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Don't ask Google's new AI search to recommend you good phones, because yikes
Yesterday, Google started rolling out AI-based search results within Google Search. Google is calling this feature “Search Generative Experience,” or SGE for short. For now, only select folks in the United States can access this feature. Thankfully, Google was kind enough to give me early access, so I’ve had some time to play around with SGE.
Essentially, Google thinks SGE could be the future of Search. With SGE, you can ask more complex questions, get more nuanced results, and even continue your search by asking follow-up questions in natural language. For a refresher on this, we highly recommend rewatching the Google I/O 2023 keynote, which included a demonstration of this new feature.
I won’t mince words here: generative AI directly threatens my job. What Google is doing with SGE could make my work — and even all sites like Android Authority — obsolete or, at the very least, unprofitable. After all, why visit Android Authority to learn about phones and other forms of mobile tech if AI can do all the work for you?
Well, after trying out AI search for a bit, I can breathe easy. For the time being, Google SGE is not even close to an adequate replacement for real humans telling other humans about the best Android phones.
AI search: What’s a good used phone for under $500?
With Google Search as it stands today, finding a list of recommended smartphones is fairly straightforward. There are dozens of sites like ours with a list of the best camera phones, for example. To find the best camera phone for you, you’d just Google “best camera phones” and then start reading some articles.
With Google SGE and the power of AI search, things change. Now, you can ask more specific questions, and the generative AI will scour the internet to find answers. Instead of you needing to jump from article to article to get a well-rounded view of the best camera phone, AI can do all the work — and in far less time.
This is how it’s supposed to be, anyway. However, so far, this isn’t how it works in practice.
AI struggled to give me any good recommendations for used phones under $500.
Let’s use an example that would probably apply to many buyers. I prompted Google SGE with this statement: “I want to buy a used smartphone for less than $500.”
Theoretically, there are a lot of great phones that could appear on that list. A used, factory-unlocked Samsung Galaxy S22, for example, can easily be found on eBay for under $500. Hell, I found a used Galaxy S21 Ultra in excellent condition for under $500. Some other great sub-$500 used phones are the iPhone 12, the OnePlus 10 Pro, and the Google Pixel 6 Pro. These are all flagship phones that launched in the past two or three years, are still actively updated, and cost much more than $500 when they launched.
Here are the results Google SGE gave me:
In case you have trouble reading the screenshot, the results show the Motorola Moto G Stylus 5G (2022), the Samsung Galaxy A13, the Google Pixel 3a, and the OnePlus Nord N300. All four phones are used or refurbished, and all are less than $150. All four phones are also, objectively, not a good buy in 2023. Most don’t receive software updates anymore, and all were already far below $500 when they were brand new.
To make matters worse, Google SGE tries to be helpful initially by giving me a primer on what to look for when buying a phone. Using language that I can comfortably say insults my intelligence, it explains what the processor, RAM, and storage capacities of a phone mean. It also explains the processor in one of the worst ways I’ve ever heard:
The processor is the hub of the smartphone and the performance relies mostly on the type of processor.
Um…OK. How is that even remotely helpful? All you’ve told me is that the processor is important for performance, but nothing about how to discern that. What kind of processor should I be looking for? What makes one processor better than another? And, most importantly, what’s the best processor I can get within a $500 budget?
Google’s AI search doesn’t answer any of these questions. It talks down to me like I know nothing about smartphones and gives me a list of options that a) don’t reflect what I asked for and b) are objectively terrible recommendations for anyone shopping for a phone.
But maybe I’m being too harsh. After all, it took a while for people to understand how to use Google to find what they need. Maybe I need to ask better questions. Let’s try and do a follow-up.
Follow-up question: Let me be more clear
Using the Google SGE follow-up text box under my initial question, I entered the following prompt:
I’m looking for the best used Android phones between $400 and $500.
You can see how Google’s AI search responded in the new screenshot:
First, Google regurgitates the same useless info about processors. Remember, I used the follow-up text box for this response. SGE knows what it’s already told me and knows I am asking for a more specific answer. This is an opportunity for it to give me more information, not repeat what it’s already said.
Thankfully, the list of suggested smartphones is a tiny bit better. The first option is the Galaxy S22, which is a very good suggestion (as an aside, this is what I would recommend if a human asked me this question, so good job, Google). However, things take a turn for the worst after that. The second suggestion is the Google Pixel 6, and it very clearly has a price well outside of my requested parameters (it’s listed as $249 for a refurbished model). The Google Pixel 6 Pro should be here instead.
Even after a follow-up prompt, SGE still gave me garbage suggestions, including a phone that's over six years old.
After that, things get crazy bad. The third option is the Galaxy A23 5G, which had a list price of $299 when it launched (I used traditional Google to get that response in one second). In other words, Google is suggesting I pay nearly twice as much money for a used phone than it was worth brand new. The fourth and most ludicrous suggestion is the LG V30 Plus, a phone that came out in 2017! If anyone is spending over $400 on that, it’s for historical preservation, not daily smartphone usage.
The bottom line here is that even when I gave Google SGE more clarity on what I wanted, it gave me a ton of garbage. I am knowledgeable enough about smartphones to know that 90% of this information is not only unhelpful but also just plain wrong. However, most people who would use a prompt like this in real life don’t work for Android Authority. Could you imagine if someone bought a refurbished LG V30 Plus in 2023 thinking they had made a good purchase?!
A gallery of poor-quality information
Here are some other screenshots of phone-related questions I asked SGE. I’m not going to explain all of them, but anyone who knows smartphones will likely get a kick out of these answers:
Google’s AI search still needs a lot of work
I don’t want this article to seem like I’m bashing Google SGE or the idea of AI-based internet searches in general. In fact, I think that this technology could be genuinely helpful for consumers. I also think that Google and all other generative AI systems need writers like me and sites like Android Authority to exist for the systems to work properly. Eventually, we will settle into a symbiotic relationship similar to the one we have now. It will just take time.
This is an experimental feature, so we can't expect it to be perfect. But this is basically unusable for now.
But as it stands today, Google SGE is in no way ready for primetime. I only focused on phone-related searches for this article, but I had similar frustrations searching for cheap flights, exotic vacation destinations, and bicycle routes. Each time, I realized I was wasting my time and that traditional Google searches and reading human-written articles would have worked better and faster.
Google is very clear that SGE is an experimental feature. The company wants people to use it in its current state to make it better. As such, the terrible responses I’m getting now might not be so terrible months or even weeks from now. But, as it is today, you are not missing out on witnessing the future of internet searches. You are missing out on getting inaccurate and unhelpful information from a robot.