AI search answers are the fast food in your information diet – convenient and tasty, but no substitute for good nutrition

This feature adds to the growing number of plugins and tools being integrated into search engines like Google. Some notable examples include knowledge panels based on knowledge graphs, which are used to populate relevant factual information into an information box next to search results, and featured snippets, which are snippets extracted from a search result and placed on receive the link to that page.

But what’s different about AI Overviews is that they’re not simply pulled from relevant sources but generated behind the scenes by Google’s AI generation technology. The company’s goal is to give you a personalized response on demand instead of a standard set of documents or even a box of answers that come with your question.

This seems almost magical and could be useful in many situations. After all, people use search engines primarily to find answers and not lists of documents. But there is more to the picture.

My colleague Emily Bender and I wrote about what search engine users need, want and have. We have shown that they want not only information but also the ability to discover, learn and question what they find. In other words, users have a wide range of situations and purposes, and it is problematic to compress them down to a set of links or, even worse, a single answer.

Bad advice

These AI features vacuum up information from the internet and other available sources and spit out an answer based on how they are trained to associate words. A central argument against them is that they largely remove the user’s judgment, agency and learning opportunity from the equation.

This may be fine for many searches. Do you want a description of how inflation has affected grocery prices over the past five years, or a summary of what is included in the European Union’s AI Act? AI overview can be a good way to cut down a lot of documents and extract those specific answers.

But people’s search needs don’t end with factual information. They seek ideas, opinions and advice. Looking for suggestions on how to keep the cheese off your pizza? Google will tell you that you should add some glue to the sauce. Or wondering if running with scissors has any health benefits? Sure, Google will say, “it can improve your pores and give you strength too”.

Although a reasonable user understands that such alarming answers are likely to be wrong, it is difficult to detect this for factual questions.

For example, when researching the religion of US presidents, Google’s AI Overviews gave the wrong answer that Barack Obama is a Muslim. This misinformation was widely spread and debunked years ago, but Google revived it without any good way for users to find out that it was misinformation.

What about a student using Google for homework and asking which countries in Africa begin with the letter K? Although Kenya meets these criteria, Google’s AI Overviews incorrectly answered that there are no such countries.

Google has acknowledged problems with AI Overviews and said it has addressed them. But there is still a concern: Can you trust any answers you get through this service?

How to avoid AI responses

There are other options. You can always go back to the traditional Google search with its 10 blue links. Click on “More” in the menu – All, News, Images, Maps, Videos and More – just below the search field at the top of the Google search page and select “Web.”

You can now do what you’ve probably done for years – sift through some of the best results, visit a few of those sites and decide for yourself. It takes a bit of work, but it gives you back the ability to examine multiple sites and evidence to support or disprove something. Most importantly, you leave open the possibilities of learning, discovery and serendipity.

AI Overviews is like fast food delivered through a drive-through window – it’s fast, hot and convenient, but not the healthiest option. Going through traditional Google search results is like perusing a menu at a sit-down restaurant and placing an order that will take a while to be delivered to your table. You can ask your server questions about those items and even request some changes to the restaurant’s offerings. It is prepared with more care, customization and control, but it also takes longer and may cost more.

However, these are not the only methods of obtaining information. There are alternatives to the Google search engine, including specialty search tools.

For scholarly needs, Google Scholar, Semantic Scholar and CORE are helpful places to search for research papers and citations. Looking for medical information? Try PubMed, ScienceDirect and OpenMD. For legal needs, some services include Fastcase, Case Law Access Project and CourtListener.

Worried about privacy? Check out DuckDuckGo, Startpage and Swisscows. If you still want AI-generated answers, alternatives to Google’s AI Overview and Bing’s Copilot are and Komo, which provide more transparency about the data they collect about you, more privacy and offer ways to withdraw. collect your data to train their AI models.

A balanced diet of information

Maybe you can’t afford to eat out at a nice restaurant or prepare every meal from scratch every time, but it’s important not to end up going through a drive-thru for all your nutrition. After all, you are what you eat, and in the same way, you are how you search.

It’s easy to fall for sensational headlines and bite-sized news that lack context. But you don’t have to let it define you. You can expand the scope of the search. It’s okay to go through every now and then and go for an AI Overview, but it’s also important to find healthier ways to fulfill your needs—like food and information.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a non-profit, independent news organization that brings you facts and analysis to help you make sense of our complex world.

It was written by: Chirag Shah, University of Washington.

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Chirag Shah has received funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and The Gates Foundation over the past year.

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