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AI and the search experience – good or bad?

May 12, 2023

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This year has suddenly become the year of AI – with ChatGPT and Bard stealing the headlines in newspapers and the trade press. A lot of people are wondering how it’s going to affect their business, with ramifications for not only content creation but also for search. Will it be good or bad?

Spoiler alert: the jury’s out and most experts think it’s a bit of both.

Are we entering a brave new world?

The answer to that question is almost certainly ‘yes’ – but before you start to worry that Skynet has arrived and the Terminator is just around the corner, it’s worth remembering that AI is still in its infancy. That means there’s a lot to learn and appreciate about the ways in which it will potentially change how we do business, and in particular how it will impact SEO and the search experience.

ChatGPT and Google’s Bard are what’s known as generative AI tools – large language models that can generate new content without it having been previously programmed into the system. They can originate all types of media, including written content, audio, code, images, video, 3D objects – and, of course, when you ask them a question, they’ll have the answer. Whether it’s the right answer or not is another question – but their ubiquitous presence means that no marketer can afford to ignore their impact.

Content and beyond

Lots of people are experimenting with AI generated content. It’s good, but there’s no danger yet that it will outstrip human content providers. Most people find that the AI content is adequate but can be hugely improved with a bit of fine tuning by a human. In other words, a great time saver, but not a replacement for human decision-making.

For marketeers, beyond simple content generation, the biggest effect that these AI tools will have will be in the domain of search-engine marketing. ChatGPT and Bard can take the search experience one step further – not only do they crawl the web for data, but they then process and dissect that information to provide more complex and nuanced answers than current search engines.

Some people have interpreted this as a threat to search, but this is too simplistic. The fact is that it will change the search experience. The critical thing for marketers is to be able to predict how these changes will affect SEO and CTRs, and to stay ahead of the curve.

A new search paradigm

The first thing to recognise is that search will become more immersive and interactive – conversational search is the new buzz. We should understand that answers will soon be generated by AI tools, resulting in less scrolling down the page. Naturally, this is going to mean lower CTRs. Paid search will take the biggest hit and it will require a change of format to keep the paid ecosystem in the conversation. No one thinks Paid will go away, but the marketers who adapt to the new paradigm the fastest will probably see more success moving forward. Search is entering a new age and traditional website conversions will wane – SERP will look different and new ways of driving conversion will need to be developed.

The changing search landscape

We think of search results in terms of an index of paid and ranked results. But it’s already been changing – local listings and maps make it more interactive, buy buttons make it more instant – so rather than seeing AI tools as a threat to search, marketers need to treat them as just another step in the search evolution. The search experience will improve for the user – and we all use search – as connectivity and conversation increase. But how can marketers contribute to the shape of these changes?

Even though zero-click searches have been steadily increasing, at the same time Google has been sending more traffic through to websites year on year. Certainly, ChatGPT and Bard will also result in more direct answers to search queries and their answers are unlikely to focus on branded links – they will ultimately be less transactional. But even if they don’t generate direct sales, there is definitely scope here for building brand awareness.

The downside of AI searches

Some marketers have suggested that by using AI tools to create content, they’ll ensure better ranking in AI generated search results. But though this might seem intuitive, it’s to no one’s benefit. If AI generates search results on the basis of content that has already been generated by AI, the results will become more and more generic and less and less interesting to human users.

And herein lies the danger: when Google launched Bard, it took a huge hit of $100b on the value of its stocks because Bard made really obvious mistakes from the start. It gave some wrong answers to questions – glaringly wrong, in fact. And if you can’t rely on the answers that Bard or ChatGPT provide, as a searcher you’ll start looking for assurances that whatever answer it gives you is coming from a trusted source.

The content generated by AI tools can easily be spotted by people who know the subject matter. Things seem a little off, a little bit wrong, so as a marketer, don’t be tempted to feed vast amounts of AI generated content into your endeavours. You could see the results skewing out of control, which won’t help you connect with your customers.

AIgenerated search results will improve over time, but at the moment it’s the wild west. This means people will lean towards trusted brands in the search results rather than AI generated content – and that’s something marketers can take advantage of. Gradually, people will identify which sources of AI content give them the best answers to their searches. But in the meantime, they will be looking for the brands they trust.

A final word

It might seem like AI is sweeping away all that came before at a rapid pace, but change comes slowly. SEO and website engagement isn’t going to be revolutionised overnight. Artificial intelligence is still that – artificial. The human brain is nuanced and sophisticated, and above all adaptable. Yes, it’s a brave new world – but it’s our world, and we’ll adapt in ways that allow us to benefit from it. It’s going to be an exciting ride.

To find out more about the future of AI and search engines contact us.

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