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Google AI Overviews: 4 early learnings from generative AI in Google Search

By Hsing Tseng · May 28, 2024
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Google's endless quest to enhance the search experience has hit an official internet-breaking milestone: the rollout of AI Overviews. This feature may change the way we search for, interact with, and consume information online. 

I spent more time than I'd like to admit Googling things to get AI Overviews, did a bunch of research, and reached out to a few experts in the field to get their takes on Google's AI Overviews. Based on all that, here's what I learned.

What are Google AI Overviews?

Google's AI Overviews are brief, AI-generated summaries of information appended to the top of a Google Search results page. Instead of scrolling, clicking, and sifting through multiple links, users can get quick answers inserted directly below their search query.

It's like an AI-powered featured snippet—but instead of getting one no-click source, you're getting AI's best take on all the results.

For example, Googling "how do you fry an egg" generates this AI Overview:

The Google AI Overview for the search "how do you fry an egg"

AI Overviews don't appear in all searches (yet), but you can also opt in to get even more AI Overviews via Search Labs. Keep in mind that AI Overviews only appear in countries where Search Labs is available, and they're currently available in English, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese (Brazil), and Spanish (Latin America).

How to turn off Google AI Overviews

Not everyone is on board with Google AI Overviews. You might find them less than helpful or annoying (or both), or you might just prefer the traditional Google Search experience. 

Well—too bad. Kind of.

As Google says: "AI Overviews are part of Google Search like other features, such as knowledge panels, and can't be turned off."

But not all hope is lost. As detailed in this article from The Verge, you can:

  • Reconfigure your browser's default search engine to conduct searches without AI Overview results.

  • Download third-party extensions like Bye Bye, Google AI to block AI Overviews (make sure you trust the developer).

  • Do your Google Search as usual, then select More > Web to get an AI-free list of just website results.

    The Web option on Google Search

What you can do with Google generative AI search

Some of Google's AI Overviews are questionable (more on that later), so you need to use all your media literacy skills and throw in several large grains of salt. But there are a handful of things Google is highlighting, and they're all pretty useful:

  • Quick, informative answers. AI Overviews will bring up a concise, summarized answer that (in theory) pulls from the best information available online. It saves time and gets you the answer you need in seconds. (Please don't use it to diagnose a rash, though.) Google has also teased Break it down and Simpler buttons that will let you simplify things even more.

    The AI overview for "what is the safe temperature for chicken"

  • Plan ahead. You can use generative AI search to plan trips or meals. Google will suggest plans according to your specifications, and you can then export those plans to Gmail or Google Docs, or create a shopping list. Google says they intend to add more planning categories, like parties and workout options, as well as additional customization capabilities. 

    The option to export AI plans to Gmail, Google Docs, or a shopping list

  • View AI-organized search results. Google's generative AI search groups relevant content together in AI-generated sections, which makes it easiest to quickly zero in on the most useful information. For example, when searching for romantic restaurants in a specific place, Google will find relevant restaurants based on user reviews and also group restaurants according to type of cuisine.

    A side-by-side comparison showing how AI Overviews will give you organized search results

  • Ask contextual questions. In a coming-soon feature, Google will employ Gemini's multi-step logic to generate answers with more nuance. The example Google gives in its announcement is asking Google for recommendations for a popular yoga studio within a specific walking distance of a location. Google's AI Overviews will soon be able to provide such suggestions based on information found in the search engine's top-ranking results. 

  • Search through video. In another coming-soon AI search feature, Google will let users ask questions by video. Imagine you're trying to fix a leaky faucet in your kitchen. You've watched a few tutorial videos, but none of them seem to address the specific issue you're facing—the water drips from the handle when you turn it off. Instead of trying to find the right words to describe this problem, you can search using a video of your leaky faucet. Google's AI will analyze the video, figure out the issue you're having, and provide an AI Overview with steps and resources to troubleshoot.  

4 early learnings from Google's AI Overviews

It's mostly a lot of hypothesizing right now as to the exact effects AI will have on search, but there's no denying that Google's rollout of AI Overviews is going to make waves. Based on my early observations and chats with SEO experts, here's what I think are the most important things to know.

1. It's still learning and prone to making errors

If there's one thing that's been made abundantly clear during the first few weeks of Google's AI Overviews being widely available, it's that they're far from perfect. 

Google's AI has made lots of egregious and embarrassing errors, like suggesting users add glue to their pizza and eat rocks, which suggests (or rather, confirms) that the technology is very much still experimental. 

Google says these erratic answers are the exception, not the norm—and yes, it's possible some screenshots may have been doctored. But Google still has some work to do in the public eye to prove that their AI Overviews are trustworthy and accurate.

