Google Finally Feels Like a Search Company Again     – CNET

Google Finally Feels Like a Search Company Again – CNET

From smartphones to smartwatches, home cameras to big “bets” like self-driving cars and smart contact lenses, it’s no exaggeration to say Google has been about far more than search. It restructured itself as Alphabet to reflect this broader direction nearly a decade ago, in 2015.

AI Atlas art badge tag

But for the first time in a while, Google feels like a search company again. The tech giant spent nearly all its annual I/O conference keynote event Tuesday detailing its developments in AI, such as its prototype futuristic assistant Astra; the ability to type longer and more complex queries into search; and a new tool that essentially turns your phone’s photo library into a search engine for your memories. It also detailed how it’s working on AI agents that can execute a task as complex as returning a pair of shoes for you just by your having asked. 

Such advancements are critical for Google as it aims to keep up with — and potentially surpass — rivals like OpenAI’s ChatGPT, which was heralded as being the next evolution of the search engine when it arrived less than two years ago.

Read more: We Asked Google’s Co-Founder About AI Smart Glasses. Here’s What He Said

How Google’s AI updates tie back to search

AI was undoubtedly the biggest area of focus at Google I/O. But many of these AI-driven features and updates are designed to handle some of the problems that in the past might’ve been addressed using a search engine. 

Some of these announcements directly involve Google search, such as the expansion of the AI Overviews feature, which provides an AI-generated snippet that answers your search query directly, rather than search just serving up links. The company showcased how you’ll also be able to ask longer and more complicated search queries, such as when you need help with planning a vacation.

AI Overviews

Google’s AI Overviews feature provides snippets that answer your questions above search results. 

Google/Screenshot by CNET

Even the new Google Photos tool for more easily searching your photo library can be considered a type of search engine. But instead of searching the internet, you’re searching your own memories and personal information. 

One example showcased in the keynote presentation involved asking Google Photos, “When did Lucia learn to swim?” to find the photo capturing the exact moment. The update means you can search your photo library using the same natural language you might type in a Google search query rather than just typing in a keyword like “pool” and then manually scrolling until you find the right photo.  

Google I/O Gemini Ask Photos

You’ll soon be able to search through your photo library by asking questions rather than typing in keywords. 

Google/Screenshot by CNET

Google is similarly hoping to eliminate the need to search through your email inbox thanks to its Gemini assistant. The company showed how you’ll be able to ask Gemini in a sidebar to summarize multiple emails from a particular sender, like someone at your child’s school. 

Google’s Project Astra demo may’ve been the most interesting reveal at I/O. Astra is a prototype virtual assistant that can understand speech, sound and its surroundings in real time. It works by continuously encoding video frames (such as those captured by your phone’s camera) and combining that with your verbal request to understand context, as Demis Hassabis, CEO and co-founder of Google DeepMind, explained during the keynote event.

More from Google I/O 2024

So what does this have to do with search? Well, Project Astra seems like it can essentially function as a real-world search engine for your surroundings, according to Google’s demo video. After asking Astra a series of questions about objects in the room, the narrator asked Astra if it remembered where her glasses were. The assistant responded, “Yes, I do. Your glasses were on the desk near a red apple.” It looks like a superpowered evolution of the ideas Google introduced with Google Lens and the Google Assistant years ago. 

A phone looking at a computer monitor, interacting with an AI assistant with the camera

At I/O, Google showed a short video clip demonstrating Project Astra.


Google also showed how it’s hoping to move beyond simply finding answers, whether they be from the web, your email or your personal photo gallery. It’s working on AI agents that can reason and work across different apps and services to get things done for you. In an example, Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai showed how a Gemini-based AI agent can return a pair of shoes for you by finding the receipt and order number in your inbox, filling out a return form for you and scheduling a UPS pickup. 

That’s very different from a search engine. But returning a product today likely involves using a search engine at some point, whether you’re looking for a nearby store to drop off the item or you’re looking up the store’s return policy.  

Google’s new competition

The OpenAI logo appears on a blue wall.

OpenAI has emerged as a major competitor to Google.

Joan Cros/NurPhoto via Getty Images

These announcements come as Google’s search engine has been under what may be the biggest threat in its existence. Google was considered late to the generative AI game when ChatGPT arrived in 2022. The chatbot’s runaway success raised questions about whether AI would replace search engines altogether. Google management even reportedly declared a “code red” in response to ChatGPT, The New York Times reported in late 2022. 

Signup notice for AI Atlas newsletter

Just before Google I/O, Reuters reported that OpenAI would introduce its own search product, which would put it in even more direct competition with Google. Previous reports from The Information and Bloomberg also suggested that an OpenAI search product is in the works. However, OpenAI didn’t announce a search engine at its May 13 event and instead introduced its new GPT-4o model. Microsoft’s Bing search engine also got a boost in 2023 thanks to its generative AI integration, briefly stealing attention from Google. 

Google’s search engine drives a large chunk of its advertising revenue, which is its biggest moneymaker. So of course Google is a search company. But it does so many other things, from its Android operating system to its Pixel phones and suite of popular apps like Gmail and Google Maps, sometimes potentially making it feel like search takes a backseat.  

But if one thing became clear at I/O, it’s that search is back in the spotlight for Google. You could argue that it was always a priority. What’s undeniable, though, is that it’s going to look a lot different than how we’ve traditionally defined “search” over the past few years.

Editors’ note: CNET used an AI engine to help create several dozen stories, which are labeled accordingly. The note you’re reading is attached to articles that deal substantively with the topic of AI but are created entirely by our expert editors and writers. For more, see our AI policy.

Lisa Eadicicco

Leave a Reply