Web Publishers Brace for Carnage as Google Adds AI Answers

Courtesy of Kimber Matherne
Kimber Matherne said many of her millions of monthly readers find her blog, Easy Family Recipes, through Google.

Kimber Matherne’s thriving food blog draws millions of visitors each month searching for last-minute dinner ideas.

But the mother of three says decisions made at Google, more than 2,000 miles from her home in the Florida panhandle, are threatening her business. About 40 percent of visits to her blog, Easy Family Recipes, come through the search engine, which has for more than two decades served as the clearinghouse of the internet, sending users to hundreds of millions of websites each day.

As the tech giant gears up for Google I/O, its annual developer conference, this week, creators like Matherne are worried about the expanding reach of its new search tool that incorporates artificial intelligence. The product, dubbed “Search Generative Experience,” or SGE, directly answers queries with complex, multi-paragraph replies that push links to other websites further down the page, where they’re less likely to be seen.

The shift stands to shake the very foundations of the web.

The rollout threatens the survival of the millions of creators and publishers who rely on the service for traffic. Some experts argue the addition of AI will boost the tech giant’s already tight grip on the internet, ultimately ushering in a system where information is provided by just a handful of large companies.

“Their goal is to make it as easy as possible for people to find the information they want,” Matherne said. “But if you cut out the people who are the lifeblood of creating that information – that have the real human connection to it – then that’s a disservice to the world.”

Google calls its AI answers “overviews” but they often just paraphrase directly from websites. One search for how to fix a leaky toilet provided an AI answer with several tips including tightening tank bolts. At the bottom of the answer, Google linked to The Spruce, a home improvement and gardening website owned by web publisher Dotdash Meredith, which also owns Investopedia and Travel and Leisure. Google’s AI tips lifted a phrase from the Spruce’s article word-for-word.

A spokesperson for Dotdash Meredith declined to comment.

The links Google provides are often half-covered, requiring a user to click to expand the box to see them all. It’s unclear which of the claims made by the AI come from which link.

Tech research firm Gartner predicts traffic to the web from search engines will fall 25 percent by 2026. Ross Hudgens, CEO of search engine optimization consultancy Siege Media, said he estimates at least a 10 to 20 percent hit, and more for some publishers. “Some people are going to just get bludgeoned,” he said.

Raptive, which provides digital media, audience and advertising services to about 5,000 websites, including Easy Family Recipes, estimates changes to search could result in about $2 billion in losses to creators – with some websites losing up to two-thirds of their traffic. Raptive arrived at these figures by analyzing thousands of keywords that feed into its network, and conducting a side-by-side comparison of traditional Google search and the pilot version of Google SGE.

Michael Sanchez, the co-founder and CEO of Raptive, says that the changes coming to Google could “deliver tremendous damage” to the internet as we know it. “What was already not a level playing field … could tip its way to where the open internet starts to become in danger of surviving for the long term,” he said.

When Google’s chief executive Sundar Pichai announced the broader rollout during an earnings call last month, he said the company is making the change in a “measured” way, while “also prioritizing traffic to websites and merchants.” Company executives have long argued that Google needs a healthy web to give people a reason to use its service, and doesn’t want to hurt publishers. A Google spokesperson declined to comment further.

“I think we got to see an incredible blossoming of the internet, we got to see something that was really open and freewheeling and wild and very exciting for the whole world,” said Selena Deckelmann, the chief product and technology officer for Wikimedia, the foundation that oversees Wikipedia.

“Now, we’re just in this moment where the I think that the profits are driving people in a direction that I’m not sure makes a ton of sense,” Deckelmann said. “This is a moment to take stock of that and say, ‘What is the internet we actually want?’”

People who rely on the web to make a living are worried.

Jake Boly, a strength coach based in Austin, has spent three years building up his website of workout shoe reviews. But last year, his traffic from Google dropped 96 percent. Google still seems to find value in his work, citing his page on AI-generated answers about shoes. The problem is, people read Google’s summary and don’t visit his site anymore, Boly said.

“My content is good enough to scrape and summarize,” he said. “But it’s not good enough to show in your normal search results, which is how I make money and stay afloat.”

Courtesy of Jake Boly
Jake Boly, a strength coach, reviews weightlifting shoes on his website.

Google first said it would begin experimenting with generative AI in search last year, several months after OpenAI released ChatGPT. At the time, tech pundits speculated AI chatbots could replace Google search as the place to find information. Satya Nadella, the CEO of Google’s biggest competitor Microsoft, added an AI chatbot to his company’s search engine and in February 2023 goaded Google to “come out and show that they can dance.”

The search giant started dancing. Though it had invented much of the AI technology enabling chatbots and had used it to power tools like Google Translate, it started putting generative AI tech into its other products. Google Docs, YouTube’s video-editing tools and the company’s voice assistant all got AI upgrades.

But search is Google’s most important product, accounting for about 57 percent of its $80 billion in revenue in the first quarter of this year. Over the years, search ads have been the cash cow Google needed to build its other businesses, like YouTube and cloud storage, and to stay competitive by buying up other companies.

Google has largely avoided AI answers for the moneymaking searches that host ads, said Andy Taylor, vice president of research at internet marketing firm Tinuiti.

When it does show an AI answer on “commercial” searches, it shows up below the row of advertisements. That could force websites to buy ads just to maintain their position at the top of search results.

Google has been testing the AI answers publicly for the past year, showing them to a small percentage of its billions of users as it tries to improve the technology.

Still, it routinely makes mistakes. A review by The Washington Post published in April found that Google’s AI answers were long-winded, sometimes misunderstood the question and made up fake answers.

The bar for success is high. While OpenAI’s ChatGPT is a novel product, consumers have spent years with Google and expect search results to be fast and accurate. The rush into generative AI might also run up against legal problems. The underlying tech behind OpenAI, Google, Meta and Microsoft’s AI was trained on millions of news articles, blog posts, e-books, recipes, social media comments and Wikipedia pages that were scraped from the internet without paying or asking permission of their original authors.

OpenAI and Microsoft have faced a string of lawsuits over alleged theft of copyrighted works.

“If journalists did that to each other, we’d call that plagiarism,” said Frank Pine, the executive editor of MediaNews Group, which publishes dozens of papers around the U.S., including the Denver Post, San Jose Mercury News and the Boston Herald. Several of the company’s papers sued OpenAI and Microsoft in April, alleging the companies used its news articles to train their AI.

If news organizations let tech companies, including Google, use their content to make AI summaries without payment or permission, it would be “calamitous” for the journalism industry, Pine said. The change could have an even bigger effect on newspapers than the loss of their classifieds businesses in the mid-2000s or Meta’s more recent pivot away from promoting news to its users, he said.

The move to AI answers, and the centralization of the web into a few portals isn’t slowing down. OpenAI has signed deals with web publishers – including Dotdash Meredith – to show their content prominently in its chatbot.

Matherne, of Easy Family Recipes, says she’s bracing for the changes by investing in social media channels and email newsletters.

“The internet’s kind of a scary place right now,” Matherne said. “You don’t know what to expect.”