Unboxing the Search Generative Experience (Google SGE) 

Last updated on July 14th, 2023 at 08:44 pm

It’s Official: AI Is Coming to Google.

As always, it’s an interesting time to be on the internet. Google SGE is set to bring AI to the everyday search process! With AI at the forefront of communication technology, it’s hard to know what the future holds. It’s like an arms race, with every company out there competing to be the first to build all the same great features under their own umbrella and choke out their smaller competitors.

We’re living in a historic moment in the world of communication technology. I for one, feel both privileged and a little bit terrified to be living through so many changes at once. The technologies that we’re dealing with have the potential to define who we are as people, and to change our experience on this planet. But I digress. This is supposed to be an intro to an article about what it’s like to use a new browser feature, not to an encyclopedia or a Twilight Zone episode.

What is Google SGE?

It may not surprise you to learn that AI has been a part of Google Search for a long time. Really, it’s always been instrumental in helping Google sort through endless content and present information on command. But you may have seen the acronym, SGE, in the news a lot lately. Well, it stands for Search Generative Experience, and it’s the latest feature coming to a Google search near you.

Screenshot of the Google Search page inviting the user to try Google SGE

SGE is the first time Google is making AI a direct part of the search process. Some will say the tech giant is a little behind the times since its competitor, Bing, has already launched AI assisted search features. I can say with almost complete certainty that you have heard of ChatGPT. It’s an AI language model by OpenAI that’s been taking the media world by storm. Marketers, bloggers, and content creators of all kinds have been raving about the possibilities it presents to the creative media community. 

What’s going on?

AI has come far enough that most humans can’t tell the difference between a piece of content written by a language model and one written by a member of their own species. At the same time ChatGPT was marching across the headlines of every news website in the world, Google was working quietly on its own AI-assisted search. 

The big idea is that now, every time you search, Google will run your query through its language model. It will then visit the most relevant websites and write up a concise, yet thorough answer. This AI blurb will replace the featured snippet on the screen for searches that are eligible for an AI response. And if SGE doesn’t feel that it has enough information to give you a high-quality and accurate response, it will simply show you the top results just like Google always has done.

What’s All the Fuss?

Earlier, I said that AI had taken the media world by storm. That’s because it allows content creators to churn out content at a speed that’s never been possible before. The fact is, a language model can read and write at positively inhuman speeds. Many businesses and content creators have seen the value in being able to increase their output 100-fold with hardly any difference in quality and without having to pay writers a dime. 

This has particularly gargantuan implications for marketers and SEOs (people who engage in search engine optimization). So much of being seen on the Internet is simply having enough content to be noticed. At this point, many AI’s are smart enough to optimize content with relevant keywords that are highly likely to generate traffic. They do all of this on demand, to the requested specifications, and in about 10 seconds flat. 

That being said, there are bloggers like me who still prefer to do the work personally. For one thing, I enjoy writing. For another, I think there’s an ethical question to be asked about publishing content under your name when you didn’t do the thinking or the work. This seems to be an unpopular opinion, and you can call me a killjoy. I won’t be offended. But I think something is lost when humans can’t be bothered to think and work for themselves.

Google SGE Mobile Preview

What’s SGE Like?

First Impressions

Somehow, I am both obsessed with and totally underwhelmed by Google’s Search Generative Experience. In other words, I absolutely love it.

Conversational AI being a part of everyday search is a massive change that has huge implications and will have far-reaching effects on culture and daily life across the world. When you can say that about a piece of software, you expect it to knock the wind out of you. That’s why I was pleasantly surprised to see how natural it feels to use Google SGE, even the first time.

Yes, the interface looks different and generative AI will change how we interact with content on the web. But in terms of user experience, it’s beautifully unremarkable. Most of the time, unremarkable is good experiential design. UX designer’s work hard to make their design decisions invisible, and the best-designed interfaces go completely unnoticed by the people using them. I think that for most people, to Google’s credit, SGE will completely disappear within a day or two.

Using Google SGE

Gone are the days when you had to guess the best way to phrase your question to satisfy the search engine gods and get relevant results. The whole point of SGE is that it understands natural language, so you can talk to it like you would talk to another person! Here’s an example:

Google SGE response to the search: I'm having trouble sleeping tonight

Over the years, Google has gotten really good at understanding search intent. In the example above, it understands that I’m not complaining, I’m looking for a solution. It’s gone through the whole search process like usual, but then simply summarized the information I would have found if I read some of the articles in the top 10 results, putting that information right on top for me. 

Now, if I own one of the websites in the top 10 results, this annoys me a little bit because now the searcher doesn’t have to read my article. But as a user, this is going to save me so much time, and now I can get right back to using this advice to try to get back to sleep.

These generated responses aren’t available for every single search. The AI wants to be pretty confident about what it’s telling you before it writes something up. In some cases, though, you can request an AI response if it’s not provided automatically. And the best part is, SGE works on mobile, too!

Google SGE Features

One of the most exciting features of Google SGE is that you can now ask follow-up questions and have Google remember your last question for context! Up until recently, the ability for AI to remember anything was limited. Now, they’re getting really good at it and you can have a pretty intelligent conversation. 

Google SGE response to search: How do HTML and CSS work together

If Google doesn’t automatically generate a response, there’s usually a “Generate” button that you can click if you’d like it to try. As I mentioned before, SGE isn’t available for all searches, but I expect it to be available for more and more searches as time goes on and the AI has more content to train on.

I want to draw your attention to four sections within the “Ask a follow up” section.

  1. Press the reset button at any time to clear the chat and start a new conversation with Google SGE.
  2. This follow up search field is where you type your questions. There doesn’t seem to be any limit to how many questions you can ask in a single search session. I thought that within this section, Google would always write a response, but it seems that even here, generated responses are not always available. So sometimes, you’ll just get search results in reply to your question.
  3. SGE will guide your questions in case you can’t think of what to ask. This is useful if you don’t know much about the topic you’re looking up.
  4. You can help improve Google SGE by giving each response a thumbs-up or thumbs-down vote. This is of course, optional.

Finding Sources in SGE

Screenshot to illustrate the Ask A Followup feature

In the end, your “conversation” really does start to look like one. Google displays each of your questions in order after its replies so that you don’t get lost down the rabbit hole. And if you get tired of a particular topic, you can always go back to the main search page with the search button at the top left of the screen.

I want to show you two more things before we wrap up. Take a look at these screenshots:

Google SGE screenshot to illustrate source-centric mode of SGE

Next to the generated response, you’ll see three search results displayed like flashcards. These are results that SGE used to create its response. If you click the arrow to the right, there are usually more articles than the three it shows initially. 

Above the featured articles, you’ll see a button with an icon that looks like an itemized list or something. If you click that button, SGE will reformat its response, placing each concept above the relevant search result. This way, you can verify your sources more easily. Here’s what that looks like:

Screenshot to illustrate the source-centric mode, activated

This solves one of my biggest concerns about AI and search, which was that AI isn’t always good about providing accurate information. Because it provides its sources, you can always look into the information further. If you’re interested in learning how to vet sources reliably, yourself, I wrote Seems Legit: Online Sources and How to Verify Them to help demystify the process.

Wrapping Up

While Google SGE may make it harder to generate search traffic for webmasters and business owners, I’m very optimistic about the future of search. Google seems to have put a lot of thought into the design and usability of SGE.

I, for one, look forward to seeing how people use this new feature and make it their own. But what do you think? Leave your answer down in the comments. I always reply.

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