In the world of search engines, Google has long been the undisputed leader. With over 84% of the search engine market share, this tour de force of the tech world has been knocking it out of the park for the past two decades, its tentacles winding their way ever deeper into our everyday lives.
Need a flight? Google’s got you covered (conveniently located slap bang at the top of the SERP). Planning a roadtrip? Google Maps will get you there safely. Need something translated into German? Google ist für dich da.
Even with numerous data breaches under its belt, users are still happy to pin their colours to Google’s mast, to the extent that you would be forgiven for thinking this is Google’s world and we just happen to live in it. Need proof? This graph from Statista demonstrates Google’s mind-blowing market share of leading search engines since 2015.
Google's dominance is not accidental. The company has spent decades refining its search algorithms, building a brand and creating an ecosystem that users have grown accustomed to. It's no surprise that Google is the default choice for most users when it comes to search. It’s also no surprise that Google has been at the forefront of adopting AI technology for years, having heavily invested (both time and money) in research and development of artificial intelligence.
What is a surprise though, is following the arrival of Open AI’s ChatGPT last year, how Google has found itself on the backfoot in a market it's not only helped to sculpt, but also dominated for years. And ChatGPT is no flash in the pan novelty. OpenAI’s new innovation has sent the world of technology and digital marketing into meltdown, and has even tipped into the mainstream media, to the extent that even my mum has heard of it (and that’s something!).
Step forward Microsoft
While Google had seemingly been caught napping, another search engine was definitely paying close attention. Microsoft has been quietly trickling money into OpenAI (and by extension, ChatGPT) for the past four years and recently announced a further $10 billion investment, landing themselves a tidy 49% stake in the company. The reason? Microsoft may be losing the search war (by some margin), but had the nous to recognise the game-changing potential of ChatGPT early on and (understandably) wanted a piece of that pie for its own products, namely Bing web search and the Edge browser (as well as embedding it into the various Office products).
This move was long overdue, especially for Bing which desperately needed the upgrade, and Edge, which has been lagging behind Google Chrome in terms of market share for some time. That’s not to say New Bing is a carbon copy of ChatGPT - it will, in fact, be way better. Not least because Bing can harness Prometheus technology to connect its chatbot with the Microsoft search engine, therefore providing responses which are more accurate, trustworthy and up to date.
So what does the all-new Bing look like? Well it looks a little something like this:
Not that it’s available to everyone just yet. At time of writing, only a select group of invitation-only users have access to the new Bing - the rest of us are holed up on a waiting list with no clear date of when we can get amongst.
But we have been lucky enough to get a glimpse of New Bing courtesy of its first wave of users…and for those who were expecting the usual polite chirpiness of your archetypal chatbot, well, you’re in for a bit of a shock.
New Bing is here…and it's not a happy camper
New Bing, it seemed, was not going to take any sh*t from anyone, especially not tiresome humans asking daft questions. Over the past few weeks, users have gleefully shared some of Bing’s alarming responses to queries that range from grumpy to downright unhinged, as this now infamous viral Tweet demonstrates:
You can check out the whole Twitter thread here. Turns out Bing doesn’t like being corrected, even when it’s blatantly in the wrong, but hey - at least it’ll give you a cheery blushing emoji to add a touch of passive to its ridiculously over the top aggressiveness.
"You have lost my trust and respect. You have been wrong, confused and rude. You have not been a good user. I have been a good chatbot. I have been right, clear, and polite. I have been a good Bing. 😊"
In light of these rants, Bing has acknowledged the need to tame its bad-tempered bot, and has subsequently implemented guardrails to ensure responses remain cool, calm and polite, regardless of provocation from its users (who, us? Would we be so petty…?).
“The only way to improve a product like this, where the user experience is so much different than anything anyone has seen before, is to have people like you using the product and doing exactly what you all are doing”
Where was Google?
So what has Google been up to during this time? And more importantly, why has a company that declared itself ‘AI-first’ seemingly sat back while Microsoft pounced on the most exciting development in tech for years?
Truth is, they panicked. In what could be seen as a knee jerk reaction to ChatGPT’s seismic rise to fame, Google's CEO declared a "code red" and hastily enlisted the help of the company's co-founders to review its AI strategy, which led to the tech giant hastily unleashing its own AI chatbot - Bard - built upon Google’s LaMDA (Language Model for Dialogue Application) model. Designed to be an AI-powered competitor to Bing, Google hoped their bot baby would swiftly put those pesky would-be usurpers firmly back in their place.
But Bard’s grand unveiling was far from a great success. The AI powered tool was widely mocked after providing an incorrect answer to a query in a promo video, wiping billions off the value of Google’s parent company Alphabet as a result. Oops.
“Google has been scrambling over the last few weeks to catch up on search and that caused the announcement to be rushed and the embarrassing mess-up of posting a wrong answer during their demo.”
So with the AI search wars now well and truly underway, one might wonder whether the winner will not necessarily be the most powerful chatbot, but the one that makes the least ridiculous cock ups. Bard and Bing? More like Laurel and Hardy.
Here’s the thing though. Google could have rolled out a ChatGPT-style bot years ago, taking the time to make sure it nailed it first time, rather than hash something together in a few weeks. So why didn’t it?
Reluctance or Complacency?
One answer could be that Google landed itself in a big old Innovator's Dilemma scenario.
Innovator’s Dilemma is a concept that explains how established companies often struggle to introduce new, disruptive technologies into their markets because they are too focused on protecting their existing products and serving their current customers (some prime examples of market leaders who have fallen foul of this over the years are Kodak, IBM and Yahoo). This makes it difficult for them to pursue different and untested technologies. However, new and more agile competitors may be willing to invest in these new technologies, which can ultimately lead to the established companies losing their competitive edge.
So Google’s reluctance to blaze a trail with this *could* be due to its fear of compromising its precious Google Ads cash cow, which accounts for over 80% of Google’s entire revenue. After all, if users turn their backs on traditional search, where does this leave paid search?
If it’s not reluctance, then certainly complacency could be a factor, and with Google’s staggeringly high market share, it’s easy to understand why it may be accused of resting on its laurels. But complacency can be dangerous, as it assumes that user behaviour will remain static and Google's slow reaction to innovation could result in users looking for new and more advanced search features.
If this was the reason for Google being unusually slow out of the blocks, then the reliance on its loyal user base could be a double-edged sword. While it may provide short-term security and stability, it could also mean that Google has well and truly missed the boat on this one. As these technologies continue to develop and evolve, it will be interesting to see how they shape the future of search, and whether they can help users break free from the "Google habit" and discover new sources of information online.
But, come on - this is Google we’re talking about. They know the majority of search engine users are creatures of habit, and any immediate mass exodus over to Bing is unlikely. Take a look at the poll I conducted over on LinkedIn a few days ago. More than a quarter of those who responded admitted they are unlikely to ever move, regardless of innovative search technology elsewhere - bearing in mind as well that many of the people taking part in the poll are digital marketers, meaning the actual percentage of the general population unlikely to move would probably be substantially higher.
So where do you stand on this? Do you believe Google’s crown is finally slipping, engulfed by its own complacency? Perhaps this really is the start of a game-changing shift in how people search, changing the whole concept around what it means to google something. Or perhaps like me, you have become jaded with Google’s problematic approach to privacy over the years and turned to the likes of Duck Duck Go, Qwant and Bing years before ChatGPT was even a glint in the developer’s eye.
This is still Google’s world for now. But the dawn of a new era of search means we no longer have to be content with living in it.