Google turns 25 this year. Can you imagine? It’s only 25 — yet it’s almost impossible to recall life without being able to just Google it, without immediate access to answers. Google Search is everywhere, all the time; the unspoken background of every problem, every debate, every curiosity.
Google Search is so useful and so pervasive that its overwhelming influence on our lives is also strangely invisible: Google’s grand promise was to organize the world’s information, but over the past quarter century, an enormous amount of the world’s information has been organized for Google — to rank in Google results. Almost everything you encounter on the web — every website, every article, every infobox — has been designed in ways that makes them easy for Google to understand. In many cases, the internet has become more parseable by search engines than it is by humans.
We live in an information ecosystem whose design is dominated by the needs of the Google Search machine — a robot whose beneficent gaze can create entire industries just as easily as its cool indifference can destroy them.
This robot has a priesthood and a culture all to itself: an ecosystem of search-engine-optimization experts who await every new proclamation from Google with bated breath and scurry about interpreting those proclamations into rituals and practices as liturgical as any religion. You know why the recipe blogs all have 2,000 words of copy before the actual recipe? The Google robot wants it that way. You know why every publisher is putting bios next to author bylines on article pages? The robot wants it that way. All those bold subheadings in the middle of articles asking random questions? That’s how Google answers those questions on the search results page. Google is the most meaningful source of traffic on the web, and so now the web looks more like a structured database for search instead of anything made for actual people.
And yet, it keeps working. Google is so dominant that the European Union has spent a decade launching aggressive interventions into the user experience of computers to create competition in search and effectively failed… because our instinct is to always just Google it. People love asking Google questions, and Google loves making money by answering them.
And yet, 25 years on, Google Search faces a series of interlocking AI-related challenges that together represent an existential threat to Google itself.
The first is a problem of Google’s own making: the SEO monster has eaten the user experience of search from the inside out. Searching the web for information is an increasingly user-hostile experience, an arbitrage racket run by search-optimized content sharks running an ever-changing series of monetization hustles with no regard for anything but collecting the most pennies at the biggest scale. AI-powered content farms focused on high-value search terms like heat-seeking missiles are already here; Google is only now catching up, and its response to them will change how it sends traffic around the web in momentous ways.
That leads to the second problem, which is that chat-based search tools like Microsoft’s Bing and Google’s own Bard represent something that feels like the future of search, without any of the corresponding business models or revenue that Google has built up over the past 25 years. If Google Search continues to degrade in quality, people will switch to better options — a switch that venture-backed startups and well-funded competitors like Microsoft are more than happy to subsidize in search of growth, but which directly impacts Google’s bottom line. At the same time, Google’s paying tens of billions annually to device makers like Apple and Samsung to be the default search engine on phones. Those deals are up for renewal, and there will be no pity for Google’s margins in these negotiations.
On top of that, the generative AI boom is built on an expansive interpretation of copyright law, as all of these companies hoover up data from the open web in order to train their models. Google was an original innovator here: as a startup, the company aggressively pushed the boundaries of intellectual property law and told itself and investors that the inevitable legal fees and fines were simply the cost of building Search and YouTube into monopolies. The resulting case law and settlement deals created the legal architecture of the web as we know it — an information ecosystem that allows for things like indexing and the use of image thumbnails without payment.
But the coming wave of AI lawsuits and regulations will be very different. Google won’t be the scrappy upstart pitching an obviously world-altering utility to judges and regulators who’ve never used the internet. It is now one of the richest and most influential corporations in the world, a fat target for creatives, politicians, and cynical rent-seekers alike. It will face a fractured legal landscape, both around the world and increasingly in our own country. All of that early Google-driven internet precedent is up for grabs — and if things go even slightly differently this time around, the web will look very different than it does today.
Oh, and then there’s the hardest challenge of all: Google, famously scattershot in its product launches and quick to abandon things, has to stay focused on a new product and actually develop a meaningful replacement to search without killing it in a year and starting over.
This is not a prediction of imminent doom, or any particular doom at all: Google is a well-run company full of very smart people, and Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai is as thoughtful and sharp as any leader in tech. But it is a dead-certain prediction of change — these are the first serious challenges to search in two decades, and the challenges are real. The extent to which Google Search might change as the company reacts to those challenges is enormous, and any change to Google Search will alter our relationship to the internet in momentous ways. And yet, the cultural influence of Google Search is invisible to most people, even as Search arrives at the precipice.
It’s easy to see the effect some tech products have had on our lives — it’s easy to talk about smartphones and streaming services and dating apps. But Google Search is a black hole: one of the most lucrative businesses in world history, but somehow impossible to see clearly. As Google faces its obstacles head-on, the seams holding the invisible architecture of the web together are starting to show. It’s time to talk about what 25 years of Google Search has done to our culture and talk about what might happen next. It’s time to look right at it and say it’s there.
We’re going to be doing that for the rest of the year in a series of stories that starts today with a look at Google’s influence over the media business — influence that led to something called AMP. We’ll also be looking at the world of SEO hustlers as the party comes to a close and take a look at the ecosystem of small businesses content-farming to stay afloat. We’ll show you how Google’s influence shapes the design of almost all the web pages you see, and investigate why it’s so hard to build a competing search engine.
For 25 years, Google Search has held the web together. Let’s make sure we understand what that meant before it all falls apart.