Will ChatGPT replace Google?

The short answer is No, not in the medium term, and this post is about why.

Context: Since ChatGPT was introduced last Wednesday, there has been an immense level of interest/discussion online about its capabilities and the potential impact on other businesses or society.

One of the top use cases mentioned is that people will use ChatGPT instead of Google to search. This use case was also mentioned in the latest episode of the All In podcast. Now to be fair, the ChatGPT usage flow is very user-friendly. Its answer seems deterministic. And that is very appealing to our human brain, which prefers short cut. Why do in-depth research where I can get the single, best answer right then and there?

Well, the answer is that ChatGPT’s current capability is severely limited in comparison to Google Search, and Search is hard. Ben Thompson wrote an excellent viral article here about ChatGPT’s limitation.

Update Jan 2023: This week, some news outlets reported that Microsoft is working to incorporate ChatGPT features into Bing Search. Here is my thoughts about Microsoft and ChatGPT/OpenAI integration.

The web content is a lot more than text

I hope the above point is not controversial. Look at how much time we are spending on Youtube, Tiktok, Instagram, Disney+, Netflix, etc…

So to be a real competitor to Google, ChatGPT/OpenAI needs to be able to index and understand the web beyond text. And also, Google has a lot of information about real life too, from Google Maps, and Google Earth, to books, etc…

Finding the correct answer

When it comes to search, being able to index the web is only part of the challenges. The other big challenge is about determining which content (aka answer) is the most relevant to a particular user, at a particular point in time, in a particular geo-location on earth, and (with the search history on)based on the user’s past search behavior too. When Google is confident about the answer, it serves you the Knowledge graph answer, aka the single best answer (someone, please fact-check me on this. I can’t remember exactly whether Knowledge graph is the correct term, but I know Google is doing this). Many times, the answer is not straightforward and requires a more thorough analysis from multiple angles, and multiple sources. The machine needs to know which source is more trustworthy than other sources too. Many years ago, Google became a lot more popular than Yahoo Search because of its patented PageRank algorithm, which allowed Google to take the trustworthiness of different sites into consideration beyond text on the site. Since then, I am sure that the Google machine has improved many, many times.

Google already has LaMDA

If it is not clear by now, I am not an AI expert :D. My understanding is that LaMDA’s capability is similar to ChatGPT or even better. ChatGPT training content is limited to the end of 2021 only and includes only text. LaMDA benefits from the totality of the Google AI machine and the richness of data.

I don’t know if LaMDA has a public user interface similar to ChatGPT, though so the above statement is subjective.

But why do people think/talk about the possibility of using ChatGPT instead of Google?

My hypothesis is that, as a human (with the way our brain has evolved over thousands of years), it is oddly satisfying to be given a single, simple answer in an authoritative way when we ask a question. (per Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman). We don’t want to scan through multiple sources/sites to find the answer that we are looking for. Many times, even after clicking on the search results from Google, we can’t even locate the answer on the website itself. It is a lot simpler (less taxing on the brain) for us to accept the answer given by ChatGPT. Lucky for me, I have come across a number of obviously wrong answers from ChatGPT to get a sense that I need to take its answers with a large grain of salt.

So on this point, I think Google can think more about the user experience/user interface or to provide an end-user interface to LaMDA so that the public can try it out.

Search quality (or the answer quality) does not equal usage and adoption

A long time ago, some of us still remembered many apple-to-apple comparisons between the search engine result page of Bing vs. Google. In many blind tests, users were asked to rank which search results were more relevant to what they were looking for. And if I recall correctly, the difference between Google and Bing was small. However, Bing’s market share never took off, even in the US. Of course, many factors contributed to this outcome. But it demonstrates that having the correct answer does not automatically mean that chatGPT can replace Google in the medium term (let alone short term).

In conclusion, I don’t think ChatGPT is going to replace Google in the medium term. Far from it. However, what ChatGPT demonstrates is that there is a genuine need from internet users to have a simpler way/interface to find the answer that we are looking for; or to ask the machine to do certain tasks for us. This need will become more and more prevalent as we get bombarded with more and more information every single day.

What do you think?


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