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April 25, 2024

Why AI-powered search from Google may NOT be disaster for publishers

Bauer's global head of SEO on why the arrival of Google's SGE might not be all bad for publishers.

By Charlotte Tobitt

Google’s incoming AI-generated search results have been described in Press Gazette as a “potential extinction-level event”.

But at the PPA Festival in London on Tuesday, Bauer Media Group’s global head of SEO Stuart Forrest shared a potential alternative view – suggesting publishers that double down on quality could see some advantages from it.

Google SGE (search generative experience) began rolling out in the US last year and its UK trial started this month.

Publishers are concerned about its arrival because it answers queries at the top of the search results page that otherwise may have resulted in clickthroughs to publisher websites – thus posing a risk to search referrals, especially to publishers with a smaller proportion of direct traffic.

Google’s AI-generated results may even have been trained on that publisher’s content without any payment exchange taking place.

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Forrest acknowledged the potential severity of the arrival of SGE, saying that although publishers don’t build business models on answering questions like “how tall is Tom Cruise?” for which Google already provides a quick answer, they do monetise the answers to more nuanced queries like “what is the best laptop for me to buy for my gaming child under £1,000?”

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“And SGE threatens our business model to an extent because it’s starting to answer some of those questions. So it’s breaking the referral model that sees traffic coming back to our sites to be monetised.”

He later added: “The top three results in search deliver 60% of all clicks, so anything which appears above them threatens that… that’s a substantial impact on the business.”

AI search could threaten Google’s own ad business – and it’s expensive

But in an attempt to give some “reasons to be cheerful”, he shared some lessons from watching the early trials of SGE.

“One is, like a lot of LLMs, it’s hallucinatory, right? So Google is actually being quite measured in how it delivers that. It’s absolutely not delivering it at all against some classes of content like medical advice.

“It’s absolutely staying clear of some very contentious issues like the gun debate in the US or the US election. I would not want SGE to be telling me whether my child’s rash might be meningitis, and actually I think Google probably wouldn’t…”

Forrest went on: “The second thing is that it’s expensive, right? It’s cheaper for Google to deliver a blue link to a publisher in the SERP [search engine results page], whereas SGE requires processing power… So I don’t think Google will do that if it knows that it’s more expensive than the same result, which delivers the same results to users in a cheaper way.

“And I think the third point is that Google is obviously an advertising business. And the advertising model for SGE is not clear. SGE threatens the click rate of our content, but it also threatens Google’s core advertising business.

“So my slightly more positive view would be that Google faces competition from LLMs as the place where you go online to find information, the place where you go to find answers. And in a lot of Google’s language in the last six to 12 months, they are having a flight to quality, and they are doubling down on quality.”

Forrest referred to Google’s emphasis on what it dubs EEAT: experience, expertise, authority, and trustworthiness. It has particularly emphasised these qualities since December 2022.

“We are all as publishers having to double down on the explicit signals we send to Google about the quality of our content, the quality of the people who write it, and trust in our brands,” Forrest added.

“And so actually, my contention might be that we’re coming into the era where high-quality brands of the type that I see represented around this room could potentially do very well in a world where Google is doubling down on quality.”

The PPA Festival is attended by magazine and specialist publishers like Immediate Media (which publishes the Radio Times), Conde Nast (Vogue), Mark Allen Group (Farmers Weekly), Hearst (Good Housekeeping) and Haymarket (Campaign) as well as Forrest’s employer Bauer (Empire) and former employer Future (Tom’s Guide).

Google argues that SGE will continue to “send valuable traffic to the ecosystem, including by surfacing more links. This includes surfacing links to a wider range of sources on the results page and giving even more opportunities for content to be discovered.”

However, media consultant Ricky Sutton, who writes the Future Media newsletter and is a former head of online at the News of the World, gave the room a more pessimistic view and argued publishers need to have a plan B.

Sutton said: “I’m a strong believer that this is the start of a fundamental change in search, what I call no-click search, which means that your results disappear from the first page of search, which I think is cataclysmic, potentially, for our industry.”

He added: “I think that we have to prepare for this because in all honesty, SGE is actually a really good product if you’re a consumer. It gives you an answer instantly. It’s great. It’s just disastrous for us that create the content.”

Hear more from Sutton about life after Google on our recent Future of Media Explained podcast.

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
  • Business owner/co-owner
  • CEO
  • COO
  • CFO
  • CTO
  • Chairperson
  • Non-Exec Director
  • Other C-Suite
  • Managing Director
  • President/Partner
  • Senior Executive/SVP or Corporate VP or equivalent
  • Director or equivalent
  • Group or Senior Manager
  • Head of Department/Function
  • Manager
  • Non-manager
  • Retired
  • Other
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
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