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More questions than answers

So many businesses and services in the tech world have seemed invincible – almost monopolistic – at some time, only to be brought crashing down by a completely unforeseen disruptor. Will this happen to Google? Certainly the potential of AI and ‘large language models’ is a threat, although you wouldn’t bet too strongly against Google itself winning this battle.

At the start of the year, Aravind Srinivas, CEO of Perplexity, posted this old clip of Larry Page from Google and wrote: “What Perplexity is, today, is what Larry Page wanted Google to be, 23 years ago. But the timing wasn’t right back then. There were no chat LLMs. But the man was a visionary. The ultimate search engine is an AI-powered answer engine, like Perplexity.”

Perplexity is one of the new generation of ‘answer engines’, which also include Google’s Gemini (formerly Bard) and Microsoft’s Copilot. These do what Google has always been reluctant to fully embrace, for commercial reasons as well as technological ones …and that’s to show us the answers, rather than give us links to the sites which have the answers.

Stealing information

But these answer engines don’t know the answers. They’re just stealing and republishing the information, using AI to present it in a neat and accessible format. This is something that search engines haven’t done to date. Remember that Google has ‘crawled’ almost the entire web, and therefore has a copy of it. But it has chosen not to publish that copy. It’s true that over the years, Google has slowly increased the amount of direct answers it gives (search for local cinema times, for example). However, it has primarily remained focused on directing users to the websites which provide the information.

This makes sense. Why would many websites continue to provide any information if it was going to be lifted wholesale by a search engine? They would have little reason to continue, and both parties would lose out.

However, things are changing, and fast. For the answer engines, the websites which provided the information are now just references or footnotes. The genie is out of the bottle, and it will completely change the web, in many cases for the worse. Go to an answer engine and ask it for the lyrics to a pop song. You’ll get them. Very nice. But what will the answer engine do in the future when the sites from which it stole the lyrics have shut up shop because their search engine visitors fell to zero?

What are the implications?

More importantly for us as businesses, what are the immediate implications? Go to an answer engine like one of the three above and do some company name searches, just as customers might do today. The results? With any luck, they should be some information about the company and a link to its website. So that’s good. But what happens when we give it some of the key searches we’ve been working on for years, such as ‘blue widget suppliers uk’? The new results can easily see all of our previous efforts thrown in the bin. Try it.

Tomorrow I’ll look at something that’s even more important …and urgent.