Google might make users pay for AI features in search results

You think this cute little search robot is going to work for free?
Enlarge / You think this cute little search robot is going to work for free?

Google might start charging for access to search results that use generative artificial intelligence tools. That’s according to a new Financial Times report citing “three people with knowledge of [Google’s] plans.”

Charging for any part of the search engine at the core of its business would be a first for Google, which has funded its search product solely with ads since 2000. But it’s far from the first time Google would charge for AI enhancements in general; the “AI Premium” tier of a Google One subscription costs $10 more per month than a standard “Premium” plan, for instance, while “Gemini Business” adds $20 a month to a standard Google Workspace subscription.

While those paid products offer access to Google’s high-end “Gemini Advanced” AI model, Google also offers free access to its less performant, plain “Gemini” model without any kind of paid subscription.

When ads aren’t enough?

Under the proposed plan, Google’s standard search (without AI) would remain free, and subscribers to a paid AI search tier would still see ads alongside their Gemini-powered search results, according to the FT report. But search ads—which brought in a reported $175 billion for Google last year—might not be enough to fully cover the increased costs involved with AI-powered search. A Reuters report from last year suggested that running a search query through an advanced neural network like Gemini “likely costs 10 times more than a standard keyword search,” potentially representing “several billion dollars of extra costs” across Google’s network.

Cost aside, it remains to be seen if there’s a critical mass of market demand for this kind of AI-enhanced search. Microsoft’s massive investment in generative AI features for its Bing search engine has failed to make much of a dent in Google’s market share over the last year or so. And there has reportedly been limited uptake for Google’s experimental opt-in “Search Generative Experience” (SGE), which adds chatbot responses above the usual set of links in response to a search query.

“SGE never feels like a useful addition to Google Search,” Ars’ Ron Amadeo wrote last month. “Google Search is a tool, and just as a screwdriver is not a hammer, I don’t want a chatbot in a search engine.”

Regardless, the current tech industry mania surrounding anything and everything related to generative AI may make Google feel it has to integrate the technology into some sort of “premium” search product sooner rather than later. For now, FT reports that Google hasn’t made a final decision on whether to implement the paid AI search plan, even as Google engineers work on the backend technology necessary to launch such a service

Google also faces AI-related difficulties on the other side of the search divide. Last month, the company announced it was redoubling its efforts to limit the appearance of “spammy, low-quality content”—much of it generated by AI chatbots—in its search results.

In February, Google shut down the image generation features of its Gemini AI model after the service was found inserting historically inaccurate examples of racial diversity into some of its prompt responses.

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