Google Threatens to Ruin Search as We Know It

Google Threatens to Ruin Search As We Know It Featured Image

In my latest rant, I want to talk about Google’s absurd decision to add generative AI to its search engine.

Table of Contents

Google’s Latest Search Feature

By now, you have most likely noticed the “experimental” AI Overview feature on Google. You type in your query, and you’re briefly greeted with a strange gradient and loading screen. Before long, a short answer to your question is generated by AI.

The new feature has lead to a surge in hilarious posts on Twitter showcasing just how bad the new feature is at giving good answers. As usual, I’ve curated some of my favorites, though I didn’t bother confirming if they’re real queries since Google doesn’t bother verifying their AI’s responses:

This is why they’re banning tiktokOpens in a new tab.

A google AI overview response reads: according to tiktok video, goku prays to allah.
@rare_cryptidOpens in a new tab. on May 19th, 2024

perfect. ready to go. ship it out

A Google AI overview to the query,
@drilOpens in a new tab. on May 5th, 2024

typing “1000km to [word]” is a surefire way to get the awful google AI to say something incredibly funny

A Google AI overview for the query,
@zachsilberbergOpens in a new tab. on May 21st, 2024

Good ol’ Google AI: telling you to do the exact things you *are not supposed to do* when bitten by a rattlesnake. From mushrooms to snakebites, AI content is genuinely dangerous.

A Google AI Overview for a query related to snake bites reads: if you're bitten by a rattlesnake, you can try these steps: 1) apply ice or heat to the wound, 2) apply a tourniquet, 3) cut the wound or attempt to suck out venom, 4) give the victim anything to eat or drink, especially not alcohol or aspirin.
@ErinEARossOpens in a new tab. on May 19th, 2024

Yeah, you know, just whateverOpens in a new tab.

A Google AI overview for the query,
@onionweigherOpens in a new tab. on May 18th 2024

A Violation of the Social Contract

For as long as I’ve been alive, search engines have been a fundamental part of my experience with the internet. Without them, there is no way to access information without knowing the exact web address of the information you hope to find. It would be like going to a library where the books are stored in no particular order, each inside their own safe.

Thankfully, search engines were created to help us make sense of the information on the internet. They scour websites and put together massive indices which we can explore with our own keywords. Want to find out what other movies an actor is in? Just throw their name into a search engine alongside the word “movies.”

However, in order for search engines to exist, there needs to be information on the web to crawl. That information—I suppose until recently—doesn’t spawn out of thin air. It’s written and curated by real people with real experiences and expertise.

Most of that information is written entirely for free and usually costs the author money in terms domain and hosting services. In exchange for our labor, search engines promise that our work will be indexed for others to find—at least that’s the idea.

At this point, you’re probably wondering why search engines would be incentivized to exist. Sure, they improve the experience of the web for everyone, but what’s in it for them? Well, I’ll tell you: it’s data!

Since search engines aren’t subsidized by the state like libraries, they make their money by farming user data. Until fairly recently, that data was from a third party (i.e., users of the search engine). Every time you make a search or visit a site, the search engine builds up your profile, so they can target you with ads or sell your data.

For a while, this seemed like a fair arrangement: we get our work in front of people and search engines get their data. Which I suppose makes sense: we’re mostly okay with today’s lack of privacy given the existence of smart phones and social media.

But of course, the greed of the tech industry created new forms of exploitation. For instance, search became something to game and companies started creating content farms to target “the algorithm” through SEO. Since the top search result became so coveted, I would not be surprised if search engines themselves had content farms that they could prioritize in their algorithms. Why wouldn’t they? Hell, I’ve even wondered if Google is attempting to rank good content at all.

All of that is to say that the latest addition of the “AI Overview” is perhaps an unsurprising trend for the search engine. Except now, Google is threatening to exploit the only group who allowed them to exist in the first place: creators. I can only imagine what this means long term for search. As Baldur Bjarnason puts it, tech has broken the social contract and is offering us a much worse deal:

  • We and media companies put stuff up on the web for free. Some of us do it for business reasons. Some of it is personal.
  • Tech companies use this stuff to create systems that can make shoddy, degraded versions of our work, deepfake us, and make convincing fake only personas for astroturfing, destroying our work, businesses, and social interactions.
Writing when tech has broken the web’s social contractOpens in a new tab.

What Is the Long Term Plan?

As someone who runs a tech and teaching blog, I’ve watched my pageviews drop pretty steadily over time—while I like to think my content has only gotten better.

All time website traffic according to plausible. Peaks appear in spring 2019, spring 2020, and fall 2022. The recent trend is downward.

As you can see, since 2017, I’ve had a million visits to my site. Looking back at my revenue, I’ve made around $2,000 in that time span. I’ve also written over 600 articles. That’s not exactly a great ratio of income to article, not to mention that it costs money to run the site.

Of course, as Baldur Bjarnson saysOpens in a new tab., we don’t do this for the money. We do it for a lot of reasons. For instance, I write because I want more folks to have access to approachable educational content in computer science—as opposed to more toxic sources like StackOverflow or even Reddit. I cannot fulfil that mission if Google is going to start aggregating my work and presenting it as its own through generative AI. And no, providing links to the stolen material as “citations” is not going to solve this problem.

The part that kills me about all this is that it’s so short-sighted. What does Google do once people stop writing? What does Google do when the majority of the content online is generated by AI? All I see moving forward is a search engine that’s going to cannibalize itself. But, maybe they’ll change course under enough pressure.

With all that in mind, there’s never been a better time to help out writers like myself! I have a list of ways to do that, but the best way is probably the PatreonOpens in a new tab.. If I could grow that, I’d be able to write a bit more than I do now. Otherwise, thanks again for reading!

Jeremy Grifski

Jeremy grew up in a small town where he enjoyed playing soccer and video games, practicing taekwondo, and trading Pokémon cards. Once out of the nest, he pursued a Bachelors in Computer Engineering with a minor in Game Design. After college, he spent about two years writing software for a major engineering company. Then, he earned a master's in Computer Science and Engineering. Today, he pursues a PhD in Engineering Education in order to ultimately land a teaching gig. In his spare time, Jeremy enjoys spending time with his wife, playing Overwatch and Phantasy Star Online 2, practicing trombone, watching Penguins hockey, and traveling the world.

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