Is the Era of Search Engines Coming to an End?


The Gist

  • Market forecast. Gartner predicts a 25% decline in search traffic by 2026 due to AI chatbots.
  • Web impact. The shift from search to chatbots could lead to a decrease in the importance of web pages.
  • Strategy shift. Companies may need to rethink their content strategies as the digital landscape evolves.

Late last month, Gartner made a stunning prediction, forecasting an imminent and dramatic decline in search engine traffic. “By 2026, traditional search engine volume will drop 25%,” the research firm said. “with search marketing losing market share to AI chatbots and other virtual agents.”

A Potentially Earthshaking Moment for Tech

The prediction seemed aggressive, especially given that Microsoft Bing — with its AI chatbot — hadn’t gained much share at all in a hype-filled 2023. If it comes true, it would be an earthshaking moment in the tech world, leading to chaos within Google and the web. So I asked Gartner to talk.

A broken railroad bridge with a blue truck trailer wedged underneath in piece about search engine decline.
If it comes true, it would be an earthshaking moment in the tech world, leading to chaos within Google and the web.Jaroslaw on Adobe Stock Photos

This week, Gartner VP Alan Antin, who made the prediction, spoke with me via video call about what led to the prediction, and how likely it is to hold up. Though I’m still a bit skeptical, it didn’t seem so outlandish after we talked. Below is our conversation, edited for length and clarity. 

Related Article: How Is AI Impacting Organic Search?

Search Decline Predicted Amid Chatbot Rise

Alex Kantrowitz: Don’t take this the wrong way, but when I saw Gartner’s number that search will decline 25% by 2026 I thought it was crazy. Why do you think that’s going to happen?

Alan Antin: Let me walk you through the thought process. We saw incredibly fast adoption of ChatGPT. The fastest ever to 100 million monthly users…

Kantrowitz: Right, but that has leveled off

Antin: That has leveled off. That’s true. But think about this more broadly as answer engines. Some people are using ChatGPT, Claude, and other chatbots to answer questions like you would with search. As these bots become connected to the real time internet, the reliability of their answers is getting better. And they’re not going to be the last ones.

We don’t do the calculations of how many searches there are, so this is coming third party, but over 8 billion searches happen per day. So even with 100 million ChatGPT users, you might say, “Oh, you’re never gonna get there unless you see all kinds of other things come into the market.’ And the way we got to this potential decline in search traffic, is we have yet to see major companies who control a lot of the access to the internet besides Google, do anything in this space. 

So if you think about it, there are over 1.5 billion Apple iPhones. All it takes is a new rollout. And suddenly, the access point to impact that giant number of daily searches happens without people having to download or subscribe to a version of ChatGPT.

Related Article: Google, Generative Search and the Web’s Uncertain Future

Apple’s Potential Shift From Google Search

Kantrowitz: Google pays Apple $18 billion a year to be the default iPhone search. So are you suggesting that Apple will forgo that revenue to put a large language model that replaces search in their phone?

Antin: A shift in the marketplace might happen through new complete entry points. In which case, it might take longer for that to happen, because the behavior is going to need to evolve over a longer period of time. Or it could happen much more rapidly if a business decision was taken to say, well, we’re not going to have that same sort of platform relationship.

Kantrowitz: Right. And how did you get to the 25% number, exactly?

Antin: Just through internal debate.

Kantrowitz: Can you share a little bit about the contours of that debate?

Antin: I know you already think that 25% is a crazy number, but the first number put out there was actually even higher. The thought was you could see multiple entry points besides ChatGPT, and should you see some of the other companies that have large scale distribution come in, you could actually get there a lot faster. 


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