Is Chat the future of Search?

Search engines, the door to information online, have retained its relevance despite a tectonic shift the information and communication technologies over the past three decades.
Image used for representational purposes.
Image used for representational purposes.

CHENNAI: How do you decide where to travel with your friends or family during holidays, or which restaurant to eat out in your city? How do you shortlist which smartphone to buy under Rs 50,000? What will you do if you need to sharpen your resume? Invariably, most of us would instantly look for these online.

Search engines, the door to information online, have retained its relevance despite a tectonic shift the information and communication technologies over the past three decades. The search interface with its standard search bar has remained rigid though it has integrated a few tweaks over the years such as voice and image search, news, and site recommendations. However, all this could change with the explosion of generative artificial intelligence and youngsters’ preference for avenues that offer recommendations, such as Instagram.

Tech giants have already visualised the big picture and major players such as Microsoft and Meta have deployed AI-chatbots and in-app internet exploration to have a bigger pie the lucrative search and advertising market. Currently, Google dominates the search landscape with 90% global market share whereas Microsoft’s Bing is at a very distant second place with around 3% share. Now, most people rely on Google ratings or the recommendations that pop up when they search in Google Maps. But the shift is already evident with the use of Instagram or Youtube for hotel and shopping suggestions.

The rules of the game are set for a big overhaul with the launch of powerful AI tools such as ChatGPT. Soon after the unexpected success of ChatGPT, Microsoft breathed a fresh air to its search engine Bing with AI features. Along with traditional search, it also has a chat interface, which helps you plan trips or buy gadgets. It can help you build a resume, write an email response, create a story, plan a party, or create a menu.

Chat-like interface, powered by Open AI’s GPT-4, allows informal queries or follow-up questions. It can also summarise answers, helping users to avoid opening multiple tabs and skim information. It is more like conversing with a friend than asking a computer. Subscribed users can also access internet via GPT-4 or Anthropic Claude 2 are also accessing internet via chat interface, which could be suitable for specific business use cases apart from leisure.

Google already has AI-based features such as auto-fill, ‘memories’ in Google Photos, and Gmail reply suggestions. These are integrated into its core products. But, ChatGPT’s demonstration of the generative AI has captured the imagination of many and opened the gates for chat queries. Microsoft bets big on eating into Google’s search market by introducing more generative and chat-like features. Not just Microsoft, a lot of new players are betting on chat features, like You.com.

Search engines typically have a universal search bar, and you can narrow the results to a specific content category, such as images, news, or maps. Some players like Bing and You have added a Chat tab in the top, giving users the option to choose from webpages and chat windows. Facebook’s parent Meta, too, is launching a chatbot feature inside its popular apps such as Instagram, Messenger, which can access the internet in real-time for free of cost. It has partnered with Microsoft Bing for the search functionality. Google quickly went full-AI in its recent tech conference and introduced various AI-powered features. It has also introduced chat-like generative results on the top of search pages, both on desktop and mobile, for users who opt in.

It also has a converse tab on top for chat-like features to allow follow-up.

Limitations and challenges

However, there are limitations to chat features, including incorrect answers in AI-generated results. Search engines have tried to address this by citing the source of information. Still there are inconsistencies. Google has cautiously warned that it is an experimental feature and that information quality may vary. Another major challenge to the chat window on the top is compensation for content creators and publishers. 

While it is easy for users to do a cursory reading, the creators, news publishers, and websites that worked hard to create that information depend on the revenue from traffic and advertising revenue.

If Google can capture the best five smartphone recommendations from a site and show them in their search results, then what is the incentive for content creators to provide information in the first place? Neither Satya Nadella nor Sundar Pichai seems to have an answer to this problem. In the past, there were quite a few false alarms on the purported alternatives to Google but they never posed a serious challenge.

It is too early to say which direction the companies and users will go, but it is clear that change in the search landscape is imminent.

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The New Indian Express
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