We’re in a disruptive moment, according to Alphabet and Google CEO Sundar Pichai. Although he is optimistic that Google AI Overviews and Search will drive more traffic and engagement, that is zero comfort for the many content creators who have seen their websites obliterated by Google in recent months.

In a new interview, Pichai discussed concerns about Google hurting websites and businesses, as well as the future of Search, content and the web.

‘These are disruptive moments.’ Pichai was asked about concerns from publishers following the AI Overviews rollout announcement at Google I/O. He likened this AI shift to concerns around the transition from desktop to mobile and the introduction of featured snippets:

  • “I remain optimistic. … As a company, we realize the value of this ecosystem, and it’s symbiotic. If there isn’t a rich ecosystem making unique and useful content, what are you putting together and organizing? So we feel it.”
  • “But I understand the sentiment. It’s a big change. These are disruptive moments. AI is a big platform shift. People are projecting out, and people are putting a lot into creating content. It’s their businesses. So I understand the perspective [and] I’m not surprised. We are engaging with a lot of players, both directly and indirectly, but I remain optimistic about how it’ll actually play out.”

Doomed businesses. Pichai was asked specifically about two sites that have loudly complained about losing 90+% of their Google traffic, including HouseFresh and Retro Dodo.

  • “It’s always difficult to talk about individual cases, and at the end of the day, we are trying to satisfy user expectations. Users are voting with their feet, and people are trying to figure out what’s valuable to them. We are doing it at scale, and I can’t answer on the particular site…”
  • “It’s not clear to me if that’s a uniform trend. I have to look at data on an aggregate [basis], so anecdotally, there are always times when people have come in an area and said, ‘Me, as a specific site, I have done worse.’ But it’s like an individual restaurant saying, ‘I’ve started getting fewer customers this year. People have stopped eating food,’ or whatever it is. It’s not necessarily true. Some other restaurant might have opened next door that’s doing very well. So it’s tough to say.”
  • “You may be making a secondary point about small sites versus more aggregating sites… Ironically, there are times when we have made changes to actually send more traffic to the smaller sites. Some of those sites that complain a lot are the aggregators in the middle. So should the traffic go to the restaurant that has created a website with their menus and stuff or people writing about these restaurants? These are deep questions. I’m not saying there’s a right answer.”

Empathy. In an interesting moment, the tables were turned on Google, and Pichai was asked about how it felt when OpenAI transcribed over a million hours of YouTube videos to train GPT-4. The point being: Google is doing this same thing to millions of websites – taking their content, without permission, for profit. Pichai’s responses:

  • “Look, be it website owners or content creators or artists, I can understand how emotional a transformation this is. …”
  • “The way we have taken that approach in many of these cases is to put the creator community as much at the center of it as possible. We’ve long done that with YouTube. Through it all, we are trying to figure out what the right ways to approach this.”
  • “…yes, I understand people’s emotions about it. I definitely am very empathetic to how people are perceiving this moment.”
  • “Through this AI moment, over time, there’ll be players who will do better by the content creators that support their platforms, and whoever does it better will emerge as the winner. I believe that to be a tenet of these things over time.”

AI content and ranking. Google is in a unique position, where it helps generate AI content (via Gemini) that can be used to flood the web, with the goal of ranking in Search. Pichai said he thinks “using AI to produce content en masse without adding any value is not what users are looking for,” adding:

  • “Anytime you have these disruptive platform shifts, you’re going to go through a phase like this. I have seen that team invest so much. Our entire search quality team has been spending the last year gearing up our ranking systems, etc., to better get at what high-quality content is. If I take the next decade, [the] people who can do that better, who can sift through that, I think, will win out.”

AI Overviews. Pichai continues to push the idea that AI Overviews are increasing Search usage. Pichai called it “one of the most positive changes I’ve seen in Search based on metrics.”

  • “…In many cases, part of what is making people respond positively to AI Overviews is that the summary we are providing clearly adds value and helps them look at things they may not have otherwise thought about. If you’re adding value at that level, I think people notice it over time, and I think that’s the bar you’re trying to meet. Our data would show, over 25 years, if you aren’t doing something that users find valuable or enjoyable, they let us know right away. Over and over again we see that.”

While this may be true, it seems like it shouldn’t be true, as I discussed in Google AI Overviews: More searches, less satisfaction. Pichai also completely avoided two questions about whether Google will make any of this data public, so people can verify whether Google’s claims about AI Overview click-through rates and traffic are true.

A richer web. Pichai was asked what the web will look like in five years:

  • “I hope the web is much richer in terms of modality. Today, I feel like the way humans consume information is still not fully encapsulated in the web. Today, things exist in very different ways — you have webpages, you have YouTube, etc. But over time, I hope the web is much more multimodal, it’s much richer, much more interactive. It’s a lot more stateful, which it’s not today.”
  • “I view it as, while fully acknowledging the point that people may use AI to generate a lot of spam, I also feel every time there’s a new wave of technology, people don’t quite know how to use it. When mobile came, everyone took webpages and shoved them into mobile applications. Then, later, people evolved [into making] really native mobile applications.”
  • “The way people use AI to actually solve new things, new use cases, etc. is yet to come. When that happens, I think the web will be much, much richer, too. So: dynamically composing a UI in a way that makes sense for you. Different people have different needs, but today you’re not dynamically composing that UI. AI can help you do that over time. You can also do it badly and in the wrong way and people can use it shallowly, but there will be entrepreneurs who figure out an extraordinarily good way to do it, and out of it, there’ll be great new things to come.”

The interview. You can watch the interview or read the full transcript on some tech news rag.