The typical PCMag product reviewer’s home is a web of wires and blinking LEDs from laptops, smartwatches, and scores of other gadgets. Analysts spend weeks performing hands-on testing to produce in-depth buying guides that help readers get the most from technology.

But what if that wealth of content is reduced to grist for a bigger mill? Google’s new AI search experience pushes links to articles below the digital fold, summarizing the response to a search query up top as a conversational, ChatGPT-style paragraph. Content in the answer, a mini-article in itself, can theoretically come from PCMag and a host of other publications.

To start, this AI experience will only apply to searches for which Google algorithms can produce helpful results, The Verge reports(Opens in a new window). But it’s unclear how many searches that will cover, and whether Google will compensate or cite its sources. The company has said(Opens in a new window) only that it’s “committed to continue sending valuable traffic to sites across the web.”

Writers watching a live demo of the new experience at Google’s I/O conference found it chilling. “Did Google receive that e-bike and set it up?” asks Angela Moscaritolo, PCMag’s health and fitness expert. She reviewed the Aventon Aventure Ebike, which the demo suggested for commuters as “good for hill climbing.”

“Did it take it on the beach and all over town to determine if it’s actually good for hill climbing? If you didn’t verify the claim your AI is presenting, then you need to cite that source,” she says.

With what we’ve seen from Google thus far, users can’t truly know if the information came from a PCMag article, customer reviews, marketing claims on a manufacturer’s product page—or some undistinguished mish-mosh of all that. The even more chilling thing for society as a whole? If Google goes down this path, that source material could end up less likely to be from trusted publications and sources, because the revenue hit they take means they may not be around.


‘Move Fast and Break Things’ Gets Old

Are we being alarmist? Well, it’s not the first time Silicon Valley has given media companies the runaround. Journalists of a certain age will remember the shift from print to digital media, as consumers embraced the easy-to-access, often-free information on the internet.

“Sites like Craigslist played a huge role, since people no longer paid for [classified] listings in what was previously a huge section of the newspaper,” says Sascha Segan, PCMag’s former lead mobile reviewer, who worked on several early news sites in the 1990s, including stints helping The Washington Post and The Guardian transition to the web.

PCMag has had a presence on the web since 1995, so it had time to prepare for the demise of the PC Magazine print edition in 2009 and the shift to an all-digital operation. And while we have brand recognition that brings loyal readers directly to our site on a consistent basis, many more find our content through Google search queries. We’re not alone; consumer tech publications on the web routinely jockey for position in search results using various search engine optimization (SEO) strategies that aim to bring readers to the site, drive clicks, and thus revenue.

As one Wall Street Journal reporter asked on Twitter(Opens in a new window) after the live demo(Opens in a new window) at Google I/O this week: “Is every media org’s SEO team panicking [right now]?”

Tech companies have rolled out various news-related products over the years—from Facebook Instant Articles to Google AMP—ostensibly to assist the news business. As The Verge notes(Opens in a new window), AMP was intended to serve up mobile web pages that loaded faster and cleaner. The problem? AMP pages generated less money for publications than a standard article, sometimes just 60%, and Google certainly wasn’t going to cut a check to make up the difference.

Then there’s the classic “pivot to video.” Facebook went all in on video years ago, and convinced publications that people were spending way more time watching clips than they actually were. By the time the truth came out, however, many publications had laid off writers and bulked up video teams. Mark Zuckerberg may be able to “move fast and break things(Opens in a new window),” but it’s not as easy for the increasingly cash-strapped media business to react in response.


AI Kills the News, Replaces It With Algorithms

For a certain portion of information on the web, an AI-generated summary at the top of a Google search query will leave the public with two options.

One is to spend time reading the AI snippet rather than the source, making Google and its AI implementations the arbiter of information, without recompense to the creators who indirectly provided it. The other? Scroll past the AI results and use the remaining time to click on articles from the largest, most SEO-optimized sites.

“Google has been juggling between whether it’s dependent on journalism, or whether it wants to usurp it, for years,” says Segan. “It seems to keep wanting to grow into…the canonical, one-stop source for information. But as it does that, it risks destroying all of the information sources it uses.”

Sites like ours have set up commerce operations to underpin our testing and review work, and drive revenue, but if people don’t navigate to PCMag.com and purchase products from the site (and view or engage with onsite ads, whatever your feeling about them), that’s money down the drain. We diversify inbound traffic via a robust newsletter operation and referrals from third-party news-distribution services, but search still plays a large role in getting people to our site.

Subscriptions and paywalls are an option, but as we’ve seen with video streaming, subscription overload and fatigue is a very real thing. And a shift to this model across the industry would likely result in even more media layoffs.

If Google’s Search Generative Experience becomes the first thing users see in searches, and incorporates a chatbot that produces even more answers without requiring people to leave the search engine’s results page, only the largest web publications seem likely to survive the AI-ification of the internet.


The backlash has already begun. AI—and its tendency to plagiarize—is at the forefront of the writers’ strike(Opens in a new window) in Hollywood. And multiple visual artists have filed lawsuits(Opens in a new window) against AI image-generator platforms like DALL-E and Midjourney for using their work without compensation.

In the absence of more information to help search-reliant publications plan their response, there might be only one other option: Let them opt out. Rather than putting up paywalls at every corner of the internet, publications deserve the option to stop their information from being used to feed chatbots for free, much like Google gives individual web users the right to be forgotten. But that isn’t a solution to lost traffic and revenue, unless publishers across the web do it en masse in an effort to “starve the AI beast”—hardly a realistic prospect.

There is an urgent need for Google to clarify its plan to compensate the information sources on which its new business model hinges—or to roll out AI search models like this in a more measured, collaborative manner. We need greater collaboration from tech companies, publications, and regulators to set up a system that puts the interests of the news business, the public, and Google on a level field, rather than taking an uncertain course with one captain steering this giant vessel into unknown, potentially hazard-filled waters—hazardous not just to web publishers and the media ecosystem, but to society at large.

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