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What is Google's AI Overview and why is it wrong?

What is Google's AI Overview and why is it wrong?


Google's new AI Summary feature provides concise summaries of search results that are researched and created by generative AI in just a few seconds. So far so good. The problem is, sometimes it shows the wrong information.

How often does this happen? It's hard to say yet, but examples are piling up these days. But even the occasional mistake is embarrassing for a tool that's supposed to be smarter and faster than you or me. Consider the following mistakes:

When I asked how to keep cheese on pizza, he suggested adding an eighth of a cup of non-toxic adhesive, a tip that originated from an 11-year-old comment on Reddit.

And in response to a question about how many rocks a person should consume per day, the publication recommended eating “at least one small rock per day,” advice that was taken from a 2021 article in The Onion.

Essentially, this is a new variation of AI hallucinations, which occur when a generative AI model provides false or misleading information and presents it as fact. Hallucinations occur due to incomplete training data, algorithmic errors, or misinterpretation of context.

The large-scale language models behind AI engines from the likes of Google, Microsoft and OpenAI “statistically predict what you might see in the future, based on what you've seen in the past,” says Mike Grehan, CEO of digital marketing firm Chelsea Digital, “so there's still an element of 'garbage in, garbage out'.”

This looks bad for Google as it tries to gain a foothold in the evolving and shifting era of generative AI.

Launched in 1998, the search engine holds around 86% of the market. Google's competitors aren't far behind: Bing with 8.2%, Yahoo with 2.6%, DuckDuckGo with 2.1%, Yandex with 0.2% and AOL with 0.1%.

But the emergence of generative AI and its growing adoption among consumers (projected to reach about 78 million users by 2025, roughly a quarter of the U.S. population) could threaten Google's dominance in a market that represents roughly 8.5 billion daily searches and $240 billion in annual advertising revenue.

Google has its own AI chatbot, Gemini, which competes with chatbot ancestor ChatGPT, as well as a host of other chatbots from Perplexity, Anthropic, Microsoft, etc. Just like when Google came on the scene 26 years ago, these chatbots are all fighting for relevance as the way we access information changes again.

The last thing Google needs is to lose the trust of the millions of people who do Google searches.

A Google spokesperson said in a statement that the majority of AI summaries provide accurate information with links for verification, and that many of the examples appearing on social media are what he called “unusual queries” or “examples that have been doctored or that we couldn't reproduce.”

“We conducted extensive testing before releasing this new experience, and as with other features we've released in Search, we appreciate your feedback,” the spokesperson said. “We took swift action where appropriate, in line with our content policies, and we're using these examples to drive broader improvements to our system, some of which have already started rolling out.”

What is AI Overview?

AI Overviews is a new development for Google Search that's just starting to roll out in the US.

Google has been tweaking its search engine results pages for years to improve user experience and grow revenue. Starting with 10 blue links in 1998, Google introduced sponsored links and ads a few years later, and then revolutionized it in 2012 with the addition of the Knowledge Graph, a box that calls up answers about people, places, and things to answer queries quickly (and keep users from clicking away).

AI Overviews is the latest update in this vein.

Instead of splitting your query into multiple questions, you can ask a more complex question first. Google uses the example of searching for yoga studios that are popular with locals, convenient to your commute, and offer discounts for new members. In theory, what previously required three searches can now be done with just one.

gen AI’s overall goal here is to make search more visual, interactive and social.

“As AI-powered image and video generation tools become more prevalent and consumers begin to experiment with multi-search features, rich media on SERPs will become more effective at capturing consumer attention,” says Nikhil Rai, a senior analyst at research firm Forrester. “After all, 90 percent of the information transmitted to the brain is visual.”

AJ Kohn, owner of digital marketing firm Blind Five Year Old, likened the AI ​​summaries to summaries of traditional search results: (Google provides links to sites that can help you create summaries.) Then, beneath each AI summary, you'll see the regular results we're used to seeing.

“Generated summaries are a bit complicated, but they give end users a sort of TL;DR for their search, which may make it easier for them to find a satisfying answer,” Kohn said.

What AI Overviews Are Getting Wrong

To be clear, AI Overviews got a lot of the answers right: We asked how to cure a sore throat, how often to stain a wooden fence, and even why an AI is hallucinating, and the answers were all spot on.

But it also reportedly erroneously listed the health benefits of running with scissors or taking a bath with a toaster, the number of Muslim presidents, and whether any dogs have ever played in the NHL. (AI Overviews' response would have you believe the answer is yes; the dog's name is Pospisil, and he was drafted in the fourth round in 2018.) A relatively new X account, @Goog_Enough, has an ongoing tally.

Trojanowski_'s X/Screenshots (CNET) roundbirbart's X/Screenshots (CNET) amir's X/Screenshots (CNET)

Among those inappropriate answers are some to what Cohn called “highly unlikely questions.”

It's clear that in at least some cases, AI Overview is sourcing material from parody posts, lame jokes, and satire sites like The Onion.

“But what this does highlight is how easy it is to get questionable content into an AI summary,” Kohn said.

Ultimately, it becomes clear that there are issues with content justification and fact-checking in AI briefs.

In his review of Google's Gemini chatbot, which is powering the new search experience, CNET's Imad Khan said the model's hallucinogenic tendencies should come with a disclaimer: “Let's be honest, to be safe, just Google it.”

To this we should probably add that you should just do a good old-fashioned Google search and look at the links. Peter Butler from CNET has some advice on how to get good old-fashioned Google search results:

How can the strong fall?

Even before mistakes started appearing in the AI ​​overview, not everyone was happy with the change. (My colleague Caitlin Chedrawi wrote, “I think it makes more sense to search for TikTok.”)

Meanwhile, publishers and other websites are concerned about declining traffic.

According to Grehan, if users stop scrolling below the summary, this could lead to a decrease in organic visits to the site.

“I don't think so, because as with typical human behavior, even if a lot of the details are provided up front in the summary, you would probably still want a second opinion,” he said.

The errors in the AI ​​summary are strong grounds for seeking a second opinion.

Meanwhile, in a blog post introducing the AI ​​Overview feature last week, Liz Reid, vice president and head of Google Search, wrote that early use of Search Labs experiments over the past year has found that users are using AI Overview to visit “a more diverse set of websites,” and that links included in AI Overview “receive more clicks than if the pages had been surfaced as traditional web listings for that query.”

But just three months after suffering yet another public humiliation when Gemini's image-generating features were shut down due to historically inaccurate depictions, including of people of color wearing Nazi uniforms, questions remain about whether cracks are beginning to appear in the foundations of this once-all-purpose search powerhouse.

“We have meticulously honed our core information quality systems to help you find the best information on the web,” Reed wrote in the post.

Apparently that's still up for debate.

Editor's note: CNET has used an AI engine to create dozens of articles and label them accordingly. The notes you're reading are attached to articles that substantively address AI topics, but are all written by our expert editors and writers. For more information, see our AI policy.




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