Since ChatGPT took the world by storm in late 2022, we've seen the technology integrated into Microsoft's Bing search engine and similar products emerge from both Google and Facebook. It’s clear that big tech believes that the impact of these tools will be truly transformational.
It’s also true that all of those tech companies generate a significant portion of their revenue from ads shown to users when they carry out searches. Millions of smaller businesses also rely on the technology to direct potential customers to their websites through the power of search engine optimization (SEO).
If generative AI does lead to a significant shift in the way we use the internet, those business models will be significantly changed. And everyone wants to make sure they have a stake in whatever comes next.
So, what does this mean if you’re a small or medium-sized business that relies on search engine traffic to drive potential customers to your website? And how will the esoteric art of SEO be affected by a dramatic change in the way we find information online? Let’s take a look.
The main difference between the way a chatbot and a search engine provide answers is that the chatbot directly tells us what we need to know, while the search engine presents us with a page of results, known as a search engine results page (SERP).
Many businesses of all sizes – from global media enterprises to your local handyman – rely on search engines to drive traffic to their sites. This could be because they have paid for adverts to be shown to searchers who use certain terms or because a search engine determines that the business page has information that is relevant to their potential customers.
With the way generative AI chatbots work today, none of this happens because all of the information is provided directly to the user without them needing to visit another page to find their answers.
The first impact of this will be a big increase in the number of “no click” searches, where users get their answers without having to take any other action. On the face of it, this is great for users but not so good for businesses.
The problem is that – annoying as it may sometimes be – advertising powers the internet as we know it today. Businesses create and make content available online, often at no cost to us, either because it allows them to build an audience that could, at some point, become customers or because they get paid for showing us ads on their own sites. It also provides the big tech companies with the revenue they need in order to create services like search and give them to us to use for free.
At the moment, it's unclear how this will play out. If chatbot providers (Google, Microsoft and so on) go down the route of charging users to pay for using their service, then all of the revenue will go to them, and there will be far less incentive for businesses to create online content.
On the other hand, providers may adopt a model where businesses pay to have their information, or even links to their pages, included in chatbot output. This would inevitably lead to us getting results that are biased toward giving us information that businesses want us to see.
How Will This Affect SEO?
SEO means optimizing the keywords used on a page to encourage search engines to list that page on their SERPs.
Generative AI has many implications for this. Firstly, it’s great at creating SEO content. Anyone can use it to create content (or edit existing content) to be more attractive to search engines.
This could have a democratizing effect on content creation, as businesses (and individuals) no longer need specialist SEO knowledge.
However, as anyone who has used generative AI will tell you, it’s great at creating formulaic content but not necessarily so good at anything that involves original ideas or new thinking. In the short term, this could lead to an explosion in the amount of low-value content that simply rehashes old ideas.
Inevitably, search engines themselves will respond to this. Google, Bing, Yahoo and others all use their own sophisticated AI that primarily aims to make them useful to their users and to return truly relevant and helpful results.
As an example of this, it’s speculated that Google will tweak its ranking algorithms to focus on information gain. This means pages with new information could rank more highly, while those that simply rehash and regurgitate information from elsewhere could be penalized.
Another potential consequence is the fact that as businesses may have to rely on fewer page visits from search engines, they may have to work harder to ensure that those visitors that do arrive spend more time on their sites and are more likely to convert into customers. A strategy designed to tackle this could involve improving the richness of the business’s content ecosystem to encourage repeat visits and increase conversion rates.
One other important point to consider is that a widespread move away from search engines and towards generative chatbots could also cause issues around trust. With search engines, it's usually very easy to see where the information you're being directed to is coming from. Chatbots, on the other hand – most famously ChatGPT – are often very opaque about their sources, meaning it’s more difficult to make a judgment on whether we can trust the information they give us.
The Future of Search
Putting all of these considerations together – in the context of a predicted shift in consumer behavior that sees search engine use replaced with chatbot use – means we could be entering the biggest period of change in the way we find information since the invention of internet search.
The arrival of mass-produced, AI-generated content could result in the growing importance of off-page SEO factors. These are metrics such as the number of backlinks a piece of content has or social signal metrics such as how often the content is shared on social media.
Meanwhile, search engine providers are likely to continue to look for ways to monetize chatbot results in the same way they monetized search engine results in the early days of the internet.
To start with, this will take the form of hybrid searches – as seen with Microsoft’s integration of ChatGPT into its Bing search engine. This enables it to provide us with regular search results (sponsored and organic) alongside a chat interface for when we want answers to specific questions.
In the longer term, I think it’s likely that a more consolidated user experience will emerge. We might, for example, become accustomed to generative chat results that provide us with a list of links to relevant further information as part of the natural-language responses.
After all, it was the monetization of internet search – often credited to Google with the development of their PageRank algorithms – that truly drove the mass commercialization of the internet.
As with anything to do with AI, there are obviously ethical issues that need to be considered. The extent to which we tolerate biased chatbot output, on the basis that we understand there is a need to generate revenue for both service providers and content creators, is an issue that society will have to resolve in the near future.
The one certainty is that if your business is built on your ability to drive visitors to your site, you can’t afford to ignore the changes that generative AI brings to the table. The ability to understand how the search and SEO landscape is changing has long been an essential enterprise skill, and right now, it’s more important than ever.