Google’s AI Overviews misunderstand why people use Google

robot hand holding glue bottle over a pizza and tomatoes

Aurich Lawson | Getty Images

Last month, we looked into some of the most incorrect, dangerous, and downright weird answers generated by Google’s new AI Overviews feature. Since then, Google has offered a partial apology/explanation for generating those kinds of results and has reportedly rolled back the feature’s rollout for at least some types of queries.

But the more I’ve thought about that rollout, the more I’ve begun to question the wisdom of Google’s AI-powered search results in the first place. Even when the system doesn’t give obviously wrong results, condensing search results into a neat, compact, AI-generated summary seems like a fundamental misunderstanding of how people use Google in the first place.

Reliability and relevance

When people type a question into the Google search bar, they only sometimes want the kind of basic reference information that can be found on a Wikipedia page or corporate website (or even a Google information snippet). Often, they’re looking for subjective information where there is no one “right” answer: “What are the best Mexican restaurants in Santa Fe?” or “What should I do with my kids on a rainy day?” or “How can I prevent cheese from sliding off my pizza?”

The value of Google has always been in pointing you to the places it thinks are likely to have good answers to those questions. But it’s still up to you, as a user, to figure out which of those sources is the most reliable and relevant to what you need at that moment.

For reliability, any savvy Internet user makes use of countless context clues when judging a random Internet search result. Do you recognize the outlet or the author? Is the information from someone with seeming expertise/professional experience or a random forum poster? Is the site well-designed? Has it been around for a while? Does it cite other sources that you trust, etc.?

But Google also doesn’t know ahead of time which specific result will fit the kind of information you’re looking for. When it comes to restaurants in Santa Fe, for instance, are you in the mood for an authoritative list from a respected newspaper critic or for more off-the-wall suggestions from random locals? Or maybe you scroll down a bit and stumble on a loosely related story about the history of Mexican culinary influences in the city.

One of the unseen strengths of Google’s search algorithm is that the user gets to decide which results are the best for them. As long as there’s something reliable and relevant in those first few pages of results, it doesn’t matter if the other links are “wrong” for that particular search or user.

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