Reddit says it can survive without search; wants to block Google and Bing

Oct 23, 2023

A few days ago, The Washington Post ran a story about newspapers wanting compensation for articles that are used by OpenAI's ChatGPT for generating content. One notable section of that article mentioned that Reddit could ban search engines like Google and Bing from crawling its website.

The Post's article had originally said that Reddit was "considering putting its content behind a login page". In other words, Reddit could have forced users to sign in to read content. That would have been controversial, but the article was  updated to remove that statement. Reddit spokesperson Courtney Geesey-Dorr had told The Verge that "Nothing is changing".

Reddit is considering blocking Google and Bing to prevent AI-training

However, after the Post edited the article, it mentioned that if Reddit could not reach an agreement with generative AI companies for compensation for using its data, the message board would consider blocking search engines from accessing its website. This in turn would mean Reddit posts will not be displayed in search results. The Post quoted an anonymous source familiar with the matter as saying, "Reddit can survive without search.". Another Reddit spokesperson, Tim Rathschmidt, told The Verge that the company does not have anything to share on the topic of crawlers. In other words, it has not denied that it could block the search engines, to prevent AI language models from accessing the data.

Is this a good idea? I don't think so. Simply adding the word "Reddit" to your search query, or using can often be helpful in finding better results. The best part is that you don't even need to have a Reddit account to get the information, the search just works, which is not something I can say about Reddit's own capabilities. Lots of people use the website like that without signing up for an account. This could change.

Let's say Reddit does go ahead with its crazy plan and bans search engines, what would be the alternative here? Reddit has a built-in search tool, which would likely become the only way to search for posts. The problem is that the search is mediocre at best. You don't have a lot of options to filter the search, so you will likely have to run multiple queries until you find what you are looking for, not to mention the weird sponsored posts that appear in your feed.

It isn't particularly useful even if you use in tandem with an add-on such as Reddit Enhancement Suite. And of course, I'm just talking about the desktop experience here. It is a completely different story on mobile phones, where you will need to use the official Reddit app, or one of the few alternative clients that have survived the ridiculous API pricing changes that were introduced a few months ago. Now that is not a pretty sight to get accustomed to, the official app has a terrible design, it lacks the customization options and polished interface that you might find in third-party apps.

The blackout that followed Reddit's announcement regarding its API usage prices, gave us an example of what the website would look like if its communities became inactive / went private. All web searches from Google that pointed to a thread from one of the participating subreddits either led to a message that the forum could not be accessed. This is what life on Google will look like if Reddit bans its crawlers. It would be useless from an SEO perspective, and the loss of this organic traffic could be harmful for Reddit.

Reddit does not want AI (large language models) to be trained on its data. Let me rephrase that, Reddit wants AI companies to pay it money for using its data to train their large language models. And where does this data come from? Its users of course, they are the ones who provide it, for free. Reddit displays advertisements to earn revenue, and now it wants to be paid for the content that users contribute to the various communities.

The company doesn't care, it recently made a controversial change to remove the ability to opt-out of ad personalization. This would allow Reddit and its advertisers will serve ads to users based on a user's Reddit history.

Reddit may have outlived its ban on third-party apps, but that's only because there were other apps / mobile web version that allowed users to access the site. Banning traffic from Google won't be as simple as that, you can't beat Google in Search. Losing the majority of your web traffic could well end in a disaster, and even Reddit's advertisers won't be happy with that.

Reddit says it can survive without search, wants to block Google and Bing
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Reddit says it can survive without search, wants to block Google and Bing
Reddit wants to block Google and Bing if it can't get AI companies to pay for using its data to train their large language models.
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  1. guest47 said on November 6, 2023 at 4:47 am

    Reddit says it can survive without search…

    I think a more meaningful question is whether Reddit deserves to survive when it allows subreddit owners to shadow-ban new accounts by default, and this “feature” is widely abused by lazy & irresponsible subredditors who defraud millions of people that viewed the advertisements but were not afforded use of the service in exchange. In this sense, Reddit is a scam (…and so are the contests/sweepstakes which some corporations are running on the platform.)

  2. Rex said on October 25, 2023 at 12:41 am

    The open internet keeps dying one cut at a time, already we have a cluster of walled gardens inaccessible without an account; here’s another one if they decide to go ahead.

  3. Herman Cost said on October 23, 2023 at 8:47 pm

    I don’t see why Reddit does not have every right (moral and legal) to prevent Google, Bing, from extracting data from it’s site. The argument that the data belongs to the users, not Reddit strikes me as naive. Users have a very simple recourse, don’t use Reddit. If they need Reddit that badly (I sure don’t) they will simply have to pay the data and ad-watching price (which the smarter ones will most likely be able to get around anyway).

    In any case, Ashwin’s core argument is that the purported Reddit strategy won’t work because users won’t use the service without Google (lets leave Bing out of this because no one cares about Bing anyway). But that would mean that the so-called problem will solve itself, and Reddit will have no choice but to allow Google back on its own terms. So why worry about this? Could it be because Ashwin has a sneaking suspicion that the strategy might in fact work (e.g., Reddit has an improved search tool tucked away in its back pocket, or they cut a deal with another search provider). Or (more likely) maybe it will work just well enough so that Google decides to fork over a billion or two a year to Reddit to keep their access to the data they can’t seem to live without. If so, who cares (except of course the very happy Reddit investors)?

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