Friday, May 24, 2024

Google Is About to Change Everything—and Hopes You Won’t Find Out

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It’s difficult to overstate the magnitude and impact of the changes Google has been making to its search engine and overall product suite this month, some of which were laid out during Tuesday’s I/O 2024 conference. The reason is not just that parent company Alphabet is determined to shove some form of “artificial intelligence” and machine learning software into your Chrome browser and your phone calls and your photo galleries and your YouTube habits. It’s that the central tool that powers and shapes the modern internet is about to permanently change—and it may make for an even worse search experience than that which has defined Google’s most recent era.

Google Search, that powerful, white, oblong textbox that became the default portal for organizing, showcasing, platforming, exploring, optimizing, and determining the ultimate reach of every single webpage across the entirety of cyberspace (often by paying other gatekeepers to favor it over other search tools), is becoming something else entirely: a self-ingesting singular webpage of its own, powered by the breadth of web information to which it once gave you access. Google is attempting to transform itself from a one-stop portal into a one-stop shop via “search generative experience,” where the Gemini chatbot will spit out a general “AI Overview” answer at the top of your search results. These answers will be informed by (or even plagiarized from) the very links now crowded out by a chatbox.

Yet the company doesn’t seem to want you to know anything about that.

That may strike you as a dubious claim. After all, Google just put on a very hyped developers event, and announced an array of products and updates that it hopes customers will use and perhaps even pay for. But let’s look at what Google is actually doing in practice to get the word out about its exciting new changes.

In the months leading up to I/O, search engine optimization experts found that the Google Search algorithm had made some drastic updates. This was evidenced by subsequent earthquakes that roiled website referrals and general traffic patterns throughout the rest of the internet. On May 3, SEO pro Lily Ray compiled data from the analytics firm SISTRIX showing how tweaks made from September onward had reduced the basic Google search visibility of several big-name information websites by up to 75 percent. This hit plenty of news outlets that cover the technology sector (e.g., New York magazine, TechCrunch, Mashable).

Per Ray, the changes Google has been making seem to have most affected global websites with lots of inline ads and affiliate revenue links for e-commerce, because those are indicated as being more spammy. (Never mind that news sources have used business-affiliate arrangements since the print-media days, and that publishers are only making the most of the advertising opportunities still available to them, the rest of that money having been hoovered up by Google and Big Tech’s grip on the digital ad industry.)

While those numbers didn’t encompass any resultant effects on Google News appearances and rankings, 404 Media found back in January that Google News was surfacing A.I.-generated webpages that ripped off text from other sites. Meanwhile, the news aggregator buried links to reputable outlets like, well, 404 Media itself.

It’s true that, in general, news traffic is down across websites of all ideological leanings and specialties—including this one—thanks in large part to information fatigue and a casual pivot toward superficial and visual news consumption, typified by Instagram graphics and short-form video hosts. But Google, of all places, should have a vested interest in serving up factual, diligently researched and reported articles to casual browsers. Yes, even in the A.I. era.

CEO Sundar Pichai still enjoys giving sit-down interviews to text-based media like Wired and the Wall Street Journal. Google’s early public chatbot, Bard, gave a nonsensical response during a public demonstration last year, temporarily plunging its stock price. Other bots like OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Meta’s Llama 2 keep “hallucinating”—that is, making stuff up based on haphazard, predictive interpretations of the data they are trained on.

As Will Oremus noted in the Washington Post, this could also affect the way Google is perceived by regulators: If it’s directly writing results for you instead of just boosting other editorial options, Google could be judged legally as a publisher, not just a platform, and thus be held accountable for what Gemini says.

So, to outcompete its rivals on reliability and trust, it would make sense for Google to improve on the types of information it scans and surfaces, on its search indices and through Gemini’s output. The issue is that the company clearly doesn’t want to. Since it first began experimenting with and rolling out its “AI Overviews” last year, users have lodged countless complaints about the type of information Google and Gemini have offered up through now: failing to name an African country that starts with the letter K, encouraging users to drink urine in order to pass kidney stones, passing off jokey lists of fake fruit names as authentic info, and citing spam links when “sourcing” from product listings on Craigslist.

Reporters at the Washington Post have found that Google’s most recent search generative experiences are even worse now than they were last year, failing at even basic tasks like finding restaurants in your vicinity. A malfunctioning slurry machine does not make for a trustworthy companion you want to stick with as you look up simple answers to simple queries.

Here, Google has no one to blame but itself, especially when it comes to the business direction it’s chosen to take in recent years. As tech writer Ed Zitron has reported, Google executives made conscious decisions as far back as 2018 to muddle visual means of distinguishing between ads and proper links. They also gave more traffic to low-quality links that had been suppressed under previous Google updates.

So when the company began incorporating more A.I. models in earnest, those bots and scrapers relied on a system that had not been geared toward prioritizing healthy and reliable sites for years at that point. That only got worse with successive updates; it’s not a coincidence that the top surfaced sites give bad information that’s then picked up by Google’s previews and overviews.

Still, Google promises that if you play the game and let your site contribute information to Gemini “Overview” summaries, you’ll get better clickage from the answer citation and link than you would from the typical search-index ranking—even though professional marketing experts have cast doubt on this claim.

It’s worth asking: When the world’s foremost internet user engine makes such a drastic, zeitgeist-shifting update, then where do its users go to find the right information on what happened?

Do they go to Search, where any legit resources on Google I/O may come up alongside spon-con and copy-and-pasted junk pages? Do they look to the AI Overview, which may just cite and link to Google’s press releases, crappy Quora spam, or old queries from random help websites? Do they go to the Gemini bot itself, which may just hallucinate something out of the void? Do they hit up the News tab, also infected with spam and, in certain cases, hidden from users’ view altogether?

It appears that the best Google is doing is to make it harder to find stuff you’d trust. Tuesday’s announcements included the rollout of a “Web” filter for search results, which Google incorporated “after hearing from some that there are times when they’d prefer to just see links to web pages in their search results.” To get to this Web filter, you’ll have to make a couple extra clicks. Yes, this is another Google innovation: adding an obscured tab for a filter that will actually, presumably, bring you the usual list of web links that regular Googlers (that is, pretty much all of us) have been accustomed to for the past couple decades.

Providing a sturdy, almost necessary web-search service is no longer the priority, not that it has been for years. Google instead wants to blitz you with buggy new gizmos whose basic functionalities lack everything that made Google an empire, a verb, a dependable custodian of the information superhighway.

So, if you’re among “those who just prefer text-based results shown separately from search features,” as a Google spokesperson puts it, your best shot for figuring out what the heck Google is up to is to type in a tightly focused query and scroll down through all the A.I. and ad links and video embeds to find a good link—or, barring that, to make the search and then add the couple extra clicks through to the “Web” filter. That’s presuming that that filter won’t soon get swarmed with A.I. slop as well.

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