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Will Google put AI features behind a paywall?

Google is considering putting new AI-powered features behind a paywall in a move that could have far-reaching implications for SEO.

If the search giant starts charging for premium features it will be the first time any of its core products have been behind a paywall. The proposed shake up of the business model could change the way people search and affect how marketers do their jobs.

While Google is said to still be looking at the options, the competitive threat posed by OpenAI’s ChatGPT means traditional search must evolve. The list of links and accompanying ads seems clunky from a user point of view in comparison to ChatGPT’s quick and comprehensive answers.

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Proposed changes

Among the options on the table for Google is to add its most innovative AI-powered search features to its premium subscription offering, reports the Financial Times. This is where the new Gemini AI assistant already sits, meaning it could be a natural development.

While engineers are working on the technology to make it a reality, it will be up to Google’s executives to decide how it could be launched. As AI results are more expensive to generate than traditional search responses, it’s easy to see why the business model would need to change.

Google ads are an important part of the search engine’s revenue stream, providing $175billon (£138billion) in profit last year. Advertising alone may no longer be lucrative enough to drive the new era of search, hence the potential paywall, but there’s no suggestion ads will be disappearing from the landscape any time soon.

Google’s AI challenges

The path to AI implementation doesn’t run smoothly, as Google has already found. Despite testing experimental AI search features from May last year, it has not been quick to add the Search Generative Experience (SGE) to its main engine.

In fact, SGE has only been made available to a select number of users, like those who subscribe to the Google One bundle for additional storage and other benefits. Meanwhile, Google Gemini, which answers questions in text and generates pictures, was paused after adding people of colour to images of the founding fathers and German soldiers in WWII.

Implications of a paywall

Google dominates the world of search, with Statista showing it’s had more than 80 per cent of the market share for desktop search since 2015. Despite Microsoft partnering with OpenAI and including AI features in its Bing search engine for more than a year, the move hasn’t done anything to make a dent in Google’s usage.

How Google decides to proceed could change all that, however, as placing premium search features behind a paywall would fundamentally shift the way users see search. For marketers, it would likely mean a move away from the current methods of ensuring content reaches those looking for it.

What isn’t in doubt is that advertising will remain critical for Google going forward, with a statement from the search giant received by the BBC stating it’s “not working on or considering an ad-free search experience”. Paid ads can be lucrative for both Google and brands, so marketers should continue to think of them as a vital part of the mix going forward.