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Google plans to make search more ‘personal’ with AI Chat

Google is shifting the way it presents search results to incorporate conversations with artificial intelligence, along with more short video and social-media posts, a departure from the list of website results that has made it the dominant search engine for decades.

The changes represent a response to big shifts in the way people access information on the internet, including the emergence of AI bots like ChatGPT. They would nudge the service further away from its traditional format, known informally as the “10 blue links,” according to company documents and people familiar with the matter.

Google plans to make its search engine more “visual, snackable, personal, and human,” with a focus on serving young people globally, according to the documents. It plans to incorporate more human voices as part of the shift, supporting content creators in the same way it has historically done with websites, the documents say.

At its annual I/O developer conference this coming week, the search giant is expected to debut new features that allow users to carry out conversations with an artificial-intelligence program, a project code-named “Magi,” said other people familiar with the matter.

For years, Alphabet’s Google has made minimal tweaks to the look and feel of search, which powers an advertising business that made more than $162 billion in revenue last year. But that is changing with the fast rise of AI chatbots and short-video apps such as TikTok, both of which have captured the attention of younger users.

Broadly, Google plans to place greater emphasis on responding to queries that can’t be easily answered by traditional web results, according to internal reference documents outlining the company’s strategy for making changes to the search engine this year.

Google search visitors might be more frequently prompted to ask follow-up questions or swipe through visuals such as TikTok videos in response to their queries.

The company has already moved to integrate some online forum posts and short videos in search results, but it plans to emphasize such material even more in the future, according to the internal documents and people familiar with the matter.

Google executives have stressed to employees that the number of active websites has plateaued in recent years, said people familiar with the discussions. Internet users are increasingly turning to other apps to find information on everything from popular local restaurants to advice on how to be more productive.

“More than answers, we’ll help you when there’s no right answer,” Google executives said in the documents.

A Google spokeswoman said search has “always been an incredibly dynamic, rapidly evolving sector,” and the company has focused on a long-term approach to changing the service that includes integrating AI and visual features.

“As search evolves, delivering high-quality information and supporting a healthy, open web will remain core to our approach,” the spokeswoman added.

Google has the opportunity to lead a change in consumer behavior around internet search, but people will turn to other services if the company doesn’t move fast enough, said John Battelle, author of “The Search,” a history of Google published in 2005.

“It’s a really significant moment for the company, and I think they’re very well aware of it,” Mr. Battelle added.

Google’s search engine, the world’s most heavily trafficked website, has for years handled more than 90% of searches on computers and mobile devices, according to data provider Statcounter. In 2020, the Justice Department sued Google for its alleged dominance in the search market, the most significant U.S. antitrust suit since the government challenged Microsoft’s position in the personal computer software market in the 1990s. (The suit is expected to go to trial later this year.)

Since then, several new AI-powered apps have exploded in popularity, raising fresh challenges to Google’s power as a portal to the internet. Most recently, the ChatGPT bot developed by Microsoft-backed OpenAI has raised alarms inside Google, pushing leadership to speed up work on similar products.

Microsoft built the technology behind ChatGPT into its search engine Bing earlier this year, creating a version that could hold extended conversations with users. Smaller search engines also have raced to incorporate conversational AI features, hoping to win users by moving faster than Google.

Millions of people use Google for critical tasks, and websites such as online news outlets rely on the search engine for large chunks of their traffic. Those factors, along with the large amount of revenue tied to the product, have made it difficult to implement major changes in search.

“For them, it’s not about whether they have the talent and the team to do it. It’s more how worried they are about their image and shareholders,” said Aravind Srinivas, a former Google and OpenAI researcher who is chief executive of search startup Perplexity.

Perplexity, founded last year, has 2.8 million monthly active users of its conversational search engine, Mr. Srinivas said.

Chatbots such as ChatGPT have a tendency to confidently fabricate information and even sources. A recent study by Stanford University researchers of search engines using conversational AI technology found only 51.5% of sentences included proper citations, and more than a quarter of citations didn’t support the content of their associated sentences.

Earlier this year, a version of Microsoft’s Bing using the technology behind ChatGPT produced mistakes and disturbing responses for some users, prompting the company to call the product a work in progress and make several tweaks to its technology. Bing’s share of the search market has remained below 3% since Microsoft introduced the features in February, according to Statcounter.

Google executives have stressed that search products using conversational AI features should not upset website owners, in part by including source links, The Wall Street Journal reported. Bard, its answer to ChatGPT, included some links to outside sources when it was released in March, but Google stopped short of integrating it directly into search.

The company recently invited a large group of employees to test Magi before the features are introduced at the annual I/O conference May 10, said people familiar with the matter. The New York Times previously reported the name of the project.

One of the potential new search features will allow users to ask follow-up questions to their original queries, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in an interview with the Journal last month.

“We are working to make sure it works well for users—they have a high bar, and we want to meet that bar,” Mr. Pichai said.

Google executives have also closely watched the fast rise of TikTok, owned by China-based ByteDance. Prabhakar Raghavan, a Google senior vice president overseeing the search engine, said at a conference in July last year that about 40% of young people turn to TikTok or Meta Platforms-owned Instagram when searching for restaurants, citing an internal study.

Incorporating more user-generated content in search results also raises a host of thorny issues. Platforms like TikTok can be powerful vectors for false and misleading information because people have a tendency to trust other human speakers, researchers said.

The shift will present Google “with the need to refine our definition of ‘trusted’ content, especially when there is no single right answer,” according to the documents outlining the company’s search strategy. Google will “give attribution and literacy tools to enable confidence in making use of the content,” according to the documents. Wall Street Journal

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