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Would you pay to use Google Search? Google thinks you might for the new AI version

Published Apr 3rd, 2024 6:00PM EDT
Google CEO Sundar Pichai
Image: Christoph Soeder/dpa

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To the cynic in me, it all makes sense now. Google has faced criticism for a while now over its ad-filled core search product that’s less useful than ever these days, even as the company shifts its focus toward an all-new version of search that’s powered by AI. And now comes word that the company is weighing a massive and profound shift in the business model behind Google Search:

Put simply, the change Google is considering is that you can either accept a sub-par search experience that’s loaded with ads. Or you can pay a premium for the new AI-powered search experience, with Google’s bot essentially summarizing your results for you.

The Financial Times first reported the news that Google is considering this “seismic” change to the company’s cash cow, in a reflection of the fact that, while Google realizes AI is the future, it also hasn’t figured out how to monetize the technology yet without cannibalizing its existing business.

Under the plan that Google is considering, per the FT, the idea is that AI-powered search could become part of a basket of premium subscription services. Premium users already get access to Google’s Gemini AI assistant, for example, in Gmail and Docs. As for the AI-powered version of Google Search more broadly, it’s already threatened to quite significantly reshape the web, given that Google has a near-total monopoly on search traffic — and an AI experience that summarizes content instead of directing users to click on links implies a whole host of negative downstream consequences for content creators, brands, and publishers.

Google engineers are reportedly working on the technology now that would make AI-based search a paid-for experience, but the company’s leadership hasn’t decided whether to pull the trigger or not yet.

To understand the tightrope that Google is walking here, consider: The company reported $175 billion in revenue from search and related ads last year. The launch of OpenAI’s ChatGPT in late 2022, meanwhile, changed everything. Google realized it was already losing a race that OpenAI had suddenly begun to dominate — while, in the meantime, dissatisfaction with the core Google Search product feels as high as it’s ever been.

I’ve made this argument in the past, but it feels relevant here again: Getting caught flat-footed like this by a technology shift and an upstart competitor almost makes you feel like Google CEO Sundar Pichai is in danger of becoming his company’s version of Steve Ballmer. He knows how to make money, in other words, but when is the last time Google has done something truly great?

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.