Google’s rumored AI-infused search overhaul has marketers’ attention

If you ask Bard to list the challenges facing Google’s search engine, Google’s young chatbot can easily name a few. Along with the “ever-changing landscape of the internet,” “providing users with relevant and accurate results” and “protecting user’ privacy.” It also mentioned a fourth — “maintaining dominance of the search market” — which could depend on what happens next with the tech giant’s AI ambitions.

Based on recent reports, Google seems to be taking that challenge quite seriously.

Earlier this week, The New York Times reported Google is planning major changes to its search engine including more personalization, more AI, more ads and more ways to make financial transactions via search. Reportedly codenamed “Magi,” the project could be part of Google’s strategy to stay ahead of Microsoft’s Bing in what SEO experts say is the most exciting era of search in quite a while.

Google’s plans for overhauling search by adding more AI are still in the realm of hypotheticals. However, marketing and AI experts see the opportunity as a chance for Google to take what has become a “cluttered,” “disjointed,” and “confusing” product and make it into something significantly more simplified.

“There’s a joke in the industry,” said David Shapiro, svp of earned media at NP Digital. “Where’s the best place to hide a body? On page two of Google Search.”

When asked for comment about Google’s AI efforts or any other plans to overhaul its search business, a spokesperson wouldn’t provide any specifics but said Google has been adding AI to Search for years to improve results and introduce new features such as Lens and multi-search.

“We’ve done so in a responsible and helpful way that maintains the high bar we set for delivering quality information,” the spokesperson told Digiday in an emailed statement. “Not every brainstorm deck or product idea leads to a launch, but as we’ve said before, we’re excited about bringing new AI-powered features to Search, and will share more details soon.”

Despite being seen as playing catch-up with Bing on the AI front, Google still dominates the search advertising market. According to WARC, Google has 50.4% of the search market in 2023 while Bing has just 5.2%. However, WARC’s recent survey of marketers found that just 53% plan to increase spending with Google — down from 59% last year — while 11% plan to increase spending with Bing.

Depending on what Google does, it could lead marketers to rethink SEO strategies by making brand-building more of a focus after years of prioritizing performance marketing. Max Gomez, chief marketing officer at the white-label SEO agency The Hoth, said advertisers don’t currently like long-tail keywords since they don’t pay off soon enough. However, a chat-based search platform could change that.

“Right now we see people making tons of questions to Google and sometimes what they get isn’t what they want,” Gomez said. “It’ll make it easier to match user needs with the brands.”

Despite the potential, there are also still plenty of challenges. For example, Gomez said, some clients are worried about having their content plagiarized by AI. There are also still plenty of questions about how Google plans to monetize it, whether adding too many ads in chat-based answers might overly clutter conversations, as well as how Google will fix its problems around misinformation.

Analysts and other experts have pointed out a number of concerns about Google and its AI ambitions. For example, Bard has been found to still generate a high percentage of false information when generating responses to users. In a recent research report from Gartner, consumers said they expect AI to generate misinformation, but they still expect companies to disclose whether AI was used in generating branded content. There’s also a risk that brands might appear in AI-generated search results that consumers don’t trust, noted Gartner, which found 85% of its survey respondents had either “no trust” or just “some trust” in AI-generated search results.

“AI should be viewed as an augment, not a supplement, for search,” said Nicole Greene, a senior direct analyst at Gartner. “Tools such as ChatGPT, Bing, etc., still lack veracity and citations and, therefore, truth and trust. The user behavior of engaging with AI chat is still different from search behaviors. AI chat features lack context and destination.”

The stakes are high for Google to get it right. Samsung has reportedly been considering switching out Google for Bing as the tech giant’s native search engine. Meanwhile, analysts estimate Google’s three-year contract with Apple is expected to expire sometime this year, which could give Bing an opening to potentially snag that business.

Along with building trust and value into users’ perception of its AI features, Google might also want to consider adding in more payment functionality, said James McDonald, director of data, Intelligence & Forecasting at WARC. That’s especially important now that WARC estimates that retail media now makes up one-fourth of the search ad market.

“Google has the means of reaching a consumer close to a point of purchase; converting that sale (as Amazon does so efficiently) will put them back in the driving seat as the sector evolves further over the next decade,” McDonald said.

Of course, Google and Microsoft aren’t the only two companies building new generative AI tools. Earlier this month, GoDaddy released new AI tools for small businesses to generate content, and just last week Mailchimp released a new feature for AI-generated content for email marketing.

The AI battle between Google and Microsoft could also ultimately benefit a number of other generative AI companies such as Jasper AI, which recently announced its own API. According to Jasper President Shane Orlick, the ongoing AI hype provides added exposure and competitors could push Jasper AI to improve. “The better the tech from other companies get, the better Jasper gets,” Orlick said.

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