June 5, 2023

Great Indian Mutiny

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That was fast! Microsoft is shifting ads to AI-powered Bing Chat

Image credits: Yap Aryan/NurPhoto / Getty Images

Microsoft is “exploring” placing ads in responses provided by Bing Chat, its new search agent powered by OpenAI’s GPT-4. While these sponsored responses are clearly labeled as such, it does raise one question as to how far we really have come from the old paradigm of search engine advertising.

Microsoft has confirmed that this is happening, albeit in beta form. In a blog post published today. Here’s the appropriate part of the ending after a “bit of context” that shows no one should be surprised:

We’re also exploring additional capabilities for publishers, including more than 7,500 Microsoft Start partner brands. We recently met with some of our partners to start brainstorming ideas and getting feedback on how we can continue to distribute content in a way that is beneficial to our partners’ traffic and revenue. As we look to continue developing the model together, we’ve shared some early ideas we’re exploring including:
• Expanded hover experience where hovering over a link from a publisher displays more links from that publisher, giving the user more ways to engage and drive more traffic to the publisher’s website.
• For our Microsoft Start partners, placing a rich caption of licensed Microsoft Start content alongside the chat answer helps increase user engagement with the content on Microsoft Start as we share advertising revenue with the partner. We’re also exploring placing ads in the chat experience to share ad revenue with partners whose content contributed to the chat response.

The ads were reported anecdotally for two weeks, but a tweet Today by Glenn DeBargia Das captured them in the wild:

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Others pointed out that ads have been present since launch but are not enabled for all users. I’ve tried my best to invoke one but to no avail – it doesn’t seem to be enabled for my account (yet). But this is clearly a sign of things to come.

Let’s admit that search engines, now search agents, are part of a business model and therefore need some kind of monetization. But I think with all the talk about revolutionizing search and starting over, we all expected something a little better from sponsored answers.

In the case of the above ad, it is not clear to the user what is being sponsored here. Does TrueCar sell this vehicle and pay for placement in searches of new Hondas? Or is it just a reference or price-checking site that pays to be the preferred provider of car prices to Bing? Why are these prices higher than those listed for Honda? Is Microsoft being paid to not include Autotrader or Cars.com listings? Can a user ask about non-sponsored results?

This does not mean that there is anything nefarious going on. But in general, the user should understand what is being advertised. We’ve learned how to parse search results: Ads usually have a small box around them and are at the top of the pile. You don’t have to like them to understand them – and by understanding them you can engage (or disengage) more intelligently with them.

In such a case, I’d like a better “descriptive chat,” if you will, a little thought bubble along with the chat containing the citations and, if there are any, their ads. The answer itself shouldn’t be messed with – but in the metacon you have some links and maybe “If you’re considering buying a new HR-V, 3 was listed last day on TrueCar. (advertisement)”

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The more serious side effect of this is that such ads cannot be blocked with current tools. This doesn’t mean they can’t be blocked at all – it’s not hard to imagine uBlock Origin replacing chatbot responses flagged as ads and asking for another response. But the model of ads as predictable elements on classified sites is clearly dead.

On the one hand, well … good! Everyone hates ads, even though they’re kind of how the web (including, admittedly, this site) pays for itself. On the other hand, it is a new form of advertising which may be more subtle and disruptive which may not be so easy to identify and ignore.

Making the user wonder if a chatbot was paid to say what it said is a great way to slow or erode trust, even with “ad” ratings. One can’t help but wonder how honest these companies are about their deals. Why shouldn’t they have a premium ad layer that affects results but doesn’t rank? It is completely in line with the shenanigans of the advertising industry.

While no one would expect Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Meta, and all the others to run these expensive, computation-hungry language models out of the goodness of their hearts (assuming they have hearts and there is good in them), it would be great to see some more thought about how to integrate advertising more effectively. better.

When the whole paradigm changes, the obvious solution – much like the one I used in ancient times – is unlikely to be the best. Going with it exposes the company’s priorities in a way that may lead to suspicion and suspicion.

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