Google's AI-powered search leaves publishers in a bind

When Frank Pine Googled a link to a news article two months ago, he came across AI-generated paragraphs on the topic at the top of his results. To see what he wanted, he had to scroll further.

This experience bothered Mr. Pine, executive director of Media News Group and Tribune Publishing, which own 68 newspapers across the country. Now, those paragraphs scare him.

In May, Google announced that AI-generated summaries, which pull together content from news sites and blogs on the searched topic, would be made available to everyone in the United States. And this change has made Pine and many other publishing executives fear that paragraphs pose a major danger to their fragile business model by dramatically reducing the amount of traffic to their sites from Google.

“It could stifle the original creators of the content,” Pine said. The feature, AI Overviews, seemed like another step toward generative AI replacing “the publications they cannibalized,” she added.

Media executives said in interviews that Google had left them in a vexing position. They want their sites listed in Google search results, which for some outlets can generate more than half of their traffic. This means that Google can use your own content in AI Overviews summaries.

Publishers could also try to protect their content from Google by banning its web crawler from sharing any content snippets from their sites. But then their links would appear without any description, making people less likely to click.

Another alternative – refusing to be indexed by Google and not appearing on its search engine at all – could be fatal to their business, they said.

“We can't do that, at least for now,” said Renn Turiano, chief product officer at Gannett, the country's largest newspaper publisher.

However, AI Overviews, he said, “is very harmful to everyone except Google, but especially to consumers, smaller publishers, and companies large and small that use search results.”

Google said its search engine continued to send billions of visits to websites, providing value to publishers. The company also said it did not display its AI summaries when it was clear that users were looking for news on current events.

Liz Reid, Google's vice president of search, said in an interview before the introduction of AI Overviews that there were hopeful signs for publishers during testing.

“We continue to see that people often click on links in AI overviews and explore,” he said. “A website that appears in the AI ​​overview actually gets more traffic” than one with just a traditional blue link.

On Thursday afternoon, Ms. Reid wrote in a blog post that Google would limit AI overviews to a smaller set of search results after producing some high-profile errors, but added that the company was still committed to improve the system.

AI-generated summaries are the latest area of ​​tension between tech companies and publishers. The use of articles from news sites has also triggered a legal battle over whether companies such as OpenAI and Google violated copyright law by taking the content without permission to build their artificial intelligence models.

The New York Times sued OpenAI and its partner, Microsoft, in December, alleging copyright infringement of news content related to the training and maintenance of artificial intelligence systems. Seven newspapers owned by Media News Group and Tribune Publishing, including The Chicago Tribune, have filed a similar lawsuit against the same technology companies. OpenAI and Microsoft have denied any wrongdoing.

AI Overviews is Google's latest attempt to catch up with rivals Microsoft and OpenAI, the maker of ChatGPT, in the artificial intelligence race.

More than a year ago, Microsoft put generative artificial intelligence at the center of its search engine, Bing. Google, fearful of messing with its cash cow, initially took a more cautious approach. But the company announced an aggressive rollout of the AI ​​feature at its annual developer conference in mid-May: By the end of the year, more than a billion people will have access to the technology.

AI overviews combine statements generated by AI models with snippets of content from active links across the web. Summaries often contain excerpts from multiple websites while citing sources, providing comprehensive answers without the user ever having to click on a 'other page.

Since its debut, the tool has not always been able to distinguish between accurate articles and satirical posts. When he recommended users put glue on pizza or eat rocks for a balanced diet, he caused a stir online.

Publishers said in interviews that it was too early to see a difference in traffic coming from Google since AI overviews arrived. But the News/Media Alliance, a trade group of 2,000 newspapers, sent a letter to the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission urging the agencies to investigate Google's “misappropriation” of news content and block the company to launch AI Overviews.

Many publishers said the launch highlighted the need to develop direct relationships with readers, including getting more people to sign up for digital subscriptions and visit their sites and apps directly, and to depend less on search engines.

Nicholas Thompson, chief executive of The Atlantic, said his magazine is investing more in all areas where it has a direct relationship with readers, such as email newsletters.

Newspapers like The Washington Post and The Texas Tribune have turned to a marketing start-up, Subtext, which helps businesses connect with subscribers and audiences via text messages.

Mike Donoghue, chief executive of Subtext, said media companies are no longer chasing the biggest audiences, but trying to keep their biggest fans engaged. The New York Post, one of its clients, allows readers to exchange text messages with staff sportswriters as an exclusive subscriber benefit.

Then there is the dispute over copyright. It took an unexpected turn when OpenAI, which scraped news sites to create ChatGPT, started cutting deals with publishers. It has said it will pay companies, including The Associated Press, The Atlantic and News Corp., which owns The Wall Street Journal, to access their content. But Google, whose advertising technology helps publishers make money, has yet to sign similar deals. The internet giant has long resisted calls to compensate media companies for their content, arguing that such payments would undermine the nature of the open web.

“You can't give up on the future, and this is the future,” said Roger Lynch, chief executive of Condé Nast, whose magazines include The New Yorker and Vogue. “I'm not arguing whether this will happen or whether it should happen, just that it should happen under conditions that protect creators.”

He said search remains “the lifeblood and most of the traffic” for publishers and suggested the solution to their problems could come from Congress. He asked lawmakers in Washington to clarify that use of the content for AI training is not “fair use” under existing copyright law and requires a licensing fee.

Mr. Thompson of The Atlantic, whose publication announced a deal with OpenAI on Wednesday, still wants Google to pay publishers, too. While waiting before the launch of AI Overviews, he said that despite industry concerns, The Atlantic wanted to be part of Google's roundups “as much as possible.”

“We know traffic will decline as Google makes this transition,” he said, “but I think being part of the new product will help us minimize the decline.”

David McCabe contributed to the reporting.

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