🪦 RIP "the web"

Is Google's shift to AI-generated answers going to end the web?

Deep dives for independent marketing and business thinkers

Curated and written by Jon Kallus

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Has Google just “ended” the web?

People have been calling “the end of Google” for some time now.

Looking back over the past several decades, every new and successive wave of tech innovation —the explosion of social media, the rise of wearable tech, the popularity of voice assistant devices (aka Amazon Alexa), and social media’s shift (led by TikTok) from a connection tool to a discovery engine— has spurred the claim that Google’s going down.

This type of commentary increased in volume in December 2022, when ChatGPT shocked much of the world with its user friendly chatbot interface that could effortlessly rhyme in the style Shakespeare, write movie scenes like Michael Bay, crush code and, yes, hallucinate too.

PLOT TWIST

This time, Google might actually be ending itself.

You may have read about (or experienced) Google's shift to AI-powered search. The tech giant rolled out its “Search Generative Experience,” or SGE, in the US in Summer 2023. It was a clear response to the threat posed by ChatGPT: instead of returning a list of sponsored links, above a list of organic search results (ie., the Google experience you know and sometimes love) SGE returned an AI-written answer to your query.

The new news is that Google “is rolling [AI-written search results] out to ‘hundreds of millions of users’ this week in the US, with the intention of making it available to over a billion people by the end of the year.”

To many people, this is not just an incremental change to the way Google works. It's a seismic shift in the history of the entire web, one that could drastically alter how we consume information and interact with the Internet. Here’s Casey Newton, of the influential tech industry newsletter Platformer:

This new approach is captured elegantly in a slogan that appeared several times during Tuesday’s keynote: let Google do the Googling for you. It’s a phrase that identifies browsing the web — a task once considered entertaining enough that it was given the nickname “surfing” — as a chore, something better left to a bot.

Letting Google do the Googling for you could also end untold numbers of businesses.

Placing AI-generated answers at the top of search results has the potential to cut off a major source of traffic for sites, bloggers, affiliate marketers and more.

This has led to further fears that humans will simply stop creating content for the open web. As the news site Axios recently put it:

It's hard to see why people would bother contributing their expertise if their posts don't get visited by seekers of information and instead just become fodder for AI to regurgitate.

It’s a profound thought, so let’s break it down. Axios’s (and many others’) thesis goes like this:

(Step 1 / aka the context): “The world's most popular search engine” is about to start answering many or maybe even most user queries “with a paragraph or two written by generative AI.”

(Step 2 / aka the insight): “Publishers and retailers are terrified that this will cut deep into their referral traffic and decimate their businesses.”

(Step 3 / aka the zoom out): “Today's web exists because millions of people have spent decades extending it with bits of knowledge, lore and images.”

(Step 4 / aka the ‘bad news’): “By making it even less inviting for humans to contribute to the web's collective pool of knowledge, Google's summary answers could also leave its own and everyone else's AI tools with less accurate, less timely, and less interesting information.”

HOLD UP

I'm actually not convinced the future is so bleak. Yes, human-generated content might decline on traditional blogs and websites.

BUT.

I think there’s a lot of strong evidence out there that all of that human ingenuity, comedic talent, and acquired knowledge (you know, everything that makes the web the web) will simply migrate from Google-crawlable websites, to other places online.

This has actually already been happening for years, if not decades. Vibrant communities thrive on Reddit, on Discord servers, on Slack channels, and in countless Facebook groups.

On Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube, comments that (often pseudonymous) users leave underneath popular or exceptionally creative videos are sometimes even more entertaining than the uploaded videos themselves.

These online spaces, sometimes referred to as “walled gardens,” are largely invisible to Google's search crawlers. But they're buzzing with human creativity, expertise, and conversation. And social media’s aforementioned shift from connection tool to discovery engine (something I’ve written about at length in the past) has boosted platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and YouTube to the pinnacle of the content mountain.

WEBSITES? WHERE WE’RE GOING, WE DON’T NEED WEBSITES!

Social media creators and users are thriving, joking, sharing knowledge, and expressing viewpoints without Google’s involvement. It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that individuals can build followings, influence, and full fledged businesses on social media —without ever having to worry about SEO or backlinks. In other words, it’s still inviting for humans to contribute to the web's collective pool of knowledge, even if Google never sees it.

I’m not papering over the implications here. The shift from traditional Google search to Google’s AI written answers will be challenging for many.

It makes logical sense that it will make the landscape for advertisers even more fragmented and complex; the days of simply pumping out SEO optimised content + buying Google text ads, and hoping for the best, are numbered. Brands will need to find new ways to connect with consumers in these scattered digital ecosystems.

But that process already exists. And brands are doing it.

Big businesses are already being built online without a good website at all. A lively Subreddit or regular ol’ email newsletter that points to a bustling Facebook group that points to an App Store download link, or Amazon storefront, or Patreon or Gumroad online store works.

This is good news for marketing people. The marketing stars of today (and even more so tomorrow) will be those who can navigate this new, fragmented terrain. To be clear: get to know how to build communities and foster genuine engagement within these walled gardens.

In our view, Google's move to AI-generated search isn't the end of the Internet as we know it. Yes, this transition will likely significantly fracture how companies find customers, by moving away from SEO optimized blog posts, and Google Ads, and towards other spaces like Subreddits and the comments sections on Instagram.

But think of this moment as the beginning of a new era, one where human connection and conversation flourish in unexpected places. As a result, look for businesses to start allocating some of their existing advertising budgets to online communities, and social media platforms where people are increasingly searching for things and just spending more of their time. Less static sponsored posts, more targeted LinkedIn comments, well run Facebook groups, Discord channels and more.

Seen through this lens, 2024 may be remembered as the year in which marketing shifted from a shout approach to a listen one; pushing products and/or services by building relationships.

This shift is already underway. Google’s new AI powered search approach is simply accelerating it.

As always, the smart money will be on those who adapt and evolve. Bottom line: learn to speak the new language of the new community and comments based Internet.

This is the future of content, and it's happening now.

More:

AI eats the web »»

Google is adding more AI to its search results »»

Google’s broken link to the web »»

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