A “green” search engine sees dangers – and opportunities – in the generative AI revolution

In the era Given the search wars between giants, it’s difficult to be small. Berlin-based Ecosia offers a search engine for the climate-conscious that promises to be carbon negative by investing all of its profits into planting trees – more than 180 million of them since its launch in 2009. It’s unlikely that it is toppling Google, but with this eco-friendly branding and repackaging of Microsoft Bing’s search results, it has gained a stable customer base of around 20 million users. But after a decade of little change in search, everything is changing thanks to generative AI. “I have never seen as many changes in the market as in the last six months,” says Christian Kroll, CEO of Ecosia.

The uproar has forced Ecosia to rethink its business plan to compete with new chatbot-like search engines based on large language models. Today, the company has begun to transition from solely providing results from Microsoft’s Bing, as it has done for the past 14 years, to primarily sourcing results from Google – although it will continue to provide some Bing results through the marketing company’s system 1 will syndicate. At the beginning of the year, Kroll said Ecosia “received some signals from Microsoft that caused us to look a little more at other potential providers.” In March, Microsoft increased search results prices, which Kroll said was “a wake-up call for alternative search engines.” was. Microsoft declined to comment.

Ecosia changed partners in hopes of finding a way to participate in the profound shift in how people search the internet that AI is driving. The company is simply testing its partnership with Google and won’t immediately use the search giant’s AI tools – although it hopes to do so in the future.

For a small provider like Ecosia, the recent search disruptions could be an opportunity to expand into new markets and offer new services to users and advertisers. But the changing landscape also presents challenges. Although there are startups working on AI-powered search, the category is still largely a competition between giants. AI-generated search results also create new legal and ethical issues for providers to resolve. And for a search engine that gives away all of its profits to fight climate change, there is the problem of a drastic change in the energy consumption required for generative AI.

“This complexity means that we now have many more topics to deal with,” says Kroll. “As a small company, we have to place our bets carefully. Google and Microsoft have a lot more coins to spend in the casino.”

Microsoft, which has reportedly invested $13 billion in ChatGPT developer OpenAI, launched a chatbot-like interface for Bing in February. A month later, Google launched its Bard chatbot in the US and UK. Conversational generative AI like ChatGPT changes the way a user interacts with search and how results are presented. The last generation of search engines responded to a user’s query with a list of links to other media where they could find a detailed answer. AI-powered search attempts to answer the question itself.

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