Thirteen years ago this Fall, I found myself backstage at the Web2 Summit, a conference I ran for nearly ten years with Tim O’Reilly. Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, had just wandered in, asking if it’d be cool if he joined me onstage for an impromptu conversation. Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, Google’s Marissa Mayers, AOL’s Tim Armstrong, Twitter’s Ev Williams and Microsoft’s Yusuf Medhi had already come and gone, and it seemed Sergey wanted to put a bow on the proceedings.
It had already been a whirlwind week of search-related announcements. In 2009, all anyone could talk about was the rise of Facebook and Twitter. The “social graph” was reshaping the technology industry, and every company, large and small, was racing to capitalize on the trend. The day before Sergey’s unplanned visit, Mayer had surprised everyone by announcing “social search” – in essence, a hasty integration of Facebook and Twitter results into Google’s main SERPs (search engine result pages). The move was a clear response to a much more calculated move by Microsoft’s Bing engine, which the day before had announced its own social search integration (which it called “real time search”) with Twitter and Facebook.
All of this came to a head in one week – and I had a backstage pass to each company’s machinations as they attempted to spin and win the day’s headlines.
Well folks, this week it’s happening again. Substitute “generative AI” for “social graph” and you get the picture. The Web2 conference is now history, but both Microsoft and Google are hosting their own events this week to showcase, once again, how their search engines are integrating the Valley’s hottest new trend.
According to several folks who’ve received invitations, today and tomorrow Microsoft will be briefing a select group of journalists and pundits on its plans to integrate OpenAI’s ChatGPT into Bing. The following day, February 8th, Google will hold an event in Paris showcasing “using the power of AI to reimagine how people search for, explore and interact with information”(you can join the livestream here).
A lot has changed in 13 years – “social search” ended up … not mattering. In time, Google and Microsoft both realized that directing substantial traffic to Facebook and Twitter might not be in their best interests. Microsoft turned its attention back to enterprise markets and largely sat out the battles between Google and Facebook for domination of the attention economy. Bing stayed Bing, plodding along at roughly 5 to 10 percent of share. Turns out integrating the hot new technology wasn’t nearly as profitable as building walled gardens that kept it at bay. Which gives me a bit of pause – I wonder if a decade from now, we’ll have largely forgotten this week’s flurry of news about the integration of generative AI into search?
Only time will tell. But if we’re looking for context around what will certainly be a tsunami of hot takes on the future of tech this week, listening to history’s echoing rhymes might be a good place to start.
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