During the keynote at Google I/O ’23, the search-engine giant unveiled the first look at its plans to integrate AI into the front end of the search experience.
Called Search Generative Experience, or SGE for short, the new feature—still in the experimental phase—adds an AI-powered “snapshot” to the top of the search results page for certain queries.
According to Liz Reid, Google’s VP of Search, the snapshot is intended “to quickly give you the lay of the land on a topic.”
Examples of the SGE featured during the keynote and in a separate announcement focus primarily on what SGE can deliver in response to more complex, multidimensional informational searches (“what’s better for a family with kids under 3 and a dog, bryce canyon or arches [national park]”) and specific shopping searches (“good bike for 5 mile commute with hills”).
Image source: Search Engine Roundtable
Within SGE, users can expand the snapshot view to understand the provenance of Google’s information, explore further details, dimensions, and sources on the topic, as well as click through to top search results.
Plus, beneath the snapshot, searchers will also find additional options to continue their journey with the help of AI, with options for asking a follow-up question or suggested next steps. Selecting one of these options will open a new “conversational mode,” where people can naturally interact with Google in a manner similar to chatbots like Open.AI’s ChatGPT.
What’s Behind Google’s Move?
For those with their eyes peeled on the latest developments in search and AI, the move probably wasn’t all that surprising. With Microsoft bringing the generative power of ChatGPT to bear on their Bing search engine, many have been waiting for Google to make its own updates to a search experience that’s remained largely unchanged since the late ’90s.
Although some have criticized Google for moving slowly on AI, it’s clear—especially after this latest unveiling—that AI is front and center in its current plans. However, with its announcement of SGE, Google appears to be attempting to distinguish itself from ChatGPT, as well as justify its slower, more methodical rollout of front-end AI capabilities.
In a factsheet accompanying SGE’s release, Google emphasized its commitment to “factuality” over “fluidity” in its current use of search AI, stating:
“We have found that giving the models leeway to create fluid, human-sounding responses results in a higher likelihood of inaccuracies in the output. At the same time, when responses are fluid and conversational in nature, we have found that human evaluators are more likely to trust the responses and less likely to catch errors.
Given the trust people put in Search, we were intentional in constraining conversationality. What this means, for example, is that people might not find conversational mode in SGE to be a free-flowing creative brainstorm partner — and instead find it to be more factual with pointers to relevant resources.”
Additionally, Google states that it’s intentionally trained SGE to refrain from reflecting a persona. That is, unlike chatbots like ChatGPT, SGE is not trained to respond in the first person, and it aims to provide objective, neutral responses that are corroborated with web results in order to maintain the integrity of search.
As David Pierce writes in The Verge, “The way the company sees it, it’s better to be right than interesting.”
What Does This Mean for Advertisers?
In the early days of SGE’s rollout, Google has been careful to point out that search ads will continue to “play a critical role” and appear in dedicated slots throughout results pages. However, Google says it will continue to test and evolve the ads experience as they learn more about how users interact with SGE.
Similarly, organic content will continue to be a crucial part of marketers’ strategies. “We know that people want to hear insights from others to help inform their decisions, so we’ve designed these new experiences to highlight and drive attention to content on the web, making it easier for people to dive deeper on a topic they’re learning about,” writes Liz Reid. “As we bring generative AI into Search, we’re committed to continue sending valuable traffic to sites across the web.”
Google intends to test and fine-tune the SGE experience with the help of users’ and advertisers’ feedback. SGE is among the features currently available for testing (for a limited time, with limited availability) within Google’s (also new) Search Labs hub. Those interested in testing the experience can join the waitlist at labs.google.com/search
In the meantime, for now, advertising strategies will be largely unaffected—though will be closely monitoring any new developments, features or changes made to the SGE feature.
Likewise, the SGE only underscores the importance of adhering to existing SEO and content best practices. Building off of the 2022 release of its “helpful content update,” investing in creating content of the highest standards will be as crucial as ever as we enter the next era of search.