How will AI-powered search impact publisher revenue?

AI-powered search
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Last week saw the announcement from Google that it plans to integrate the Bard AI chatbot into its search. Microsoft confirmed that it will do the same with ChatGPT in its Bing search engine. The widespread development of AI technologies has been described as ‘the most important shift in consumer technology since the iPhone’. But the introduction of ‘complete answers’ from AI-powered chatbots could have serious consequences for publisher traffic and revenue.

  • The explosive hype surrounding generative-AI chatbot ChatGPT has encouraged both Microsoft and Google to accelerate their plans for AI-powered search. Google tried to steal a march on Microsoft with the announcement that its own AI chatbot, Bard, would be released to ‘trusted testers’ hours before Microsoft’s Bing announcement.
  • The next day, Microsoft unveiled plans for a new version of its Bing search engine that incorporates the technology behind ChatGPT. Alongside traditional search results, it will let users chat with the “AI-powered answer engine.” The new Bing is seen as one of the first returns on Microsoft’s $10 billion investment into ChatGPT’s maker, OpenAI.
  • Underlining just how high-the stakes in next-generation search could be, Google parent Alphabet suffered a $100 billion drop in its share price when experts noticed that the AI chatbot Bard returned a wrong answer in a promotional video. The share sell-off was underpinned by investor fears that Microsoft could steal search-market share from Google with the AI upgrade to its Bing search engine.
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In a post for Niemanlab, Joshua Benton shares his excitement over the rapid development of AI technologies. With the scale of the largest AI computations said to be ‘doubling every six months’, he said:

This is all extraordinarily exciting stuff — the most important shift in consumer technology since the iPhone, I’d wager. In my nearly 30 years on the Internet, I’ve never been less confident predicting what it’ll all look like in a year or two.

However, that unpredictability also applies to publishers.

While Google in particular sends more traffic to publisher sites than any other external source at the moment, AI-powered answers could be delivered directly without the need to click through to a publisher site. That could mean less traffic, less ad impressions and less revenue.

Fears for the future of publishers in search were also expressed by FIPP-congress organizer Di5rupt’s Cobus Heyl. He wondered what it would mean for publisher attribution if search results are ultimately generated by AI from an aggregated dataset. He said:

How do you even begin to credit providers and provide links back to original sources when *everything* is a source, and it is all condensed into a few paragraphs?

The bottom line for publishers is that, the more questions AI-powered Google or Bing can answer directly from the widest available range of sources, the less users will need to reference individual publisher sites that may or may not give them the information they need. Great news for consumers, terrible news for publishers that rely on advertising revenue that is powered by search referrals.

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