Google now wants to answer your questions without links and with AI. Where does that leave publishers?

If you stick around long enough, even the most exotic future turns into the present.

At least that’s what I thought when I remembered an old piece I wrote here at Nieman Lab all the way back in 2011 — one that seems newly relevant today.

It was about an on-stage interview that then-Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt gave to Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher at what was then the annual All Things Digital conference. They cover a lot of then-hot topics, from Google losing to Facebook on “the friend thing” to whether it should buy Twitter. But there’s one stretch that stood out, then and now, as having outsized importance to news companies.

Mossberg started out by ragging on the declining quality of Google’s search results:

The debates (and lawsuits) around the ethics of AI-generated images ask similar questions. (Though training an image AI to learn the style of an artist seems distinct from training a chat AI to take specific facts from a publication. “How do you write a city council story?” ≠ “What did city council do last night?”) Does this sort of amalgamation differ, legally or ethically, from the indexing of content that search engines have always done? As publishers around the world have sought hush money, er, I mean compensation from Google, the company’s reply has been simple: But we send you all this traffic! Does the conversation change as that becomes decreasingly true? Or will Google, seeing that risk, decide to focus on the more strategic universe of non-local information, reasoning the legal and PR risks are lower when you’re summarizing Wikipedia than The Hometown Gazette?

Who knows? Not me. 2011 me didn’t know either:

These things aren’t right around the corner — they quickly get to be really complicated AI problems. But they all point to the fact that Google is working hard to reduce the number of times searchers need to leave to get answers to their questions. For all the times that Google has said it’s not in the content business, it’s not hard to imagine a future where its mission to “organize the world’s information” goes way beyond spidering and linking and into algorithmically processing for answers instead of PageRank.

That — much more than news organizations’ previous complaints about Google — could put real pressure on the business models of news websites. It challenges ideas of how to navigate the link economy and what concepts like search engine optimization, fair use, and aggregation mean. And it sure looked like Schmidt pointed the way last night.

A dozen years later, all these questions are becoming more than rhetorical.

Illustration — because we live in an irony-free zone — by Midjourney AI.

Not to mention the role external traffic plays in lead generation for paid products like subscriptions.Note I didn’t specify which stimulus package.

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