The first mobile phone call was made nearly 50 years ago, on April 3, 1973.
It’s less clear when exactly in the early 2000s prognosticators first declared it was the “year of mobile,” which has since become an SEO punchline.
Such is sometimes the case with big bets in technology, like Google Glass or Amazon’s Fire phone.
So it’s only natural to wonder whether all the recent hubbub about AI-powered search and generative AI (think: ChatGPT, Bard) is much ado about nothing – or if it really is the next big thing.
Spoiler: It’s probably the latter.
“If it was a human, it would be learning to roll onto its back while we clapped. Instead, we’re here watching the largest companies on earth treat it like a nuclear bomb,” said Alec Cole, an SEO strategist at performance marketing agency Amsive Digital. “So, yes, I think this is the next big thing.”
SEO consultant Sara Taher agreed.
“AI helps automate plenty of the redundant work we used to do manually, and it will help speed up our work and give us back time. It’s here to stay,” she said.
“We are all still learning how to use AI and when to consider it reliable and when not, but I don’t think there’s any debate of how useful it is.”
Here’s a closer look at why AI in search is the real deal.
For starters, look at how Google – which controls 91% of the search market per web analytics firm Similarweb – has responded to what Cole described as “an existential threat.”
“Even if you’re extremely cynical about the outputs of ChatGPT and Bard and don’t intend to use them in your own work, it has to be acknowledged that the largest players in search don’t agree with you,” Cole said.
“Google’s choice to move as quickly as they have, and with the signs of panic that they’ve shown, or Microsoft’s choice to commit $10 billion to OpenAI, should plainly tell you that we’re looking at a shift that’s going to define this industry in dollars-and-cents terms for the foreseeable future.”
Barry Rolapp, a senior SEO strategist at Amsive Digital, agreed, noting it’s rare to see tech giants “so quick to throw themselves at fads this hard.” And that includes voice search.
For his part, Michael Bonfils, global managing director of digital marketing agency SEM International, noted he’s seen a lot of fads come and go in his nearly 25-year career – and the only one that wasn’t a fad was social.
“In my personal opinion, I do not feel AI is a fad at all. I think it’s as disruptive as social was when first introduced, maybe [more so],” he said.
That’s in part because it helps train consumers to replace the “search, seek and find”-methodology they have long used with what Bonfils called “right now content.”
Short-form video platform TikTok is a perfect example.
Here’s another: let’s say a consumer wants to change a filter in their car. Until now, they’ve been able to conduct a search and browse articles and forums to find something useful.
They could also watch videos on YouTube to try to find specifics about the filter in question, but this is all potentially time-consuming.
“If I can ask AI to tell me how to specifically change my filter and I get an exact response in less than a second, there is no chance I will ever use search/seek/find again,” Bonfils said.
“Now it’s just ask and get an answer without being disrupted by search ads or seeking and finding something in results.”
He noted there’s nevertheless a danger the AI-generated responses will be inaccurate.
“I think the majority of information seekers will not care,” he added.
“The majority of people do not care about privacy constraints as much. They won’t care if AI responses are slightly wrong.”
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Danita Smith, SEO program lead in North America and senior web specialist at Schneider Electric, agreed AI-powered search is not a fad – particularly since AI isn't anything new.
"I feel like AI is here to stay," she said.
That's in part because consumers generally like to do what's easy.
"If something can make life a little easier – and especially deliver similar results – then, typically, that's what we're going to use, which is why we're all walking around with mobile phones in our hands," Smith added.
There's another advantage: cost.
"Bottom lines are real," Smith said. "I think we're going to continue to see [businesses] adapting and utilizing [AI] more just even from a pure cost perspective."
That said, brands must understand how their consumers will react – and, Smith noted, they're likely comfortable with automation in some contexts but not all.
"I do think it's going to be a useful tool that companies and individuals will be able to use," she added.
"I think it's going to be more important that organizations get really focused on serving their actual audiences and really providing help that automation can't necessarily always do."
In addition, AI-powered search can easily be conducted off the browser with assistants like Alexa, Siri and Google Voice.
"Conversational AI is disgustingly powerful and anyone who doesn't think that it's going to substantially alter the landscape of search just hasn't been paying attention," Cole added.
However, Jon Clark, managing partner of digital agency Moving Traffic Media, pointed to a potential problem with sourcing, which he called "the big open question."
"In other words, if they are showing where they're getting the information from via link or something like that, then I think there is a real potential for traffic loss to websites," he added.
"I think all of this comes down to … how that content is being sourced in the results that come back."
If AI-powered search doesn't properly source material, Clark described it as "a real fundamental change to our industry in terms of how organic search drives traffic" – and a huge risk for publishers.
For his part, Rolapp said his concern is the speed with which the industry is moving.
"I am glad to see Google and Bing both say they are focusing on limited releases to learn what the unintended consequences could be, but there are smaller organizations we see rushing to be first with little hesitancy," he said.
"I worry about the impact it will have on the spread of misinformation and the very real impact that these tools will have on human life."
That includes everything from how human testers and QA teams who train the models avoid some of the worst content on the Internet to companies laying off human workers to enhance profitability.
"This is a turning point in human culture, and if we move too carelessly, it can have devastating consequences for us all," Rolapp added.
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