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Peering into the grim data of generative search

Wherein the analysis of Google AI search results makes unpleasant reading for website owners.

by Rob Corbidge
Published: 15:00, 13 June 2024

Rob Corbidge is Head of Content Intelligence at Glide Publishing Platform, applying the latest knowledge about advances and ideas in the publishing industry to our own product and helping clients get the most from their content.

A scientist rearranging papers that are flying around him

This week has seen the first in-depth research into something publishers and site owners have been pondering since AI-powered search sprung into our consciousness: what will the effect of Generative Search be on traffic and user habits? 

Step forward - not for the first time - media industry touchstones Press Gazette and Ricky Sutton, who mounted a sustained and many-pronged investigation into what the world of Google AI Overviews (aka Search Generative Experience, aaka Google's Burglebot) looks like for media companies.

You know it… the feature which conjures AI-written answers to user-entered search queries, which Google is already backpedalling on and more or less un-unveiled last week. "Ah, Robert" I heard you cry, "Google is already reducing the number of Overview created search results in the US test market that it launched into." 

It has - but not in response to any feedback on its business impact to publishers. It did it because AI Overviews were showing signs of early-onset dement-ai and producing screeds of gibberish such as adding glue to recipes, or suggesting rocks as a dietary substitute. 

While the feature may for now have been rolled back into the shop to have its undercarriage checked, it will very likely be back in improved form and probably with much less for us to laugh at. 

In fact, this temporary removal might be the only chance left to rebroadcast our misgivings about it before it comes back, so do read the report to know what you're up against. 

Analysis of the analytics
Working with a group of volunteer large media organisations who opened their analytics to investigation, our intrepid pair spent a lot of time, money, and midnight oil assessing what AI Overviews spell for publishers.

The report is full of stand out points and dare I say it none are in our industry's favour. I could even make the case that it's so bad it's good if it stimulates an industry-wide alliance of minds considering the question of how we collectively navigate a de-Googled map to audiences.

So in summary (!) - here's some morsels: 

  • If you are referenced as a source in the overview and are linked, you'll be at the bottom of the overview. The overview is almost a whole page deep, so that's a long way down the scroll.
  • If you are result No.1 after the AI Overview, you might be so far off the page that you'll be in the realm of where previously the 10th or 12th search results might have been.
  • And, if you've worked hard to build authority in an area and have the ranking traffic you deserve, you probably won't be cited as a source anyway. 

As if to prove that point, the research found that the highest ranking links you might expect to find on an Overviews result were now moved to the very bottom of the webpage. An average 980 pixel drop. 

As the report states: "Links to food, health, locations, and shopping, which have the highest advertising CPMs, appeared to be degraded the most." 

So in other words, the more likely it is that you write about something which Google can make money off via the placement of ads, the less likely you are to feature as a high-up search result. And, even if you do, on a smartphone your link is now down by your reader’s scaphoid - not a comfortable place to be for anyone.

It's actually tricky not to see AI Overviews as a calculated insult disguised behind some mumbled rubbish about "increasing user choice" or whatever Googlespeak was deployed. 

(We did love one example of Googlespeak Ricky highlighted, regarding the overnight appearance of adverts in AI Overviews, “We’ve heard that people find the ads appearing above and below the AI-generated overview helpful." Those people being Google Ad Business employees presumably.) 

​​​​If Google is an egg merchant, and we're the mindless content egg-laying chickens, then it's started to try and sell really bad omelettes. Ultimately, it wants to sell only omelettes. Made from recycled eggs.

Great. And in the same week we have Ricky and Press Gazette's report, we also have Google News SEO wizard Barry Adams writing in the title to point out that endlessly shifting search algorithms are punishing the living hell out of anyone with even the vaguest business plan involving income from search traffic. 

Do they actually believe search should replicate the functions of a pitiless universe, where inexplicable things happen to organisms too dumb to comprehend the grand plan? 

Truth is, of course, they don't have a plan and we should stop pretending they do.

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