Toothpaste, Tubes And Semantics: Is AI Chat Search? Who Cares?!


“Lots of toothpaste coming out of a toothpaste tube with the Google logo on it, digital art”

Last week, while working on a post about what the ads might look like inside chat-based search, I got a surprising note from the communications team at Google. I had emailed them asking for comment on ads inside Bard, which Google had announced earlier in the month. To be honest, I was expecting the polite “no comment” I ultimately did receive, but I also got this clarification:

[We] wouldn’t have anything additional to share from the Search POV, as Bard is a standalone AI interface and doesn’t sit within Search.

There’s a lot to unpack in that statement, even if you’ve haven’t spent a career decoding big tech company communications. I mean, I read Google’s blog post about Bard, watched their event where Bard was rolled out, and even read transcripts of their earnings report . I’m not a newbie when it comes to all this, and now here was Google telling me I got it all wrong. I responded with another question:

OK thanks. But…I’m confused. I thought Bard was Google’s answer to Bing Chat? It’s not a search product? What is it? 

OK, calling Bard Google’s “answer to Bing Chat” might have been a bit cheeky, but let’s be honest, that’s exactly what it was – Google rushed out a blog post about Bard one day before Microsoft’s announcement of BingChat, after all. And Microsoft has no problem calling its ChatGPT integration with Bing a search product – in fact, CEO Satya Nadella declared “a new day in search” during his rollout last month.

In other words, while Microsoft is happily framing AI chat as a search play, Google is gamely trying to stuff its Bard toothpaste back into the experimental AI tube.

Which takes us back to my email exchange with Google. Here’s the somewhat displeased response:

You can see in the blog that announced Bard, that it is a standalone conversational AI experiment using a lightweight version of LaMDA, our LLM which has been in the works at Google for years through our Research team. But to confirm, this isn’t a Search product.

So Bard’s not search, it’s … “a standalone conversational AI experiment.” I’ll let my email back to Google, which quotes from Google’s own blog post, explain my confusion:

I guess I conflated the two. Given it “draws on information from the web to provide fresh, high-quality responses” I just assumed it was a search product. I think many assume the same. I re-read that post, it’s still not obvious to me that they are distinct – to many, Google is just… Google!

I wasn’t alone in my confusion. In the past week both CNBC and Search Engine Land noted that Google’s somewhat pained distinction has befuddled not only most of the market, but even Google staffers, who peppered Google leadership with questions in the company’s weekly All Hands meeting last Friday. A battery of Google leaders all responded with some variation of search boss Elizabeth Reid’s answer – “Bard is really separate from search.”

 What’s really going on here? Technically, Google is certainly right. Bard is a (yet to be launched) research project that, from the company’s point of view, is no more connected to its core search product than is its Calico life sciences unit. Its leaders don’t report to the leaders of the search division (they “don’t sit in search,” so how could anyone think it’s actually a search product!?).

While that’s accurate, it’s also irrelevant. Normal people (and most journalists) would see that objection as a distinction without a difference. Bard is a Google project, Google is the world’s premier search destination, and if A equals B, then…Bard is a search product. Plus, Microsoft calls its Chat-based AI bot a search product, so….

But Google has persisted with this “Bard is not search” framing for weeks, which tells me there’s more going on here than just a frustration with org charts and semantics. It’s clear Google is deeply concerned that its core product – its potentially imperiled cash cow, as I wrote last week –  might be in some way tainted through association with this new class of AI chatbots.

Does this mean Google knows something we don’t? Has Google determined that mixing large language models and search is a loser from a consumer standpoint, so it’s distancing itself and letting Microsoft overplay its hand? Or is Google’s infamously conservative corporate culture getting in its own way?

I honestly have no idea, but these strike me as a pretty important set of questions. In the end, consumers will determine what AI chatbots are good for – and I’m pretty sure that whatever they end up doing with them, we’ll end up calling it by a familiar name: Search.

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