Did Google shoot itself in the search engine?

AI Overviews prove not ready for prime time

Did Google shoot itself in the search engine?
This is an AI-generated image using the free online AI image generator from Pixlr Suite. The prompt used was: "A woman sits at a desk looking at a computer screen with a page of search results. She has a look of confusion on her face. (warm tone) (sunlight)."

For a lot of people who do content writing for a living or who have businesses that depend on web traffic, the news that Google was moving to degrade page rank in favor of offering its own AI-generated answers to search queries provoked a lot of anxiety.

I shared my thoughts in this whimsically-titled previous post.

It turns out we may have been worried for nothing. When it launched, AI Overviews definitely made headlines – just not the kind anyone would want.

Famously, a query about how to keep cheese from sliding off pizza resulted in an Overview advising to stick it on with non-toxic glue.

The Associated Press repeatedly asked for information on avoiding poisonous mushrooms with potentially deadly results.

Then there was this:

In another widely shared example, an AI researcher asked Google how many Muslims have been president of the United States, and it responded confidently with a long-debunked conspiracy theory: β€œThe United States has had one Muslim president, Barack Hussein Obama.”

Source: Associated Press via Fast Company

At first, Google defended its performance, then yanked the overviews from most search-result pages.

From an individual user standpoint: my experience with the summaries was just not good - either not specific enough to satisfy my queries or providing information that I knew was false. In some cases, the overviews didn't even provide an answer, but a paragraph that was tangentially related to the search query, but not addressing the specific question asked.

And this was when I submitted basic queries related to plant care and cooking. For even these mundane topics, a response that is "more or less" in the ballpark is not good enough. I am looking for precise answers from verifiable authorities - not some cobbled together mishmash.

It makes me think that Google's engineers both don't understand the limits of their own technology - and they don't understand how people use it.

Platformer's Casey Newton argues that Google will continue to refine AI Overviews, still moving inexorably toward what he calls a "walled garden" of information. They will, he believes, eventually feature only their summaries of information without citing the sources it comes from.

If that's true, then I predict consumers will just move to another search engine or search option. I know that even if they were to make their summaries 100 percent correct and reliable, I am always going to want to know the original source and be able to vet the original source.

I'm betting that there will be a search option that will continue to let me do that.

I recently had to update my laptop's OS and when I signed on, the software asked me which search engine I wanted to choose as the default. And, for the first time in a long time, I actually stopped to think about it.

Reading through the comments on The Verge's post about the issue, many people are already talking about shifting to Bing or DuckDuckGo. And there has always been a small share of users using independent search engines like Opera, Firefox, or Vivaldi. (This is another example of how the internet seems to be both cannibalizing itself while taking us all back in the 1990s at the same time.)

Google would not be the first company to achieve complete dominance of a particular market and then somehow screw it all up. Better example: My teenage kids don't know or care what Facebook is.

And, this company has a long track record of leaving product lines to wither on the vine. So forgive me if I don't fear the sky falling just yet.

Or maybe I'm just salty about buying a whole group of Google Home/Google Nest Homes - whatever they're called now - only for them to end up gathering dust on a wardrobe shelf because we got tired of them not working more often than they did. Then we moved countries, and houses, and surrendered to the tyranny of switching off and on our lights the old-fashioned way - and it was no big deal.