What AI Means for Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

Over the last few months, all anyone in marketing can talk about is AI.

Back in January, Microsoft announced a $10B investment in OpenAI. About a month later, Microsoft and Google both showcased early versions of their new AI-powered search engines. Bing got the stronger reception, which spiked Microsoft’s stock value in the days that followed. Google followed with a $300M investment in AI competitor Anthropic.

So, if you’re following the news — and the money — two of the largest tech companies in the world are betting that AI is the future of search.

We sat down with IMA’s VP of Online Marketing, Bob Clements, to take his temperature on all this …

Microsoft claims that the reason they invested so much in the new Bing interface is because search is overdue for a major evolution. Of the 10 billion searches conducted every day, says the company, roughly half go unanswered. Search is “great for finding a website,” per a recent press release, “but for more complex questions or tasks too often it falls short.” What is your take on the new AI-powered Bing user experience?

BC: From the user-experience side, the potential impact is fantastic. While the accuracy of the results and data sources will need to evolve over time, it may very well allow for the Search Result Pages (SERPs) to be the beginning and the end of their journey. That is to say: Search may evolve to the point where you find everything you need right within Google or Bing — no need to click out to another website.

The more things move in that direction, the more of an impact it will have on the traditional paid and organic search industries. Whether websites are dependent on driving organic traffic, paid traffic or a combination of the two, if the user is presented with all of the requested information before needing to click further into a website, inbound search traffic will be eroded over time. There will likely be an inverse correlation between positive user experience and website search traffic.

In the Bing demo, when a query was made, the standard search results appeared on the left side, and “chat answers” appeared on the right. It appears that the ChatGPT function is sort of riding sidecar to the standard search results we’re all used to. Why do you think it was designed this way?

BC: Search engines were always intended to be “conversational” in nature. That’s how good SEO and good content are crafted. You are aiming to answer a question before a future visitor asks it. For search engines to utilize “AI,” via an interactive chat function, is a logical next step that allows queries to go deeper than ever before. But again, it also runs the risk of preventing these same users from needing to click through to any particular website.

Both the Bing and Google demos were panned for returning lots of factual errors. Just how rough is this technology? And, how long do you think it will take before the tech becomes reliably useable?

BC: Considering that Bing, Google and ChatGPT are not truly “AI” — they are more akin to human language interfaces with the ability to pull in source information from various places — there is a benefit here when it comes to evolving the technology. Because we are not dealing with quantum AI or unfiltered machine learning, the language algorithms that are presented to the end users can simply be revised over time. Similarly, the cited sources that are pulled into the new “AI” SERPs could be improved upon as more users offer feedback or call out inaccuracies. When it comes to making the new search engines more useable, there is a benefit to having a controllable output. Whereas true AI may be unpredictable in terms of what information is presented.

For marketers who rely heavily on paid and organic search for their inbound marketing, what does this mean? And, how should they prepare themselves in the months to come?

BC: This will be a “Wait and See” scenario with potentially massive implications. As noted previously, the better the user experience becomes, the less likely that users will need to click into secondary websites. It may positively impact e-commerce sales, but if users are only seeing “Top 10” lists with pricing and reviews, the depth of the results could be very limited.

Informational websites may simply have their content harvested and presented immediately to users, eliminating the need for clicking or navigating in the traditional sense. Given the reliance on paid and organic search for marketers, there could be a huge drop-off for one of the highest quality sources of inbound traffic.

If Bing and Google go this route, this also represents a potentially existential threat to their current business models. Google Ads’ paid search revenue is major portion of Alphabet’s income. If “AI-powered search” is perfected, they will need to find a new method of re-monetizing the SERPs. (It makes you wonder how they imagine their business strategies evolving going forward.)

With the reduced click-through volumes stemming from users being presented with everything from a single query, marketers’ inbound strategies could be significantly impacted over time. And, decreased revenue from paid search ads could have an even more pronounced effect on search engines themselves. That said, the end-user experience could be phenomenal as a result!

Again, for now, we’re in “Wait and See” mode.

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