Google is contemplating the introduction of fees for AI-powered search

Google is contemplating the introduction of charges for new “premium” features driven by generative artificial intelligence, which would constitute a significant overhaul of its search business.

This proposed transformation of its lucrative search engine would represent the first instance of Google putting any of its core products behind a paywall, indicating its ongoing struggle with a technology that poses a threat to its advertising revenue, nearly eighteen months after the debut of ChatGPT.

According to sources familiar with the matter, Google is exploring various options, including integrating specific AI-powered search features into its premium subscription services. These services, which already provide access to the Gemini AI assistant in Gmail and Docs, are under development by engineers, but company executives have yet to make a final decision on whether or when to launch them.

While Google’s traditional search engine would remain free, subscribers would still encounter advertisements alongside search results. However, this move would mark the first time that Google, previously known for offering free consumer services funded solely by advertising, would charge for enhancements to its core search product.

With $175 billion in revenue from search and related ads reported last year, comprising more than half of its total sales, Google faces the challenge of embracing the latest AI innovations while safeguarding its primary profit driver.

Since the launch of OpenAI’s ChatGPT in November 2022, Google has been racing to respond to the competitive threat posed by this immensely popular chatbot. Capable of providing quick and comprehensive answers to numerous questions, ChatGPT jeopardizes the relevance of traditional search engine results and the lucrative ads accompanying them.

Although Google initiated testing of an experimental AI-powered search service in May last year, offering more detailed responses to queries alongside links to further information and advertising, it has been slow to incorporate features from this “Search Generative Experience” experiment into its main search engine.

These advanced search results, including an “AI-powered snapshot,” require more computing resources than traditional responses, making them costlier for Google to deliver. Access to SGE has been limited to select users, including some subscribers to Google One, which offers benefits like additional cloud storage for a monthly fee.

While Microsoft introduced improved GPT-powered search and a chatbot named Copilot in its Bing search engine over a year ago, these new AI features have done little to bolster Bing’s market share compared to Google.

Some analysts caution that Google’s ad business could suffer if its search engine provides complete AI-generated answers that eliminate the need for users to click through to advertiser websites. Moreover, online publishers reliant on Google for traffic worry that fewer users will visit their sites if Google’s AI-powered search directly extracts information from their web pages.

Google recently introduced a new premium tier to its Google One consumer subscription service, offering advanced features of the Gemini chatbot. It has also integrated Gemini into Workspace, its suite of online productivity apps such as Gmail and Docs.

The precise integration of AI-powered search into these paid services, which offer various pricing tiers, remains unclear, as does the launch date of the AI-powered search offering. However, Google could opt to gradually incorporate certain elements of its experimental AI-powered service into its main, free search engine over time, according to individuals familiar with its plans.

Google has stated that it is “not working on or considering” an ad-free search experience but will continue to develop new premium capabilities and services to enhance its subscription offerings across its platform.

“We’ve been reinventing Search for years to help people access information in the most natural way possible,” Google stated. “With our generative AI experiments in Search, we’ve already served billions of queries, and we’re seeing positive Search query growth in all of our major markets. We’re continuously improving the product to address new user needs.”

Google concluded by saying, “We have no announcements to make at this time.”