A person typing on a laptop showing a ChatGPT window.

ChatGPT will change how we search but is no Google killer

February 9, 2023 Digital channels

Since its launch last November, ChatGPT has generated significant discussion. A key question is how this tool – and other forms of AI – will affect search engines such as Google, Bing, Baidu, and others. This week, we are starting to get some answers.


Bing has long trailed in Google’s wake

Bing – formerly known as Live Search and before that, MSN Search – has long played catch up with Google. However, Bing has the resources to play the long game and while it continues to trail Google, a 5-10% share of a $100 billion global market is still highly lucrative.

A criticism of Bing is that it usually does the same as Google, only a few months or years later. It has tried some new features, such as search suggestions as you type (subsequently copied by Google) and searches from users’ social media networks but has never really landed a hammer blow or fully diverged from Google’s approach. As a result, it has been seen as merely a copy. But with the advent of ChatGPT and ‘New Bing’, could that be about to change?


AI could see greater divergence amongst search engines

Search engines powered by the likes of ChatGPT, Bard and Ernie Bot could come to life in various ways. As a result, rival AI technology could mean greater divergence in search engines, with Bing, Google, Baidu and even new entrants (for example, Notion) heading in different directions.

Bing has invested in and partnered with OpenAI, ChatGPT’s creators. A day after Google announced Bard and Baidu announced Ernie Bot, Bing announced ‘New Bing’ powered by ChatGPT. Although there is a waiting list to receive access, this is live now.

Google has previously used, and invested in, AI more extensively than Bing. There has been speculation that ChatGPT could harm Google, but this overlooks the fact that Google is already at the forefront of machine learning – with plenty of AI-related activity still to come.

LaMDA is the language model behind Bard, Google’s chatbot rival to ChatGPT. Google plans to integrate Bard into at least some of its search results. Bard’s advantage is that it is constantly updated, while the early preview version of ChatGPT is based on a database of information from 2021 or before (which means it can struggle with more recent information. Later versions will no doubt address this point).

Google’s BERT update relies heavily on Natural Language Processing to help it understand the semantics of searches. Academic papers released by Google employees show that Google has been working for some time on conversational and multi-modal search – that is, pictures and text used together for search – with search results drawn from multiple sources and languages, and custom answers that guess what you will ask next and provide the answers you need before you realise you need them. In other words, don’t expect Google to be caught napping by ChatGPT.

Baidu – China’s leading search engine – has long been trying to shadow Google’s developments and announced their new search chat bot ‘Ernie Bot’ at almost the same moment as Google’s Bard was announced. This may seem unimportant for markets other than China, since Baidu has historically struggled with non-Chinese content, but the evolution of AI means that an English, AI powered version of Baidu is now plausible.


So who will get their AI Search engine fully live first – Google, Bing or Baidu?

Google has given a few hints as to how it might use its MUM (Multitask Unified Model) technology to supplement existing search results pages, and already used some elements of the multi-modal part in its Lens offering. (Google Lens is an AI-powered technology that uses your smartphone camera and machine learning to detect an object in front of the camera lens and offer actions such as scanning, translation, shopping, and more.)

For Google’s upcoming update, it seems likely that the top of the results page will be taken up by an expanded version of the ‘featured snippet’ immediate answer section, and these answers will likely be used on voice as well. Traditional search results will remain, albeit pushed down the page.

Many have been expecting Bing to go with a different approach, and their recent announcement seems to confirm that. For now, New Bing is listed as ‘Chat’ on Bing and is not available to many users yet. However, it sounds as though ChatGPT could at some point be a complete replacement for the traditional search engine results page, with its 10 blue links and nowadays a lot more besides. Instead, it could simply be a version of ChatGPT ready to answer your questions with one single answer, or a conversation.

With Bing’s ability to integrate ChatGPT into its tools such as Teams, as part of a new premium offering and soon into its Edge Web Browser, it won’t be a Google killer but could take a chunk of market share, especially if they gain traction before Google launches Bard.

We will have to wait and see what the search engine giants decide – and what people in different markets want to use.


However, ‘answer engines’ have their limitations

Others have written at length about the accuracy of ChatGPT and any machine learning system. Suffice to say that the old computer adage of “garbage in, garbage out” is relevant. If the source material is the entire internet, then the consensus of the internet can become the answer, intensifying an echo chamber effect and entrenching existing biases. Many internet users will want to be able to check which sources are being used.

Google had previously indicated that source content for the answers will be cited and linked to, though screenshots released so far don’t seem to show this. Meanwhile ‘New Bing’ at launch has citations, albeit only a number with a link, within the answers being generated in real time by ChatGPT.

The relative success of a ChatGPT search engine versus a potentially different approach to machine learning-powered search from Google will change how we search, even if Google maintains its market dominance.

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