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Google Search’s New AI Overviews Will Soon Have Ads

May 21, 2024 12:00 PM

Google Search’s New AI Overviews Will Soon Have Ads

Google is set to start mixing ads into its new AI-generated search answers. It’s a test of how the company’s biggest revenue stream can adapt to the age of generative AI.

Sundar Pichai speaking on stage in front of a large crowd with an LED screen behind him that has the acronym AI repeated...

Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks during the annual Google I/O developers conference on May 14, 2024, in Mountain View, California.Photograph: GLENN CHAPMAN/Getty Images

Last week Google introduced a radical shake-up of search that presents users with AI-generated answers to their queries. Now the company says it will soon start including ads inside those AI Overviews, as the automatic answers are called.

Google on Tuesday announced plans to test search and shopping ads in the AI summaries, a move that could extend its dominance in search advertising into a new era. Although Google rapidly rolled out AI Overviews to all US English users last week after announcing the feature at its I/O developer conference, it’s unclear how widely or quickly ads will start appearing.

Screenshots released by Google show how a user asking how to get wrinkles out of clothes might get an AI-generated summary of tips sourced from the web, with a carousel of ads underneath for sprays that purport to help crisp up a wardrobe.

Google’s AI Overviews are meant to keep users from shifting to alternatives such as ChatGPT or the startup Perplexity, which use AI-generated text to answer many questions traditionally thrown at Google. How and when Google would integrate ads into AI Overviews has been a significant question over the company’s ChatGPT catch-up strategy. Search ads are the company's largest revenue generator, and even subtle changes in ad placements or design can spur big swings in Google’s revenue.

Courtesy of Google

Google shared few details about its new Overview ad format in its announcement Tuesday. Ads “will have the opportunity to appear within the AI Overview in a section clearly labeled as ‘sponsored’ when they’re relevant to both the query and the information in the AI Overview,” Vidhya Srinivasan, Google’s vice president and general Manager for ads, wrote in a blog post.

AI Overview will draw on ads from advertisers’ existing campaigns, meaning they can neither completely opt out of the experiment nor have to adapt the settings and designs of their ads to appear in the feature. “There’s no action needed from advertisers,” Srinivasan wrote.

Google said last year when it started experimenting with AI-generated answers in search that ads for specific products would be integrated into the feature. In one example at the time, it showed a sponsored option at the top of an AI-generated list of kids’ hiking backpacks. Google says the early testing showed that users found ads above and below AI summaries helpful. Google’s much smaller rival Bing shows product ads in its Bing Copilot search chatbot, but in tests on Monday, WIRED didn’t trigger any ads in Bing’s competitor to AI Overview.

Every few years a technology such as ChatGPT emerges that gets media and investors wondering whether it will finally be the innovation that topples Google’s search ad business, which has been one of the most profitable and consistent enterprises on the internet for over two decades. In calls with investors over the past year, Google CEO Sundar Pichai has downplayed the risks to his ads business from new search experiences. He has voiced confidence that the company can work through shifts as it has before, including threats from smartphones and Amazon.

It helps that the growth of Google’s cloud and hardware businesses are making the company’s revenue less dependent on search. In 2019, more than 60 percent of revenue for Google parent Alphabet stemmed from search ads. That figure has steadily fallen to about 57 percent last year. Overall profit in 2023 reached a near record of about $74 billion.

No matter how ads in AI Overviews perform, conventional search ads will remain important to Google. For one, AI-generated answers appear only on select queries when its algorithms determine a summary could be helpful. That means Google will be serving up plenty of results pages with real estate for traditional search ads.

Google is also exploring other ways to use AI to boost its ads business. The company on Tuesday announced updated image-generation tools to help advertisers shed production costs associated with tasks like photography, meaning they could have more budget left to spend with Google to actually run ads.

In addition, Google plans to test a new search ad experience that guides people through “complex purchase decisions,” according to Srinivasan’s post. For instance, AI could analyze photos uploaded by users of their furniture to suggest short-term storage options. Launching more sophisticated AI-enabled formats like that could allow Google to collect a premium compared with conventional ad slots, lining the company’s pockets more than ever.

Paresh Dave is a senior writer for WIRED, covering the inner workings of big tech companies. He writes about how apps and gadgets are built and about their impacts, while giving voice to the stories of the underappreciated and disadvantaged. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and the Los Angeles Times,… Read more
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