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A Googlepocalypse is sweeping the United States – and its devastating effects are on their way to Ireland

Hugh Linehan: The link economy is dying, and with it an entire ecosystem that supported content creation and communication is coming to an end

Not for the first time, a Googlepocalypse is sweeping the United States’ media and content-publishing industries, with devastating effects. If it’s happening there, it’ll happen here pretty soon. And if you think it won’t impact you then you don’t understand the real forthcoming culture war, the one between a handful of enormous companies battling for hegemony in a world mediated by and filtered through generative artificial intelligence (AI).

The introduction of a pilot version of Google’s AI Overviews tool in the US has already significantly harmed publishers’ organic search traffic and ad revenue. The tool, powered by Google’s Gemini AI, crawls the web and comes back with an answer to your query without you ever having to click on a link. As a result, some publishers are already seeing a decline of up to 60 per cent in organic search traffic, which translates to an estimated $2 billion (€1.8 billion) in lost ad revenue.

The fall in search traffic comes on top of a collapse in traffic from social-media platforms across the world. Figures from the web analytics company Chartbeat show that aggregate Facebook traffic to 792 news and media sites that it was tracking has halved in the past 12 months. Facebook referrals to media sites are now a quarter of what they were in 2018. Elon Musk’s decision to hide visible links on X posts and algorithmically downgrade posts with links in the platform’s For You feed has seen referrals from X fall off a cliff as well.

Anyone trying to console themselves that Facebook and Twitter/X are old and irrelevant should note that Instagram and TikTok were designed from the beginning to keep users within their apps and discourage external referrals.

The link economy is dying, and with it an entire ecosystem that supported content creation and communication is coming to an end. The collapse in social traffic is already causing media companies to double down on their efforts to build different routes to audiences, such as newsletters and podcasts. But they’re still under huge pressure; there have been thousands of lay-offs in US media already this year.

The decision by social-media platforms to get out of the links business is entirely rational. Google’s move to get out of search (or at least search as we’ve known it for the past quarter-century) may seem more puzzling for a company that currently makes its money from selling ad slots on its own search-results pages and as an intermediary in the buying and selling of online ads on pages across the web.

In one sense AI Overviews is just a logical extension of services we’ve already become familiar with: the snippets of text that often make it unnecessary to go to the source of the information; the search for a film that gives you the screening times in your area without your ever having to leave the Googleverse. These chip away at Google’s long-standing defence against accusations that it was profiting off the hard work of others. Not at all, it insisted. It was merely indexing the world’s information and driving eyeballs to the creators of the best original content.

Google maintains that it continues to drive traffic to the links it provides below AI Overview’s answers, but really it’s not trying very hard to push back against the criticism, because it’s perfectly clear what is going on. The replacement of search indexes by AI-generated answers to queries has been correctly described as an extinction-level event for a news-media industry that struggled for two decades to optimise audience reach via search and social media.

Many were well aware of the dangers of relying on platforms over which they had no control and whose priorities were often diametrically opposed to their own. But they believed they had no choice. Many have tried to pivot away from the open web towards the subscription model, but how do potential subscribers find you without search and social sharing? Meanwhile, sites that depend purely on advertising, from niche specialist publishers to media conglomerates, watch their revenue drain away within months.

You might wonder why Google, which has an effective monopoly in search and a dominant position in overall online advertising, would want to kill its own golden goose. But a greater game is afoot. The race to dominate generative AI holds out the prospect for the winners of becoming not just a mere gatekeeper of the world’s information, but its tollbooth operator as well.

The open web is over. Many lament the damage it did to traditional incomes in the creative industries. They might yet miss it when it’s gone.

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