Generative AI in Google search is great news for the true fans model, but what about publishers?

Most of the analysis of generative AI – things like Stable Diffusion and ChatGPT – has focused on how it will affect creators. But another important aspect is the impact it will have on newspaper and magazine publishers. It flows from this recent move by Google:

With new generative AI capabilities in Search, we’re now taking more of the work out of searching, so you’ll be able to understand a topic faster, uncover new viewpoints and insights, and get things done more easily.

What this means in practice is that instead of a page of links in response to a query, Google’s new search will use generative AI to turn the results into smooth prose. The idea is to make it easier to assimilate the information, and to allow for more interactivity in follow-up questions. The Washington Post’s Geoffrey A. Fowler describes how Google’s Search Generative Experience (SGE) will work:

You’ll still type your queries into a basic Google search box. But now on the results page, a colorful window pops up that says “generating” for a moment and then spits out an AI answer. Links for the sources of that information line up alongside it. Tap a button at the bottom, and you can keep asking follow-ups.

He further explains:

When Google’s SGE answers a question, it includes corroboration: prominent links to several of its sources along the left side. Tap on an icon in the upper right corner, and the view expands to offer source sites sentence by sentence in the AI’s response.

There are two ways to view this: It could save me a click and having to slog through a site filled with extraneous information. But it could also mean I never go to that other site to discover something new or an important bit of context.

That last sentence will strike fear into the hearts of publishers. A large proportion of their traffic comes from people clicking on links generated by a “classic” Google search. Now those links will be relegated to mere sources for SGE’s information. It seems likely that many people won’t bother exploring them, which means greatly reduced visitors for publishers’ Web sites.

There’s another interesting aspect to SGE, explained in a Google blog post about its new approach to search:

In the coming weeks, when you search for something that might benefit from the experiences of others, you may see a Perspectives filter appear at the top of search results. Tap the filter, and you’ll exclusively see long- and short-form videos, images and written posts that people have shared on discussion boards, Q&A sites and social media platforms. We’ll also show more details about the creators of this content, such as their name, profile photo or information about the popularity of their content.

In other words, Google will be foregrounding the creators of material, not its publishers. That’s potentially a great opportunity for writers and other artists to build more direct relationships with their users by adopting techniques from the “true fans” approach that has been discussed many times on Walled Culture. The new SGE may well turn out to be a boon for them. But what about the publishers?

Publishers serve an important function, and nobody wants them to disappear, despite their exploitation of creators and antagonistic attitude to the online world. However, for the last two decades, they have been lazy, and acquiesced in the development of what seemed an easy business model based on online advertising. That was foolish for two reasons. First, because it handed power to the Google and Facebook duopoly, which dominates online advertising and takes a huge cut of the revenue. And secondly, and more importantly, because it reduced readers to mere “eyeballs”, whose only purpose in life was to be shown targeted ads using real-time bidding based on non-stop and intrusive online surveillance.

The new generative AI approach to search will give Google (and perhaps Facebook in due course) even more power, and provide even less revenue to publishers. That should be a wake-up call to the latter to move away from viewing their readers as transient ad-fodder, and to start building long-term relations with them. In other words, publishers too should start adopting a true fans approach that treats readers with respect and offers them real, mutually advantageous relationships. Those that do will thrive because they will become independent of Google and Facebook, and thus regain control of their revenue. Those that don’t are likely to fail, and quickly.

Featured image by Google.

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