2. AI Overviews will push down high-ranking search results

A study by Authoritas found that when a user clicks on the SGE button or the Show more link, Google pushes the top-ranked search result down the page by an average of 1,255 pixels. 

For context, 1,255 pixels can be several scrolls down, especially on mobile devices, making it less likely that users will click on (or even see) high-ranking results. With AI Overviews now in position 0 (like Google's featured snippets), the coveted No. 1 spot on Google's search results page may no longer be as meaningful as it used to be. 

The real question (and one that I'm not sure anyone has answers to yet) is whether AI Overviews taking up that crucial top-of-the-page spot will help or hurt click-through rates (CTR) in the long run. AI Overviews do usually cite sources with links to relevant websites, and a rep for Google told Search Engine Land that the CTR for AI Overview link cards is actually higher than the CTR on normal web results. 

"As the accuracy of AI Overviews improves over time, I can see that impacting CTRs more negatively, potentially," said Kevin King, co-founder of content marketing and SEO agency TenSpeed. "But as long as Google includes links to publishers in the overview, there's going to be a potential performance boost, which is what everybody should be focused on."

Other industry experts are more skeptical, worried that Google's generative AI search will leech views that their websites otherwise would receive.

"If a summary or overview is provided in the search results, why would users click through to a site?" said Alan Muther, founder of digital marketing agency Ardoz Digital. "Google will need to strike a balance, using AI to enhance and speed up searches while still giving users a reason to visit websites and engage with the content we make. Those of us in the publishing and advertising sectors will be watching closely, as our livelihoods depend on site traffic."

3. AI Overviews will cover more queries over time

Currently, AI Overviews are only available for some searches. But according to research on Google's SGE by Search Engine Journal, this coverage is estimated to increase month over month. Preliminary research shows that anywhere from 64% to 91% of keywords can trigger generative AI search results, with some results suggesting that they appear more often with long-tail keywords.

As Google continues to refine and expand its generative AI search capabilities, it's almost guaranteed that we'll see more AI-powered Google search results over time. Even with their inaccuracies, they're here to stay.

4. People will still scroll through search results for deeper knowledge and human takes

Many of the experts I consulted agreed that AI Overviews won't spell the end of SEO or degrade search results overall. But they did note that more superficial content might feel the pinch.

"Gen AI will kill surface-level informational queries across almost all categories, but open up content marketers and businesses to demonstrate deep expertise," said Patrick Herbert, director of Singularity Digital

For Kevin King, this means that marketers and creators will shift away from comprehensive but shallow content toward lower-funnel topics that are more specific to their brand or product.

"My hope is that marketers will focus on content that's most important to their audience and not just relevant traffic," Kevin said. "Content focusing on owned data (like a data report or research report) that speaks to a specific industry will become even more important because AI can't create that content."

AI can summarize or regurgitate information very well, but it has its limitations. It can't replicate the nuance and expertise of lived experiences or data-driven results. And because of that, Google will up the ante for content creators to emphasize E-E-A-T (Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness).

"The content shift for businesses in response to gen AI will go from producing blog posts about basic skills to producing advanced content for their audience," said Patrick. "For example: 'how to automate your business' will now move to 'how to automate your business with monday.com.' These much more specific pieces of content are harder for AI to get right and harder for content farms to produce because they require real expertise or knowledge."

With AI Overviews, Google is changing the face of search—again

It's not that Google search is dead; no, it's very much alive. But it's also changing—as it always has been. Over the years, Google Search has evolved dramatically, consistently reshaping the way we access and interact with information. 

"The reality is that search is evolving," said Kevin. "It's gone through many changes before, and marketers have adapted to it, much like they will now."

Remember when featured snippets first appeared in 2016? Or "People also ask" in 2015? How about the integration of local search results, personalized search, voice search, and more? Each time Google has changed the search experience, it's made searches faster, smarter, and more relevant—and SEO strategies have always shifted to keep up.

Now, Google is pushing the boundaries again with AI Overviews and SGE. This isn't the end of search as we know it but rather a new chapter in its ongoing metamorphosis.

One thing remains constant: our insatiable curiosity. Even if enhanced by AI, search engines will always be powered by the very human quest for knowledge. As our questions keep evolving, so will the ways we find answers.

"Throughout my career, every algorithm update from Google has pushed me to improve what I do and find new angles. This one is no different in that regard," said digital marketer Carl Broadbent. "My advice? Don't fight it; figure out how to work with it. The needs and questions of real humans will always be there, and compelling, helpful answers from real experts will still matter greatly."

Related reading:

  • What is Google Gemini? What you need to know

  • The best large language models (LLMs)

  • How will AI change SEO content production?

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