Google's looming AI integration into Search should scare the hell out of Microsoft

Google Search and AI
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Ever since Microsoft launched its ChatGPT-enhanced Bing search engine, all eyes have turned to Google, waiting for the search giant to respond in kind. And it did, sort of, with limited access to its Bard chatbot but virtually no actual integration with Google Search. Now, however, there is a plan and it's only a matter of time until the Atlas of Search shrugs and AI Bing slides off or tenaciously holds on and dukes it out.

Speaking to The Wall St. Journal this week, Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai offered the clearest picture yet of Google's chatbot plans for its popular search engine. Granted, they're not detailed and there is no timeline for this integration but at least we now know Google is serious about bringing this nascent large language model (LLM) together with the awesome power of its Google Knowledge Graph.

Here's Pichai's money quote: “Will people be able to ask questions to Google and engage with LLMs in the context of search? Absolutely.”

The idea here is to still search as you do every day by asking Google everything from a single word to a full sentence query and, after that first response, engage with a Google Chat AI - maybe Bard or something like Bard - in a conversational back-and-forth to find your answer.

Pichai told The Wall St. Journal that Google is already testing products that work just like this.

While Pichai doesn't offer timelines, it's safe to assume that Google will at least dip its toe into the search/chat AI mashup waters during its Google I/O 2023 conference keynote on May 10. I don't see how Google can hold its biggest and most forward-looking event of the year without offering at least a hint of what's in store for Google Search users.

Seriously, what choice does Google have after being all but embarrassed by Microsoft and Bing AI, and on its own Search home court?

"[Definitely] we should not count them out," Tech analyst and Creative Strategies President Carolina Milanesi told me, but she's not so sure about Google I/O. "[I'm] not sure if I/O is the best event to talk about search, as it is not necessarily a focus for developers."

However, Milanese agrees that Google might at least show it. Doing so would help Google at least save some face.

Pichai didn't admit to the Journal that the company was caught flat-footed and that it was forced to rush out the still invite-only Bard but he did grant that while Google was still trying to figure out what to ship, things like ChatGPT-enhanced Bing happened and, he told the Journal, "maybe timelines changed, given the moment in the industry.”

Google's AI ambitions are backed up by its enormous data and research advantage

Google may be behind in a race that now includes OpenAI's ChatGPT and the GPT-4 LLM behind it and Bing AI, but no one is counting out Google. 

First of all, Google still owns roughly 90% of all search engine traffic (and all the ad dollars that come with it). Second, its parent company Alphabet has not one but two AI groups (Google Brain and DeepMind) now combing research efforts. Put all that together with what is without question the best knowledge graph in the world and upstarts like Bing and ChatGPT should be nervous.

Google may have taken a couple of false steps on the way to get here but what comes next is almost guaranteed to be a search game changer. The question is can Google control the urge to fight now when it's perhaps not quite ready or will it tease us at Google I/O and then, some months later, release its most striking search engine update ever? 

I'm putting my money on the latter.

Milanese more or less agrees with me here, too "...I think rolling it out might take a little longer not because of the tech but because of the implications to the business model."

Ultimately, Google must show something related to AI chat-enhanced search at I/O, if only to remind everyone watching that they are still very much in this game and, yes, should be feared.

Lance Ulanoff
Editor At Large

A 38-year industry veteran and award-winning journalist, Lance has covered technology since PCs were the size of suitcases and “on line” meant “waiting.” He’s a former Lifewire Editor-in-Chief, Mashable Editor-in-Chief, and, before that, Editor in Chief of and Senior Vice President of Content for Ziff Davis, Inc. He also wrote a popular, weekly tech column for Medium called The Upgrade.

Lance Ulanoff makes frequent appearances on national, international, and local news programs including Live with Kelly and Ryan, the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNBC, CNN, and the BBC.