, Creators and Publishers Left Out to Dry


Google wouldn’t exist without publishers filling up its search results. And at Google I/O 2024, it seems that executives have all but forgotten about the online ecosystem that keeps people going back to Google on a daily basis. 

Of the many things announced during the Google I/O keynote this year — including an AI agent named Astra, a reincarnation of Google Glass and Gems — it was a little concerning that there wasn’t even a tacit acknowledgement of the journalists, bloggers, forum posters, Redditors and YouTubers who create the content that feeds Google’s AI machine. Instead, Google’s future vision of Search is an AI-powered engine that synthesizes the web’s content and gives you a concise summary. Or, as Liz Reid, head of the company’s head of Search said on stage Tuesday, “Google will do the Googling for you.”

“Since the introduction of Google’s ‘Knowledge’ feature to search results in 2012, the company has been moving away from simply redirecting traffic to content creators. AI assistants and SGE are likely to accelerate this trend,” said Rob Meadows, chief technology officer at OpenWeb and the founder of the AI Foundation. “As traffic flows on the web evolve, content creators need to build direct relationships with their readers and build a community that keeps them engaged.”

More from Google I/O 2024

Google’s rapid pivot to a heavily AI-driven product portfolio comes as the entire tech industry consolidates around the transformational technology. When ChatGPT became available to the public in late 2022, it caught the tech industry off-guard. Suddenly, instead of having to put keywords into Google Search and read through websites to find your answers, you could have an AI chatbot answer seemingly any question you had in easy-to-understand language. It could even create novel text automatically, from poems to song lyrics — the generative power was something the public hadn’t been accustomed to. 

Since then, Google, Microsoft and Meta have invested billions in AI. With Generative AI estimated to add up to $4.4 trillion annually to the global economy, according to McKinsey, it’s a race among Big Tech to create the most valuable AI products. 

The problem for publishers

It can’t be understated how critical Google is to the online publishing ecosystem. Google is by far the world’s largest search engine with over 90% market share, handling an estimated 8.5 billion searches daily, according to customer service firm HubSpot. For many sites, a majority of their traffic comes from Google Search. Even subscription-driven sites still have to optimize content for Google. It’s the default search platform on Android and iOS, a matter so concerning that it’s the basis for an antitrust lawsuit by the US Department of Justice. Large, even small, changes to Google’s search algorithm can shatter traffic at websites, leading to layoffs and potential closures

This is all while Google continues to hit record profits and stock valuations as the media industry reels from brutal layoffs amid an uncertain advertising market

In past statements, Google has expressed solidarity with creators and a belief that “everyone benefits from a vibrant content ecosystem.” Unfortunately, whether it be massive changes to Google’s search engine optimization or its continued funneling of users towards AI-generated answers, Google’s moves don’t inspire confidence in the way things are heading. In the race to out-AI OpenAI, Microsoft and Meta, Google will attempt to create the most powerful AI tools around and, in doing so, leave publishers with little recourse. 

If AI overviews give people immediate answers to their searches, that means fewer people going to publishers, and ultimately less income for the companies generating the content that ultimately answers those search queries.

“As we’ve said before and throughout the keynote, people use AI Overviews to connect to a range of perspectives on the web, and we’re prioritizing approaches that continue to support a healthy ecosystem,” a Google representative said in a statement.

In fairness to Google, AI searches do link to the original sources. And in Google’s Q1 earnings call in April, Pichai noted that the company is being “measured in how we do this” and will also be “prioritizing traffic to websites and merchants.”

Publishers have built their businesses on online search traffic, social media, e-commerce sales and tracking via third-party cookies. Google’s shift to AI in Search, along with the larger industry shift away from cookies — the bits of ad-tracking data stored on your device — threatens the online publishing model. Publishers have forecasted this shift and are looking towards different strategies to diversify revenues, according to Meadows. 

Some are more hopeful, however. 

“I think partnerships between tech companies and publishers, which have been foundational in the past, will continue to flourish,” said Kai Du, head of generative AI at Turing, an AI tech services company. “I’m an AI optimist and I think tools like Google Gemini will ultimately enhance the work of content creators and journalists.”

Even if journalists can better research and write with the help of AI, it won’t mean much if Google ends up summarizing their content. It’s also worth considering what people’s appetites are regarding AI-generated content.

“Users will quickly learn to recognize AI-generated content, and will increasingly find it less interesting and appealing compared to human-generated content,” said Meadows. “Just like a great novelist, journalists have a voice and style that people find interesting, and this will become even more obvious as AI content sets a less interesting baseline.”

Editors’ note: CNET used an AI engine to help create several dozen stories, which are labeled accordingly. The note you’re reading is attached to articles that deal substantively with the topic of AI but are created entirely by our expert editors and writers. For more, see our AI policy.



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