MOUNTAIN VIEW: A year ago, it looked like nothing could ever undermine Google's dominance in web search. Now, as the company celebrates its 25th birthday, a new era of search awaits with the rise of AI chatbots like ChatGPT. Is Google still feeling lucky?
For around a quarter of a century, journeys across through the web have been beginning with a small box on a screen into which we type a few words.
Competitors large and small have tried in vain to dethrone Google since its rise 25 years ago. Microsoft in particular poured billions into its search engine Bing – and still remains far behind in the web search business.
But then, at the end of last year, ChatGPT was launched, a chatbot that could formulate sentences at the linguistic level of a human – and at lightning speed.
Immediately the question arose: Is a chat interface like this not the ultimate search engine? Instead of being referred to another website, we just get the right answer.
And if so, then what would become of Google's core business of selling space for sponsored links and shopping ads around search results?
Microsoft entered into a billion-dollar pact with ChatGPT developer OpenAI in an effort to improve its Bing search with the technology behind the chatbot.
Google, after long being hesitant to launch a public AI chatbot, was quick to launch its own answer to ChatGPT. You can now have search results summarised by AI, while Google's in-house chatbot Bard can handle the same queries to ChatGPT.
For quite some time, Google's web search results have been offering more than just a list of links, and have shown a direct answer from a source considered reliable.
Google boss Sundar Pichai emphasises that the company wants to proceed cautiously with the introduction of so-called generative AI such as chatbots. After all, the software still has the problem that it can sometimes give out completely wrong information.
These errors, called "hallucinations", have something to do with how the models work: They estimate word by word how a sentence should probably continue. But in internet searches, people need reliable answers, Pichai argues.
There is a certain irony in the fact that basic ideas for the language models that today's competitors work with came from Google researchers.
However, the company always held back on making them publicly available, while artificial intelligence ran in the background in more and more of its services.
The AI race has had little impact on search engine market share: Google dominated with almost 92% in August, according to figures from analytics firm Statcounter, while Microsoft's Bing came in at 3%.
Going by Google's own figures for the most-searched terms, meanwhile, ChatGPT still doesn't appear to be Googled anywhere near as often as services like YouTube, Gmail and Google Translate.
Twenty-five years ago, Google's rise stemmed from the pioneering idea that hits are more likely to be relevant for the use if there are more places on the web linking to them. In doing so, its search engine quickly beat previously popular predecessors like AltaVista.
Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin registered Google as a company on September 4, 1998 in order to cash a cheque for US$100,000 (about RM465,000) from Sun Microsystems co-founder Andreas von Bechtolsheim.
They had registered the domain name "google.com" almost a year earlier with the goal of organizing all the information in the world and makinh it accessible to everyone.
Beyond web search, Google expanded into a wide range of services over the years: Email, digital maps, cloud infrastructure, the world's largest video platform.
The most widely used smartphone operating system Android is also developed at Google, while the parent company Alphabet also runs the robot taxi company Waymo, poised to be at the centre of a new wave of driverless mobility options.
In recent years, the competition regulators of the European Commission have imposed several billion-dollar fines on Google, and yet the tech giant has eaten every one without a wince.
It's no wonder: Last year alone, Alphabet posted a profit of almost US$60bil (RM279bil) on a turnover of around US$283bil (RM1.3 trillion). – dpa