Big Shot, Big Foot

Google is reportedly considering charging users a subscription to access its experimental AI-integrated search feature — a proposed measure that would mark the first time the search giant has ever charged users for access to a core feature.

That Google's even weighing such a shift — first reported by The Financial Times — is striking. Google Search rakes in an incredible amount of money without subscription fees, and Google has an arguably monopolistic chokehold on the search marketplace.

On the one hand, charging users to access AI search could point to the sheer amount of money and resources it takes to power AI systems in the first place. But as The Guardian's Alex Hern points out, the search giant's potential willingness to lock its AI search behind pay-to-play doors seemingly illustrates a unique, self-made problem for Google: that the AI it's so eager to integrate into its search platform stands to upend the ad model that makes the company the vast majority of its revenue.

"Google search prints money. Generative AI burns money," writes Hern. "What happens when an unstoppable force hits an immovable object?"

Disrupt Yourself

Google's current ad model is simple. Companies pay Google, and the search giant places advertisements across websites. Users see the ads both in the company's search results and when they click on one of their endless blue links. Ideally, the brand that's coughing up the ad dollars makes some sales. And Google wins no matter what.

But as Hern explains, in its current state, Google's AI-integrated search feature — currently dubbed "search generative experience," or SGE — pretty much annihilates this system.

SGE is designed to paraphrase web results; rather than comprise a clean list of links to outside websites, the AI tool effectively swallows web results and spits them back out at the user. And though SGE does offer some links out to its sources, the AI-infused product fundamentally disincentivizes users from clicking through them. And if users don't surf those ad-laden links, where does that leave Google's baseline revenue model?

Worse, an AI result is just way more expensive to serve than a traditional page, both in infrastructure and energy costs.

Google isn't the only search company wrestling with the question of how to make an ad model work for AI-powered search. Perplexity, an up-and-coming AI "answer engine," is toying with the idea of allowing brands to "sponsor" certain follow-up search queries, according to a recent report from Adweek.

Google's subscription idea certainly feels ethically sounder than branding the concept of information. But it would still be a massive shift for the company, and this latest conundrum adds to the growing tension between Google's role as the world's premier search engine and its drive to compete in the heated AI race.

More on Google and AI: Google Considering Making Users Pay for AI Search Results

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