Michelle’s Google Usage Is Down 60 Percent. Discuss.


Uh oh, Google.

On Sunday The New York Times reported that Google is furiously working to incorporate conversational AI into its core search products – not exactly news, but there was a larger takeaway: Google has got to get some killer AI products out the door, and fast, or it risks losing its core users for good. And if my own family is any indication, the company is already imperiled. More on that below, but first, a bit more on the Times piece.

The article led with big news: Samsung may decamp from Google and partner with Microsoft’s Bing instead. This would be a major blow both financially as well as optically – Samsung’s commitment to Android is a key reason Google’s mobile platform towers over Apple’s iOS in terms of worldwide market share.

But the real partnership to watch is Google’s deal with Apple itself. Estimated at $20 billion annually, this deal ensures that Google’s core search engine is the default on more than 1 billion iOS devices. If Google loses that deal to Microsoft, the entire tech world will be re-ordered. For now, Wall Street seems to think the deal isn’t in jeopardy (the stock price is a handy gauge), but even the speculation that Google might lose Apple leaves Apple with an extraordinary amount of leverage for the balance of this year (details are thin as to when the deal actually renews, but analysts think it’s late 2023).

The short of it is this: Google’s got to respond, and soon – or it risks losing its most important distribution deals, and by extension, its most profitable customers.

Then again, if my wife Michelle is representative of a larger swath of Internet users, Google’s got a fight on its hands today – not sometime in the future should Samsung or Apple decide to bolt. And it’s not Bing that’s winning – it’s ChatGPT. Yes, ChatGPT had “only” 1.6 billion visits in March, roughly 1% of Google’s totals. But that’s up from 1 billion in February, and with compounding growth like that, it won’t be long before Google’s facade of immutability starts to crack.

Given all this, the Times piece reads as obvious – of course Google is rushing to “incorporate AI into search” – but what will those products really look like? For answers, it makes sense to look at how regular folks are using GPT-driven products. And while my own habits haven’t really changed yet, I can’t say the same for others in my orbit. Perhaps the most interesting of the bunch is – caveat alert – the aforementioned Michelle.*

Unlike me and probably most of you, my wife is not an early adopter of tech products and services. We were a decade into our marriage before she started regularly checking her personal email, and she pretty much skipped the Facebook and Twitter phases of early Web 2. Like all of us she quickly picked up the smart phone habit, but she has something like 1000 unread emails and texts, which is incomprehensible to me – I can’t sleep until my inbox has less than ten messages, and I respond to (or delete) texts almost instantaneously.

Michelle does use Instagram pretty regularly – more to browse than to post, and she’s a sophisticated user of the “rest of the Internet” – which means she’s a pretty seasoned Google user. Until recently, Google has been her main window to the Web – the glue that held together hours of weekly research into whatever she was working on at a given time.

That’s all changed in the past few months – and if Michelle represents the average Google user, it’s no wonder folks in Mountain View are “freaking out,” to quote a source in the Times‘ recent report.

Here’s why. A few months ago Michelle started playing around with ChatGPT, first just to see what the fuss was about, but more recently in a focused and highly utilitarian way. Put in crass, commercial terms, ChatGPT converted her. Michelle has several information-intensive projects going at any given time in areas ranging from real estate to documentaries, food to finance. Before ChatGPT, she’d start her work inside Google – asking the search engine to answer a simple query, then refining and re-searching – over and over – until her browser was crowded with dozens of opened and often unread tabs.

This process of culling insight and knowledge from an infinite and maddening list of blue links is familiar to anyone who uses Google, in particular on a desktop machine where there’s plenty of real estate for multiple browser windows and tabs. In essence, Google acts as a kind of real time Memex – a temporary** and fragile thread holding our research efforts together. At some point it becomes our job to make sense of all those open tabs and windows, a process I’ve come to call internet bricolage.

Then again, sometimes we’ll just give up in frustration and leave the whole mess behind. Whenever I happen to be using Michelle’s laptop I’ve noticed windows with 20 or more tabs open, and I’ll ask if I should close them out. “Oh no,” she’ll say. “I need those, I might get back to that…”

But when Michelle uses ChatGPT, the service essentially inverts all that bricolage, confidently offering a summary based on orders of magnitude more input, a crisp response that feels magical compared to the sludge of a typical Google search session. It’s addictive, and it’s changed Michelle’s habits completely.

Before ChatGPT, Michelle used Google for many hours each week. But after, her use of Google has plummeted more than 50 percent. Interestingly, her engagement with certain trusted publications and websites has increased.

I asked Michelle how her usage had shifted in these previously Google-dominated kinds of searches, and we worked up this chart:

In short, Google’s down dramatically, ChatGPT now takes more than a third of her time, random web sites have receded, and “trusted” sites – she often will ask ChatGPT which sites to trust – have skyrocketed.

All of this has some pretty interesting implications for the Internet (and for the advertising that supports it), if Michelle’s usage is anything like the rest of the world’s. In my next post, I’ll go into specifics about how Michelle uses ChatGPT, and what some of those implications might be.

*I know, I know, never write a story using your family, or a cabbie, as your source. Fortunately, I don’t have editors and this is a blog post. 

**It’s crazy that Google doesn’t remember search streams over time, a presumptive feature of ChatGPT. 

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