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Google's Extinction-Level Event for Digital Media and What It Means for Pajiba

By Dustin Rowles | Social Media | May 22, 2024 |

By Dustin Rowles | Social Media | May 22, 2024 |


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The other day, I was looking over the site statistics and finally took stock of how much of our social media traffic has disappeared over the last couple of years. At its peak, probably around 35-40 percent of our traffic came from Twitter and, especially, Facebook. Now? That number is 1.7 percent. That includes only half a percent from Twitter, which is essentially a zombie site now. We get more traffic from our friends over on LaineyGossip than we do from Facebook, which officially killed its news tab a couple of months ago. That’s the biggest reason why there have been so many layoffs in the digital media industry over the last several years, and a number of media sites — Buzzfeed, Upworthy, etc. — were hit even harder because the share of traffic they received from Facebook was probably closer to 60-80 percent. (The situation is so dire over on Buzzfeed now that Vivek Ramaswamy is an activist investor in the site).

However, a similar threat to digital media is now emerging from the other major driver of internet traffic: Google. Many of you may have noticed that, over the past week or two, many Google searches have begun to provide AI-written responses. To wit:

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The significance of this development is profound: If AI provides the answers to all the searches that you’re looking for, there is no need to click on the source articles that provide the answers. If you don’t click on the source articles, the publishers do not receive any ad revenue, and if the publishers do not receive ad revenue, they cannot pay their writers to provide the answers for Google’s AI to steal.

It’s bad news. For some sites, it will be another death blow, while for others, it will be hobbling. And if more journalists lose their jobs, there will be less news coverage, and the thing about AI is this: It can aggregate. It can edit, rewrite, and even improve. But it cannot do the reporting. AI needs inputs. Humans provide the inputs, but Google’s AI potentially puts those humans out of business. Some experts have suggested that it’s an extinction-level event, and this is not just bad for the media; it’s bad for Google. If there’s no Internet, there is nothing for Google to search and steal from.

I don’t think it’s going to be an extinction-level event. But it will certainly hurt some sites more than others, and some of those sites probably deserve to take part in that hit. Google and digital media have long had a symbiotic relationship, which digital media has — from time to time — taken advantage of by force-feeding users 3000 words of SEO slop when all we wanted was a recipe for chicken noodle soup. We do not need to read 600-word articles when we Google, “When does the next episode of The Jinx air?” I’m all for Google providing simple AI answers to simple AI questions. On the other hand, if Engadget pays a guy to test out the 30 best smartphones and rank them, and Google’s AI aggregates that information and provides the answer, that’s not OK. That’s straight thievery.

In some ways, we’re fortunate here at Pajiba that we never leaned too hard into either Google or Facebook. It meant that we never experienced the gold rush that others did when Facebook propelled them to IPO status, but it also meant that when social media traffic went away, it didn’t take all of our traffic with it. Likewise, SEO has always been a secondary concern for us. We do not tailor much toward search engines, and even when we do, we want to make sure that it’s not SEO slop. Will we write the occasional, “What happens at the end of _____ series?” Yes, but typically, we only add the spoiler ending details at the end of the piece after we’ve reviewed the show in question. We don’t have the resources to devote an entire article to “When Will ‘All American’ Season 6, Episode 8 Come Out?.” We like to write about things we care about, not things that serve only our Google master. In fact, most of the traffic we receive from Google is incidental. Who knew, for instance, how many people would search for an answer to the question, “Are fish wet?

Because all of our eggs are not in one basket, hopefully, we can weather the storm in the coming months and years. June is the site’s 20th anniversary. We’ve survived a lot. Hopefully, we can survive another major change in the landscape and live to make it to 21 years.