Sunday, June 16

Google’s A.I. Search Leaves Publishers Scrambling

When Frank Pine searched Google for a link to a news article two months ago, he encountered paragraphs generated by artificial intelligence about the topic at the top of his results. To see what he wanted, he had to scroll past them.

That experience annoyed Mr. Pine, the executive editor of Media News Group and Tribune Publishing, which own 68 daily newspapers across the country. Now, those paragraphs scare him.

In May, Google announced that the A.I.-generated summaries, which compile content from news sites and blogs on the topic being searched, would be made available to everyone in the United States. And that change has Mr. Pine and many other publishing executives worried that the paragraphs pose a big danger to their brittle business model, by sharply reducing the amount of traffic to their sites from Google.

“It potentially chokes off the original creators of the content,” Mr. Pine said. The feature, AI Overviews, felt like another step toward generative A.I. replacing “the publications that they have cannibalized,” he added.

Media executives said in interviews that Google had left them in a vexing position. They want their sites listed in Google’s search results, which for some outlets can generate more than half of their traffic. But doing that means Google can use their content in AI Overviews summaries.

Publishers could also try to protect their content from Google by forbidding its web crawler from sharing any content snippets from their sites. But then their links would show up without any description, making people less likely to click.

Another alternative — refusing to be indexed by Google, and not appearing on its search engine at all — could be fatal to their business, they said.

“We can’t do that, at least for now,” said Renn Turiano, the head of product at Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper publisher.

Yet AI Overviews, he said, “is greatly detrimental to everyone apart from Google, but especially to consumers, smaller publishers and businesses large and small that use search results.”

Google said its search engine continued to send billions of visits to websites, providing value to publishers. The company has also said it has not showcased its A.I. summaries when it was clear that users were looking for news on current events.

Liz Reid, Google’s vice president of search, said in an interview before the introduction of AI Overviews that there were hopeful signs for publishers during testing.

“We do continue to see that people often do click on the links in AI Overviews and explore,” she said. “A website that appears in the AI Overview actually gets more traffic” than one with just a traditional blue link.

On Thursday afternoon, Ms. Reid wrote in a blog post that Google would limit AI Overviews to a smaller set of search results after it produced some high-profile errors, but added that the company was still committed to improving the system.

The A.I.-generated summaries are the latest area of tension between tech companies and publishers. The use of articles from news sites has also set off a legal fight over whether companies like OpenAI and Google violated copyright law by taking the content without permission to build their A.I. models.

The New York Times sued OpenAI and its partner, Microsoft, in December, claiming copyright infringement of news content related to the training and servicing of A.I. systems. Seven newspapers owned by Media News Group and Tribune Publishing, including The Chicago Tribune, brought a similar suit against the same tech companies. OpenAI and Microsoft have denied any wrongdoing.

AI Overviews is Google’s latest attempt to catch up to rivals Microsoft and OpenAI, the maker of ChatGPT, in the A.I. race.

More than a year ago, Microsoft put generative A.I. at the heart of its search engine, Bing. Google, afraid to mess with its cash cow, initially took a more cautious approach. But the company announced an aggressive rollout for the A.I. feature at its annual developer conference in mid-May: By the end of the year, more than a billion people would have access to the technology.

AI Overviews combine statements generated from A.I. models with snippets of content from live links across the web. The summaries often contain excerpts from multiple websites while citing sources, giving comprehensive answers without the user ever having to click to another page.

Since its debut, the tool has not always been able to differentiate between accurate articles and satirical posts. When it recommended that users put glue on pizza or eat rocks for a balanced diet, it caused a furor online.

Publishers said in interviews that it was too early to see a difference in traffic from Google since AI Overviews arrived. But the News/Media Alliance, a trade group of 2,000 newspapers, has sent a letter to the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission urging the agencies to investigate Google’s “misappropriation” of news content and stop the company from rolling out AI Overviews.

Many publishers said the rollout underscored the need to develop direct relationships with readers, including getting more people to sign up for digital subscriptions and visit their sites and apps directly, and be less reliant on search engines.

Nicholas Thompson, the chief executive of The Atlantic, said his magazine was investing more in all the areas where it had a direct relationship to readers, such as email newsletters.

Newspapers such as The Washington Post and The Texas Tribune have turned to a marketing start-up, Subtext, that helps companies connect with subscribers and audiences through text messaging.

Mike Donoghue, Subtext’s chief executive, said media companies were no longer chasing the largest audiences, but were trying to keep their biggest fans engaged. The New York Post, one of his customers, lets readers exchange text messages with sports reporters on staff as an exclusive subscriber benefit.

Then there’s the dispute over copyright. It took an unexpected turn when OpenAI, which scraped news sites to build ChatGPT, started cutting deals with publishers. It said it would pay companies, including The Associated Press, The Atlantic and News Corp., which owns The Wall Street Journal, to access their content. But Google, whose ad technology helps publishers make money, has not yet signed similar deals. The internet giant has long resisted calls to compensate media companies for their content, arguing that such payments would undermine the nature of the open web.

“You can’t opt out of the future, and this is the future,” said Roger Lynch, the chief executive of Condé Nast, whose magazines include The New Yorker and Vogue. “I’m not disputing whether it will happen or whether it should happen, only that it should happen on terms that will protect creators.”

He said search remained “the lifeblood and majority of traffic” for publishers and suggested that the solution to their woes could come from Congress. He has asked lawmakers in Washington to clarify that the use of content for training A.I. is not “fair use” under existing copyright law and requires a licensing fee.

Mr. Thompson of The Atlantic, whose publication announced a deal with OpenAI on Wednesday, still wishes Google would pay publishers as well. While waiting, he said before the rollout of AI Overviews that despite industry concerns, The Atlantic wanted to be part of Google’s summaries “as much as possible.”

“We know traffic will go down as Google makes this transition,” he said, “but I think that being part of the new product will help us minimize how much it goes down.”

David McCabe contributed reporting.