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ChatGPT Could Upend the SEO Model as We Know It
The beginning of the end of the last bastion of free traffic.
SEO has become one of the most important drivers of brand awareness and brand engagement in recent decades. Agencies and marketers have perfected the discipline and many brands rely on organic search to drive 50% to 75% of their website traffic.
From B2B companies where the sales process starts with a prospect researching the business online to D2C eCommerce brands, website traffic driven by search is critical to virtually every business model that doesn’t rely solely on wholesale. And because of that, SEO has become inextricable from modern business strategies…until recently.
The emergence and rapid, widespread adoption of ChatGPT and similar tools like Google’s Bard or Bing’s AI chatbot threatens to upend the entire SEO equation.
Here’s what brands need to know:
1. ChatGPT could [accidentally] replace traditional search
Already, many consumers are trying to use AI chatbots as search tools. Although they were designed as an interface from which consumers can interact with a dataset (and not extract answers from a broader search engine; ChatGPT’s knowledge stops at 2021), users have been attracted to their ability to churn out concise answers to questions with an impressive command of written content.
The case of mistaken identity is driving traffic away from traditional search engines. For many of the popular chatbots, links to sites are often relegated to footnotes, or worse, not included at all in query results. This means people will be less likely to engage in organic search, no longer clicking through to the source they’re looking for or exploring other relevant websites.
The search engines aren’t just watching traffic go away… they’re co-opting Generatative AI, making the situation worse for brands. Bing’s incorporation of ChatGPT into its search results…. a move Google is likely to emulate… suggests that even for those people who stick to traditional search engines, search results will increasingly look like a chatbot session as opposed to a list of links.
2. Consumer search expectations could change dramatically
The ChatGPT model uniquely shifts expectations for the output generated by a query – from a list of relevant sources to a single written answer. This implies that there is only one answer to a question, not a list of possible answers, and links to other sources are relegated to footnotes.
Anyone who pays attention to the Google search results page has notice this shift is an acceleration of a long-running trend. Once upon a time Google results pages were just a list a links to third-party pages that could contain the answer to your query. Increasingly, that snippet on the top of the page is the answer; no need to leave Google. Which is great if you want to know the weather. Not so great if you want traffic from the weather.
Generative AI accelerates this trend by producing definitive answer to any possible question. Great for consumers if the answer is the correct one. Not so great if you are a brand that isn’t part of that one answer… or expects to get any traffic from that answer.
It’s the biggest potential paradigm shift in how people find information online since Google first entered the scene at the start of the millennium.
3. SEO could become less valuable
For decades, brands have been in a continual battle to optimize their websites for search, so that when people search for keywords that relate to the products and services they’re offering, they show up.
This has become harder and harder to do over time—driving up costs and increasing competition for keywords. But as ChatGPT and similar AI chatbots draw traffic away from traditional search engines, brands could see their hard-fought and high-cost SEO efforts diminish in value.
4. Other channels and direct relationship building may become more valuable
Brands should proactively begin to evaluate other ways to drive traffic to their websites, including turning to alternative channels like social. Brands will also need to learn how to integrate themselves into services like ChatGPT so that they have a greater likelihood of being referenced in relevant queries to AI chatbots.
This moment also presents an opportunity for brands to look for ways to build a direct traffic relationship with their audience, whether that’s through CRM or general brand-building. As AI chatbots muddy the SEO waters, building a direct relationship with consumers without intermediaries will become more important.
5. The shift extends to the efficacy of paid search
The upheaval of brands’ SEO strategies also, by extension, imperils the search engine’s ad model. Paid search could become a less viable business model for Google and a less viable ad model for marketers in a world where there is just one answer to a question. Of course, with so much money at stake, search engines will to try to preserve the model in some form. But paid search’s evolution is a big question.
The bottom line
Search engines support an entire ecosystem of companies that have been reliant on search for traffic. ChatGPT and its cousins threaten to upend the ecosystem. Brands would do well to pay attention.