The emerging world of AI-powered search

News publishers need to be ready for changes in search habits brought on by AI


Every year, a meteorologically-obsessed groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil emerges from his temporary home on Gobbler’s Knob to deliver a six-week weather forecast that people across the country really seem to care about.

As part of my day job as a staff writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer, I’ve covered Phil’s prediction for the past few years, and I’m constantly floored by the amount of interest the tiny marmot garners.

For each of the past three years, the Inquirer’s version of the story “Did he see his shadow?” has been read by tens of thousands of readers, most of whom were sent by Google. In 2023 alone, our coverage garnered north of 150,000 pageviews.

Then something strange happened last month. It is the same story and the same level of interest, but traffic was down by more than 76% from previous years.

There are a million reasons this could’ve happened. Shifting algorithms on Google means every search play is a game of roulette. But the Inquirer wasn’t alone — other newsrooms across Pennsylvania and the Delaware Valley experienced a similar drop in search traffic for Phil’s annual weather prediction.

So, what gives?

After doing some digging, Torin Sweeney, an SEO editor at the Inquirer, landed on a potential reason for the traffic dive — Google’s featured snippet, which uses information from a website to answer a user’s question without ever needing to click through.

“On Groundhog Day, people are looking for a simple answer to a simple question: Did the groundhog see its shadow?” Sweeney said. “When Google pulls the answer from a story and shows it at the top of the results page, users’ search journeys end without a single click.”

This is the future newsrooms need to plan for. Even as referral traffic from social media websites like Facebook and X has plummeted, search traffic has remained a consistent source of readers to news organizations. The Wall Street Journal analyzed data from SimilarWeb and determined that Google generates nearly 40% of traffic to web publishers “across the media world.”

Carl Holden, the creative director of the SEO agency Zellus Marketing, said “search” is being replaced by “ask,” with Google and other tech companies answering questions with content they’ve pulled and scraped from across the internet.

“Brands must gear up for a future infused with generative AI,” Holden wrote. “The transition from search to ask is not just imminent; it’s here.”

Supercharging this shift is the development of large language models like ChatGPT, which use technology everyone has decided to describe as “artificial intelligence” to digest millions of pages of content and spit out answers to internet users. (Emily Bender, a computational linguist at the University of Washington, prefers the term “stochastic parrots” because they mimic words without understanding them.)

Regardless of how we refer to it, AI is now powering an upheaval of the search economy that could devastate news publishers desperately needing good news. For the first time since it became the world’s largest search engine in 2000, Google’s dominance in the search market is facing a serious threat.

One of the challengers, Perplexity, shoots back short, AI-generated responses to direct questions like “When is the first Phillies spring training game?” or “Best Mexican grocery store in Newark, Delaware.” A feature called copilot also helps you ask follow-up questions to refine your results.

I prompted Perplexity, “Uber drivers striking in Philadelphia,” and it accurately summed up a story the Inquirer and several other news outlets reported last month about a planned Valentine’s Day strike, all in 100 easy-to-consume words.

Is it perfect? No. Is it pretty useful? Of course. But it comes at a terrible cost to publishers, as Perplexity browses websites for readers and gives them all the information they’re looking for without ever needing to click through.

New York Times technology columnist Kevin Roose used the Perplexity search engine for several weeks and came away with the unsettling feeling that AI search products could destroy his job and cause the entire digital media industry to collapse.

“If AI search engines can reliably summarize what’s happening in Gaza or tell users which toaster to buy, why would anyone visit a publisher’s website ever again?” Roose wrote. “Why would journalists, bloggers and product reviewers continue to put their work online if an AI search engine is just going to gobble it up and regurgitate it?”

Perplexity isn’t alone in attempting to challenge Google. Last month, the Browser Company rolled out Arc Search on the iPhone, an AI-powered search tool that summarizes user search results. Or, as they put it, a “browser that browses for you.”

I asked Arc Search about a special election in Pennsylvania last month, and it presented a pleasantly laid-out page listing the winner, the impact of the final results and even the history of previous elections in that district. The tool also wasn’t afraid to note what it didn’t know, such as voter turnout numbers.

Controversially, Arc Search blocks ads and cookies if users click through to a publisher’s website. As Engadget and others have reported, the move has drawn a fair amount of backlash from publishers for obvious reasons.

“Web creators are trying to share their knowledge and get supported while doing so,” Ben Goodger, a software engineer who helped create both Chrome and Firefox, wrote on X. “I get how this helps users. How does it help creators? Without them, there is no web…”

Google itself is going down this AI-powered road with its Search Generative Experience experiment, which began rolling out in May to users who opted in. However, it has gone beyond search to allow users to create images from a simple text prompt.

“What’s happening in Philadelphia?” returned a bullet list of stories that sounded like the evening news, focusing on shootings and a fire. Some results, like “Traditional Pennsylvania Dutch sweet treats on Fat Tuesday,” seemed silly to summarize without a hyperlink.

Google’s AI-powered search didn’t have answers for everything, at least not yet. Some results, such as “What is in the spending bill for Ukraine,” returned the message “An AI-powered overview is not available for this search.” Instead, a featured snippet summarized part of an Associated Press story.

If all of this is making you feel queasy, then you’re not alone. Newsrooms across the country are unsurprisingly freaked out over the potential consequences of AI-powered search becoming the dominant way internet users look for information.

Google has said it remains committed to driving traffic to publishers, and vice president Liz Read told The Wall Street Journal that any estimates about the loss of search traffic due to AI-powered tools “are entirely speculative.”

That’s not exactly reassuring. On the bright side, both Perplexity and Arc Search did well listing potential jobs for a writer whose job was eliminated by AI.

Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor and writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach him at


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