News Publishers See Google’s AI Search Tool as a Traffic-Destroying Nightmare

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About 40% of the magazine’s web traffic comes from Google searches, which turn up links that users click on. A task force at the Atlantic modeled what could happen if Google integrated AI into search. It found that 75% of the time, the AI-powered search would likely provide a full answer to a user’s query and the Atlantic’s site would miss out on traffic it otherwise would have gotten.

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What was once a hypothetical threat is now a very real one. Since May, Google has been testing an AI product dubbed “Search Generative Experience” on a group of roughly 10 million users, and has been vocal about its intention to bring it into the heart of its core search engine.

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Google’s integration of AI is crystallizing for media outlets the perils of relying on big technology companies to get their content in front of readers and viewers. Already, publishers are reeling from a major decline in traffic sourced from social-media sites, as both Meta and X, the former Twitter, have pulled away from distributing news.

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As bad as the social-media downshift is, Google’s generative-AI-powered search is the true nightmare for publishers. Across the media world, Google generates nearly 40% of publishers’ traffic, accounting for the largest share of their “referrals,” according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of data from measurement firm Similarweb.

“AI and large language models have the potential to destroy journalism and media brands as we know them,” said Mathias Dopfner, chairman and CEO of Axel Springer, referring to the technology that makes generative-AI possible. His company, one of Europe’s largest publishers and the owner of U.S. publications Politico and Business Insider, this week announced a deal to license its content to generative-AI specialist OpenAI.

While Google says the final shape of its AI product is far from set, publishers have seen enough to estimate that they will lose between 20% and 40% of their Google-generated traffic if anything resembling recent iterations rolls out widely. Google has said it is giving priority to sending traffic to publishers.

The rise of AI is the latest and most anxiety-inducing chapter in the long, uneasy marriage between Google and publishers, which have been bound to each other through a basic transaction: Google helps publishers be found by readers, and publishers give Google information—millions of pages of web content—to make its search engine useful.

Google’s embrace of AI in search threatens to throw off that delicate equilibrium, publishing executives say, by dramatically increasing the risk that users’ searches won’t result in them clicking on links that take them to publishers’ sites. Most gallingly for publishers, Google’s AI search was trained, in part, on their content and other material from across the web—without payment.

Google’s view is that anything available on the open internet is fair game for training AI models. The company cites a legal doctrine that allows portions of a copyrighted work to be used without permission for cases such as criticism, news reporting or research.

The new search features are also a balancing act for Google, which has moved quickly to refashion its flagship product in response to the rising popularity of chatbots like ChatGPT. The changes risk damaging website owners that produce the written material vital to both Google’s search engine and its powerful AI models.

“If Google kills too many publishers, it can’t build the LLM,” said digital media consultant Matthew Goldstein, who was one of the first to sound the alarm about the potential impact on publishers’ businesses.

Liz Reid, a Google vice president who works on the search engine, said the company is committed to driving traffic to web publishers. She said Google has had more conversations with publishers than it typically does after introducing substantial changes to search, because “it’s a more significant change in the evolution of the space.” She offered no timeline for Google’s broader rollout of the AI-powered search tool.

“Any attempts to estimate the traffic impact of our SGE experiment are entirely speculative at this stage as we continue to rapidly evolve the user experience and design, including how links are displayed, and we closely monitor internal data from our tests,” Reid said.

All of this has led Google and publishers to carry out an increasingly complex dialogue. In some meetings, Google is pitching the potential benefits of the other AI tools it is building, including one that would help with the writing and publishing of news articles, according to people familiar with the matter. Many news outlets, from BuzzFeed to USA Today owner Gannett, already are experimenting with AI tools.

At the same time, publishers are seeking reassurances from Google that it will protect their businesses from an AI-powered search tool that will likely shrink their traffic, and they are making clear they expect to be paid for content used in AI training. Some publishers—including News Corp, owner of The Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times—already have commercial relationships with Google. News Corp CEO Robert Thomson has been vocal about his concerns regarding AI, including the potential for biased or inaccurate content, replacement of jobs and use of publishers’ content without permission.

“Digital publishing is entering a transformational period and under attack,” said Ross Levinsohn, former CEO of the Arena Group, which publishes Sports Illustrated, the Street, Parade and other titles.

Google’s promise

Barry Diller, chairman of IAC and Expedia, said all major AI companies, including Google and rivals like OpenAI, have promised that they would continue to send traffic to publishers’ sites. “How they do it, they’ve been very clear to us and others, they don’t really know,” he said.

Many of IAC’s properties, like Brides, Investopedia and the Spruce, get more than 80% of their traffic from Google, according to Similarweb.

IAC senior executives met with Google senior executives at the Allen & Company conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, in July to discuss AI. Google told publishers at the meeting that it can’t directly trace the sources behind the outputs of AI systems, despite recent technological advances, said people familiar with the discussions.

“It’s all conciliatory at the moment,” Diller said of the tone that Google and other tech companies have taken in meetings with publishers over AI.

Nevertheless, at this year’s closed-door Newsgeist conference in Phoenix, an annual affair organized by Google and the Knight Foundation for publishers that in the past has featured cheeky signature cocktails like “The Angry Editor” and “Missed Deadline,” the mood was less cheerful than in previous years. Publishing executives complained in some sessions about the AI search tool, saying it would deprive them of traffic and therefore revenue, the people said.

Google began rolling out the AI search tool in May by letting users opt into testing. Using a chat interface that can understand longer queries in natural language, it aims to deliver what it calls “snapshots”—or summaries—of the answer, instead of the more link-heavy responses it has traditionally served up in search results.

Google at first didn’t include links within the responses, instead placing them in boxes to the right of the passage. It later added in-line links following feedback from early users. Some more recent versions require users to click a button to expand the summary before getting links. Google doesn’t describe the links as source material but rather as corroboration of its summaries.

During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to San Francisco, the Google AI search bot responded to the question “What did President Xi say?” with two quotes from his opening remarks. Users had to click on a little red arrow to expand the response and see a link to the CNBC story that the remarks were taken from. The CNBC story also sat over on the far right-hand side of the screen in an image box.

The same query in Google’s regular search engine turned up a different quote from Xi’s remarks, but a link to the NBC News article it came from was beneath the paragraph, atop a long list of news stories from other sources like CNN and PBS.

Blocking Google

Google’s Reid said AI is the future of search and expects its new tool to result in more queries.

“The number of information needs in the world is not a fixed number,” she said. “It actually grows as information becomes more accessible, becomes easier, becomes more powerful in understanding it.” Testing has suggested that AI isn’t the right tool for answering every query, she said.

Some publishers are focusing on the legal question of whether Google or any AI company has the right to scrape their content without permission. Diller said he believes publishers’ copyrights are being violated. “We believe that can be relatively easily and fairly quickly corrected,” he said.

Many publishers are opting to insert code in their websites to block AI tools from “crawling” them for content. But blocking Google is thorny, because publishers must allow their sites to be crawled in order to be indexed by its search engine—and therefore visible to users searching for their content.

To some in the publishing world there was an implicit threat in Google’s policy: Let us train on your content or you’ll be hard to find on the internet.

In late September, Google announced that it was offering publishers a new tool called Google-Extended that would let publishers exempt their content from training in certain Google AI tools.

However, that exemption doesn’t apply to its AI-powered search, a policy that has become a point of contention between publishers and Google.

A Google spokeswoman confirmed the policy and said AI had long been integral to the company’s search engine.

Write to Keach Hagey at Keach.Hagey@wsj.com, Miles Kruppa at miles.kruppa@wsj.com and Alexandra Bruell at alexandra.bruell@wsj.com

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