Search has always been the Internet’s most important utility. Before Google became dominant, there were many contenders for the search throne, from Altavista to Lycos, Excite, Zap, Yahoo (mainly as a directory) and even Ask Jeeves. The idea behind the World Wide Web is that there’s power in having a nearly infinite number of voices. But with millions of publications and billions of web pages, it would be impossible to find all the information you want without search.
Google succeeded because it offered the best quality results, loaded quickly and had less cruft on the page than any of its competitors. Now, having taken over 91 percent of the search market, the company is testing a major change to its interface that replaces the chorus of Internet voices with its own robotic lounge singer. Instead of highlighting links to content from expert humans, the “Search Generative Experience” (SGE) uses an AI plagiarism engine that grabs facts and snippets of text from a variety of sites, cobbles them together (often word-for-word) and passes off the work as its creation. If Google makes SGE the default mode for search, the company will seriously damage if not destroy the open web while providing a horrible user experience.
A couple of weeks ago, Google made SGE available to the public in a limited beta (you can sign up here). If you are in the beta program like I am, you will see what the company seems to have planned for the near future: a search results page where answers and advice from Google take up the entire first screen, and you have to scroll way below the fold to see the first organic search result.
For example, when I searched “best bicycle,” Google’s SGE answer, combined with its shopping links and other cruft took up the first 1,360 vertical pixels of the display before I could see the first actual search result.
For its part, Google says that it’s just “experimenting,” and may make some changes before rolling SGE out to everyone as a default experience. The company says that it wants to continue driving traffic offsite.
“We’re putting websites front and center in SGE, designing the experience to highlight and drive attention to content from across the web,” a Google spokesperson told me. “SGE is starting as an experiment in Search Labs, and getting feedback from people is helping us improve the experience and understand how generative AI can be helpful in information journeys. The experiences that ultimately come to Search will likely look different from the experiments you see in Search Labs. As we experiment with new LLM-powered capabilities in Search, we’ll continue to prioritize approaches that will drive valuable traffic to a wide range of creators.”
By “putting websites front-and-center,” Google is referring to the block of three related-link thumbnails that sometimes (but not always) appear to the right of its SGE answer. These are a fig leaf to publishers, but they’re not always the