In The Age Of AI, Google Experiments With Bold Changes To Search

For years, Google dominated search with little opposition. The format faced little disruption, always a bunch of blue links. And the company’s multi-billion dollar deals with Apple cemented its lead. But its comfortable perch is starting to fade. A U.S. Justice Department lawsuit exposed its distribution practices, opening it to competition. And generative AI tools threaten to upend the search format and reshuffle the playfield.

In this moment, Google is experimenting with bold new changes that may meaningfully alter the search experience. It’s started allowing people to leave publicly visible notes on search results in a test announced this week. It’s added an option to follow specific search queries, pushing new information vs. requiring repeated searches. And it continues to test generative AI results that answer questions in natural language.

“This is the most exciting time in my whole career,” Google Search VP Cathy Edwards told me in an interview on Big Technology Podcast this week.

Search is Google’s cash spigot. It generates most of its revenue and funds the company’s big bets. All those Googley things — the experimental products, research, moonshots, and shareholder returns — wouldn’t be possible without search’s margins. Tweaking the recipe is risky. Yet the company seems ready (or compelled) to try.

Notes, which Google released as an experiment this week, might be its boldest potential tweak. It effectively places an internet comment section on top of the results page. If you search for a recipe that calls for meat, for instance, someone can append a Note sharing a vegetarian substitute. Search for a website with timely information, and someone can add a Note when it’s outdated. If one website is easy to navigate and another is a nightmare, you can add a Note helping others determine which to visit.

“Fundamentally, people want to hear about information from other people,” Edwards said. Notes is intended to help them guide each other to the best information.

Internet comments tend to get out of hand, so Google’s taking some precautions to keep Notes civil. The team’s been studying from its counterparts at YouTube, Edwards said, which cleaned up its once-horrid comments section. “We’re best friends now,” Edwards said of the relationship. Expect similar filters and thumbs-up and down options on Notes so the best reach the top.

Along with Notes, Google released a Follow option on Search this week that it’s rolling out globally. Follow will allow you to subscribe to specific queries, pinging you with updates when new information arrives. If you’re interested in vegetarian stir fry, for instance, Google can alert you when a new recipe page hits the internet. And as services to follow interests decline — including X, the Facebook News Feed, and Tumblr — there’s a chance Google could step in and fill a gap. The company doesn’t want to build a social network, Edwards said. But it might provide similar utility without one.

Google’s Search Generative Experience — which adds generative AI responses on top of results pages — seems to be performing well within Labs. ”Users are really excited about this experience; sentiment is higher,” Edwards said. “We’re also seeing users do more complex queries.” The statement indicates that SGE, as Google calls it, might deliver some of the benefits of searching with an AI bot without switching Google search entirely to chat.

Google still has some issues to work out with generative search, though. If a response solves a query without requiring someone to scroll down a page of links, it could limit the amount of ads they’ll click on, threatening the business. “We keep ads and organic very separate at Google,” Edwards said. But Wall Street will still demand some answers.

Paying publishers whose information appears within generative AI responses is another issue. Ingesting and displaying web publisher content is different than simply listing headlines and blue links, and may send less traffic to publishers. But so far, determining whether SGE sends more or less traffic to publishers has been difficult because SGE’s opt-in nature limits Google’s ability to measure accurately. “It’s driving our statisticians mad,” Edwards said.

An option to simply block crawling — as is done in search — seems insufficient to alleviate publisher concerns with SGE. Yet so far, nobody seems to have a good solution outside of small licensing deals, like OpenAI’s agreement with the Associated Press.

The wave of potential changes — Notes, SGE, and Follow — could amount to Google Search’s most significant remodeling in a decade or more. Nothing in tech lasts forever, not even the most dominant leads. And for Google, the hope is this — and whatever’s coming — will be enough to maintain its dominance for a bit longer.

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