Full disclosure: As a writer of stories that are highly dependent on search traffic, I’m naturally biased about the value of links in search results.
But as someone who also conducts a lot of web searches, I’m also convinced that the new wave of generative AI search engines—most notably Microsoft’s ChatGPT-infused version of Bing—are missing the point. Instead of fixating on direct answers to users’ questions, they should be using their natural language understanding to serve better links.
If they can’t do that, web search will remain just as frustrating as it is today—only with distracting AI-generated conversation on the side.
Similar to the new Bing, they answer your queries in complete sentences, combining information from multiple sources. YouChat and Perplexity.ai can also answer follow-up questions based on the context of your original search. While they all include links in the form of citations, their goal is to make clicking through less of a necessity.
This works really well for basic queries, such as “Who won the Rangers game last night?” or “How much does Netflix cost now?” The back-and-forth nature of generative AI is also good at providing encyclopedia-like knowledge, so you can ask about a new TV show, then ask follow-ups about the cast or critical response.
But the more in-depth your queries get, the more you just need some links instead.
Let’s say, for instance, that you’re having Wi-Fi problems. Asking Perplexity.ai for help brings up some obvious troubleshooting steps, like restarting your router and toggling your device’s Wi-Fi, but it’s ill-equipped to provide any more advice beyond that. Follow-up queries only lead to vague and unhelpful answers, like “uninstall the network adapter driver,” and it becomes clear that you’d be better off with links to actual articles on the topic.
Recipes are another example. There’s been lots of chatter about how ChatGPT recipes spell doom for SEO-cluttered cooking sites. But in my experience, browsing for recipes typically involves reading a few different versions, looking at photos of the finished product, and figuring out which approach works best with my ingredients and skill level. An AI-generated recipe might be faster to look up, but I’m not sure I’d want to eat it.
There’s also an entire category of searches in which the only thing you want is a link. If you want to buy an album on Bandcamp or watch a specific video on YouTube, conversational AI is just going to get in the way.
WHERE AI COULD HELP
I’m not saying generative AI should have no role in web search, but outside of the narrow cases where a direct answer would make sense, its primary directive should be to deliver better links.
Instead of generating recipes for Italian meatballs, for instance, generative AI search engines should provide a list of links to recipe sites and explain why they’re worth checking out. You should then be able to modify the links with follow-ups, like “ones that are light on bread crumbs,” “ones with lots of pictures,” or “ones that aren’t behind a paywall.”
Being able to filter search results could be powerful in all kinds of other ways. You might, for instance, ask for coverage of a political topic from different angles, for financial advice only from writers who’ve worked as financial advisors, or for opinions on a new tech product only from user forums like Reddit.
Better yet, you should be able to say something like, “Don’t show me any articles that were written by an AI.”
The real magic of generative AI is not what it puts out, but how well it seems to understand what you put in. Much of the frustration with Google, meanwhile, comes from a feeling that it’s ignoring your intent entirely. If tech companies applied generative AI’s contextual smarts toward serving up better links, they’d improve the state of search while also discouraging the worst kinds of SEO-bait.
My guess, though, is that the novelty of these interactions will eventually wear off, and we’ll want to get back to using generative AI search engines as the tools that they are. The best way to do that will be with links to what other humans are writing.
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