Google’s New Search Engine Is Bad News for the Web Economy

For more than two decades, a simple handshake has shaped how people find information online. It works like this: Websites allow Google’s web crawler to index their content so it can appear in search results. The websites get traffic, and Google gets to be Google — one of the most valuable companies on Earth, on account of organizing all this information, putting ads alongside it and building lucrative tools on top of it all.

But what happens when one half of that bargain disappears? That was on my mind Tuesday when Google unveiled “AI Overviews” at its annual developers’ conference. It’s an unassuming name for a hugely significant update to its search engine, one that — if it works as intended — could significantly reduce the amount of traffic that websites receive.

AI Overviews builds on something Google has been doing for a while but takes it significantly further. Many will be familiar with what happens when they search for a celebrity’s name. Before the “organic” list of search results, the user is presented with a fact panel that pulls in information from sources — typically Wikipedia — to provide basic information without needing to visit the website containing the source material.

Soon, AI Overviews will step in for a far broader array of uses. On stage, head of Google Search Liz Reid described how information on movies, travel, books “and more” will be served. A video demo showed a person asking Google “Why does my candle burn unevenly?” and is quickly shown a paragraph’s long explanation and solution. No more clicks needed.

Of course, Google didn’t write that information — someone else did. Or, more likely, a number of people did; their expertise has been synthesized into one clear answer. The AI-powered panel does contain links to related content on the web, for sure, but there’s often little reason to click it. It’s efficient for the user and certainly good for Google, but the handshake has been broken.