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Q&A: Generative AI and the Internet search experience

Search experience is on the brink of a transformative shift — and web developers and SEO professionals need to shift.

As tech firms strive for ways to automatically detect images, video or audio altered or created using artificial intelligence tools, Meta is also urging internet users to look at posts critically to make sure what they are seeing isn't bogus
As tech firms strive for ways to automatically detect images, video or audio altered or created using artificial intelligence tools, Meta is also urging internet users to look at posts critically to make sure what they are seeing isn't bogus - Copyright AFP Stefani Reynolds
As tech firms strive for ways to automatically detect images, video or audio altered or created using artificial intelligence tools, Meta is also urging internet users to look at posts critically to make sure what they are seeing isn't bogus - Copyright AFP Stefani Reynolds

What is the impact of the generative AI boom on the search experience. David Strauss, co-founder & CTO, Pantheon, that explores the topic with Digital Journal.

Digital Journal: From OpenAI’s ChatGPT to Google’s Gemini, new AI-powered search experiences pop up seemingly every day. Are they poised to replace search sites in the next year? Five years?

David Strauss: The generative AI boom has undoubtedly made its way to the search experience. In fact, Bill Gates made headlines for proclaiming, “You’ll never go to a search site again.” He elaborated, saying he expects that AI agents will not just replace search, but also shopping sites like Amazon in the future.

While it’s premature to declare the end of search sites thanks to generative AI – even Gates admits his prediction may be far off from now – SEO and web development will undoubtedly undergo a transformation in reaction to the new technology. The future of SEO now lies in aligning optimization efforts with creating optimal experiences for users rather than solely appeasing search engine algorithms.

While Microsoft’s Bing and Google’s Search Generative Experience have integrated generative AI into the search experience, traditional search sites still have plenty of utility for verifying AI outputs and driving the flow of traffic around the internet as they always have. That said, search experience is on the brink of a transformative shift — and web developers and SEO professionals need to shift the ways they optimize websites to prepare for the implications.

DJ: How will marketers and web developers see the impact of AI-powered search experiences on website traffic and analytics?

Strauss: Generative AI search responses are likely to result in decreased traffic and increase competition for site owners. With AI search responses, people are more likely to find answers to their queries on the search engine site without needing to visit the original source’s website. Generative AI search responses build on existing Google “snippet” style functionality by providing more comprehensive, lengthier responses to user queries. Snippets are typically limited to a few sentences, often resulting in users visiting the site to see the full context, while generative AI search responses can provide paragraphs or even pages of text — or paraphrase sources of that length into something briefer. This means that site owners will need to create better content to stand out and offer compelling engagement opportunities to keep users on their sites.

Due to the lack of analytics and visibility into users’ search queries, alternative search results they consider and decisions they make before visiting your site, I often refer to Google as the “invisible top of the funnel.” There are many abandonment issues that can occur even before your analytics kick in. For example, if your site doesn’t load properly or takes too long to load, users may abandon it before analytics can capture the interaction. With the integration of generative AI, we’ll likely see an increase in these pre-analytics abandonment instances because users will decide earlier and more decisively if they want to visit the site. As a result, your conversion rates may appear to rise, but you will observe fewer visits at the top of the funnel.

In some cases, websites may face a deceptive increase in conversion rates, where the likelihood of visitors actually coming to the site depends more on whether the prospective visitor expects to take additional steps to complete a task. The context people get from generative AI-powered search results could reduce site visits from users who are less certain about wanting to accomplish a task with a given site (like making a purchase).

The impact of these generative AI applications will also vary depending on the type of website. For example, websites selling products may experience fewer ramifications as search engines still need to direct users to e-commerce sites to actually purchase. However, content-driven sites, like news outlets or recipe blogs, may face a significant reduction in visits as AI models summarize their content in outputs. Consequently, engagement for ad revenue on these sites could decline.

DJ: How will we see SEO strategies shift to achieve maximum visibility on generative AI search platforms while also maximizing site traffic?

Strauss: Historically, website optimization strategies have focused on appeasing search engine bots and mastering complex algorithms to be the top spot on a search engine. Web developers must now take a more human-centric approach and focus on the human experience rather than keywords. For example, if you’re optimizing your site for Google’s Bard, which mimics the way humans think and interact, you might actually be making a site that’s more useful for people. Because of this, there may be a shift away from dark patterns and manipulative techniques (like feeding bots keyword-heavy text but hiding what visitors actually want to read).

Navigating this new landscape will be like walking a tightrope. On one hand, you want to provide enough information to entice users to visit your site and engage in desired actions. But you must strike a balance to avoid surfacing too much information so users no longer need to visit your site at all. Developers must focus on creating compelling reasons for users to navigate to their site, visible through search engine interactions, rather than relying solely on engaging user experiences after they’ve already landed on the site. The decision-making process now occurs earlier in the user journey, demanding measures to engage and attract users at the initial stages — while searching and experiencing generative AI responses.

DJ: What are the draw-backs of generative AI that still give tradition search sites the “upper hand”?

Strauss: While Generative AI is a mecca of information, it still has a relevance problem — it simply can’t compete with traditional search when it comes to up-to-the-minute information. For example, ChatGPT (really, OpenAI’s GPT), which primarily stopped training in September 2021, has limited access to information about events and news through 2023. So, while ChatGPT is good for many use cases, it’s not good for discovering, contextualizing or analyzing timely information.

While other AI search applications like Bing or Search Generative Experience do incorporate up-to-date information from the web, their answers are not authoritative. Getting quick answers is easy, but users are still on the hook to verify the output and the sources it pulled from. It’s akin to referencing a Wikipedia page for preliminary information — Wikipedia gives context, but it’s not authoritative. Instead, you can use the sources Wikipedia cites to identify and back up information. Users will still want to check primary and reliable secondary sources when they need answers with high confidence and authority.

Traditional search sites also serve ads, meaning it’s unlikely they will go away quietly. As a result, search sites will persist alongside the integration of generative AI into the search experience.

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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