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With ChatGPT, what will Search Become?

Posted by Jeff Evernham

With ChatGPT, what will Search Become?

You’ve probably heard about ChatGPT and maybe even tried it out. The latest public display of AI from OpenAI is a chatbot that engages with people to answer questions and carry on a conversation. It’s a breakthrough – so powerful and eerily humanlike, not only did it get a million users in five days, but some are saying it could replace Google. Bizarrely, others are using it as a therapist.

Microsoft invested $1B in OpenAI a few years ago and is in talks to add another $10B so they can incorporate ChatGPT into Bing and Office and as part of part of Azure Cognitive Services. Some say this is the first real threat to Google’s stranglehold on internet search. Should Google be worried by a new AI-powered Bing? Maybe. Let’s take a look.

How would ChatGPT make search better?

It’s certainly true that giving Bing a ChatGPT-like capability will draw people to use it, but it won’t be a full replacement for search. There are many searches where it won’t help (every search for a company’s website, for instance), and it isn’t always accurate. One nice part about a list of links is that it provides an opportunity to evaluate the truth (or the suitability) of the information provided. ChatGPT is very different: it gives one consolidated result, with 100% confidence, with no way of tracing or verifying the source. It pulls everything right or wrong.

Where ChatGPT excels is synthesis, summarizing complex topics into a paragraph or two of text that captures the most common (although not necessarily the most important!) points. In a search, this automates the research and collection of information. And humans are lazy. Rather than choosing a few links and reading several web pages, only to find out some are not what we want and some are repetitive, we would much rather read a summary.

It makes sense for Microsoft to use ChatGPT to create a summary for these kinds of queries and a list of links, but it’s unclear what that will do to advertising revenue. If ChatGPT does a great job, and people stop clicking on the links, then Microsoft’s costs go up, and their revenue goes down. That would likely lead to higher prices for displaying sponsored links above ChatGPT’s response.

Expecting more from “Search”

Instead of replacing search, ChatGPT expands what we can do and expect from “search:” text generation. It’s great at writing essays, drafting emails, proofreading and improving existing text, and even concocting imaginary stories. This isn’t the role of a search engine of course, but having it would be an edge over Google until they do the same. However, running these models is costly (the free version of ChatGPT will almost certainly go away soon), and they will have to get creative about advertising if they want non-search traffic to pay for it. That’s why they’re moving quickly to provide it to paying customers (Azure now and Office soon), so it’s unclear if it would be added to Bing for “free” or provide tiered access with a subscription.

We Get to Watch

It’s too early to say how this will play out, but the best part is that we get to watch! And I think there are some predictions we can make confidently:

  • Bing will move fast; Google will counter but only slowly (as the market leader, they’re risk-averse)
  • We’ll soon be able to use search gateways for much more than we do today
  • User demands and expectations will expand quickly (as we’ve seen before with other AI) so there will be a race to bring new and improved capabilities to search portals
  • This is only v1. The quality and capability of these models will improve quickly (unless there’s a major public failure that puts everything on hold for a little while)

My Take

ChatGPT’s technology is certainly very impressive, but it’s not a replacement for search. That means it isn’t a Google killer, but if Microsoft blends it with their search portal to offer new capabilities (summarization and text-generation), that will draw traffic away from Google. Some may abandon Google and stay with Bing until Google counterattacks. Google has the technology to do this now (called LaMBDA; it was so good they had to fire an employee who insisted it was sentient!) but has taken a conservative stance and hasn’t released it; they will move more slowly than Microsoft, who is willing to take more risk to try to gain market share.

We’ll see Microsoft leverage its investment in OpenAI to drive ChatGPT and other generative technology into Office (Word may write your next document for you!), Azure Cognitive Services, and developer tools to help write code. Long-term, generative AI will improve quickly and soon become a part of everything we do (whether text or images or audio or video). Therefore the question is not “will it replace search?” but “what does search become?”