The use of large language models like those developed by ChatGPT and Google is going to impact traditional search. There’s no doubt about that — and the changes are imminent.
Some commentators see trouble looming. Chris Penn of TrustInsight recently told us: “(I)f unbranded search is the lion’s share of your search traffic, particularly your converting search traffic, you should be very concerned. That’s where the large language models will be intercepting your traffic and not giving anything to you or giving very little to you.”
Others are more sanguine. We spoke with Brent Ramos, product director for search at Adswerve. “We’re at the precipice of this new frontier for search which will ultimately be better. I’m not taking a pessimistic view at all; I’m very much looking forward to it.”
Adswerve provides services related to Google products to agencies, analysts, marketers and publishers. Ramos focuses on search.
Changing the search paradigm
Repeatedly emphasizing that it’s early days for conversational search and that we don’t yet know what it’s going to look like further down the road, Ramos is optimistic about a new, more immersive and interactive search experience.
“I think it’s definitely going to change the paradigm of how we understand search today, because as soon as you throw in Bard, let’s say [Google’s generative AI], and it pushes down all the organic ranks, and you have the chat AI upfront, all of a sudden people are going to converge and convert in that experience, and it’s too early to know what it’s going to look like.”
In other words, and as expected, many users of Google search will look first at the answer to their query generated by Bard; they won’t necessarily scroll down to look at links, or even at footnotes that show where Bard found its information.
The implications for paid search
“What I anticipate is that there will be a new paradigm of what that will mean for paid results, so rather than have a host of links to click through in an index format, we’ll see new formats come up. I think the definition of conversions will change, and the experience of the paid ecosystem will change, but it’s not going to go away.”
The far from resolved question, of course, is what the new experience will ultimately look like. But we are on an irreversible journey, Ramos believes.
“It’s not going to go away,” he said. “Technology will very rarely recede. So we know it’s going to become a new paradigm and move search into this new realm. On the long-game horizon, we can expect to see new ways of conversion, new ways of formatting, SERP is going to get a lot busier, website conversions might decline.”
While some are concerned that, if users can get all of the information they need directly from the AI, the index of links, including paid links, will become irrelevant. Ramos insists that this isn’t something new. “We’ve seen that in social, right? People are converting more within the social channel itself rather than landing onto the actual page, especially for ecommerce.”
A living, breathing conversation
That does mean, however, that there will need to be opportunities within the AI content for people to convert, and Ramos doesn’t pretend he yet knows what that will look like. “Maybe it’s no longer pay-per-click; it’s pay-per-interaction,” he said. “Rather than getting this repository of links to sift through as humans, we’ll actually get this really rich, semantic conversation presented to us. The index or repository we’re accustomed to today will shift into a living and breathing conversation.”
The bottom line, for Ramos, is that whatever it looks like, it’s going to be better. “It will eventually be better over all. To me it’s like back when Google and the internet first started coming out — the big industry of the yellow pages, and publishers were like, ‘What are we going to do?’ And then of course it was ultimately a really good thing.”
The importance of interconnectivity
Even traditional search doesn’t just generate lists of links, Ramos observed. “SERP is one thing, but search also powers things like local listings, maps, ecommerce buy-buttons and all these other things that are interconnected with it and that are crucially embedded in the ecosystem.”
From knowledge panels to videos to dictionary definitions and alternative search suggestions: “All these things that are tangential to search are also wrapped up in that connectivity, so I think that’s the bigger picture people should be trying to understand.”
Even so, he admits: “That’s where I imagine it leading, but this is all speculation at this point because this all very fresh.”
Bumps in the road?
Not only do we not yet know how we’re going to get to this rich, interconnected conversation, but we are already seeing teething problems — from truly disturbing behavior from the AI to outright error.
“There’s definitely going to be a bumpy ascent,” Ramos admitted. “The silver lining is that we know it can be done; it’s more a matter of how fast we can architect against it, and it takes a lot of human capital and power to do so.”
What is he telling his clients at this stage in the journey? “The guidance is to understand holistically — and without your own biases about AI — and accept innovation.”
Ramos sees the competition between Google’s Bard and Bing’s ChatGPT-based generative AI as a positive. “We want to see competition in the marketplace — a marketplace that’s rich with innovation — so on both sides of the house I think it’s a good thing, and they should be pushing each other.”
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