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AI Assisted Search - Are You Ready?

Introduction

Generative artificial intelligence (AI) is revolutionising the way we interact with digital information. Systems such as ChatGPT, Bard and Bing are becoming crucial assistive technologies across every modern organisation.

As AI assistance becomes increasingly prevalent, it is crucial to recognise the paradigm shift in digital search. In this article, we suggest that the focus of search will transition from matching content with questions to using credible content to provide answers. By understanding this shift, we can see that much of the content and architecture that we’ve built in our digital portfolios is not sufficient.

Dr Spencer Johnson wrote the timeless business book ‘Who Moved My Cheese?’. We strongly recommend reading this book quickly, because somebody’s moving our cheese!

The Changing Landscape of Digital Search

In traditional search engine optimisation (SEO), the primary goal has been to create content that matches the question being asked. Google, Bing and the other search engines have exclusively (until very recently) used proprietary algorithms to match the query entered with content they have indexed.

Even as algorithms have become more and more complex, we’ve understood this focus on the query and structured our content to closely match the queries we want to be found with. As one tiny example we see estate agent websites optimised for phrases ‘Buy a house in Selly Oak’ or ‘Sell a flat in Farnborough’. These have been reasonably successful strategies so far.

However, the emergence of AI assistance will alter the dynamics of search. Instead of solely focusing on content relevance, the emphasis will move to delivering credible answers to user queries. Why is this shift significant, and how does it impact the digital landscape?

A) From Content Matching to Credible Answers

Unlike keyword-focused SEO, the emphasis will shift towards credibility and accuracy. AI algorithms are trained and being trained to evaluate information sources, fact-check claims, and deliver reliable answers. This shift reflects the increasing demand for accurate and credible information.

How does that affect content strategies? Those very same estate agents will need to be providing data to support and confirm that they are, indeed, the ‘best’ estate agent in Farnborough.

To get an idea of what that might mean we asked ChatGPT “What would a credible estate agent in Farnborough have on their website?” the answer is quite revealing:

A credible estate agent in Farnborough would typically have the following information and features on their website:

1. Property listings: A comprehensive and up-to-date listing of properties for sale in Farnborough and the surrounding areas. The listings should include detailed descriptions, high-quality photographs, floor plans, and relevant information about each property.

2. About Us or About the Agency: A section providing background information about the estate agency, including their experience, history, values, and expertise in the local property market. This helps establish their credibility and reputation.

3. Contact information: Clear and easily accessible contact details, including phone numbers, email addresses, and office address. Look for an estate agent that provides multiple channels for communication, such as online contact forms or live chat options.

4. Testimonials or reviews: Genuine testimonials or reviews from previous clients who have worked with the estate agent. Positive feedback and testimonials from satisfied customers can indicate the agent's professionalism, reliability, and customer service.

5. Services offered: A description of the services the estate agent provides. This may include property valuations, marketing strategies, accompanied viewings, negotiations, conveyancing assistance, and post-sale support. Look for an agency that offers a comprehensive range of services to meet your specific needs.

6. Local area information: Useful information about Farnborough and the surrounding areas, including amenities, schools, transportation links, and local market trends. This shows that the estate agent has in-depth knowledge of the local area.

7. Fees and terms: Transparent information about the estate agent's fees and terms of service. Look for clarity regarding the commission or fees charged for selling your property.

8. Professional affiliations and accreditations: If applicable, the estate agent's website may highlight any professional affiliations or accreditations they hold, such as membership in industry associations like the National Association of Estate Agents, (NAEA) or the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS).

9. Blog or news section: An informative blog or news section that provides insights, advice, and updates on the property market in Farnborough and the broader industry. This demonstrates the estate agent's expertise and commitment to keeping clients informed.

Remember that the specific content and features may vary between estate agents, but a credible agent's website should generally have these key elements to provide information, showcase their expertise, and facilitate communication with potential clients.

Nowhere does the answer talk about landing pages, Google rankings and other SEO strategies. Those things are not relevant to the model that produces this answer.

In fact the more we pursue this line of questioning with the ChatGPT session the more emphasis it puts on testimonials, human reviews, and the presence of knowledge and advice. It is reasonable to assume that any AI assisted search would use this type of generative response as a basis for assessing results in a way that algorithmic search can’t.

B) Addressing User Intent and Needs

AI assistance will enable search tools to delve deeper into understanding user intent and providing contextually relevant answers. As users learn the art of prompt engineering, to provide context for their AI assisted search, being included in the results will require a greater breadth and depth of information.

As a example, run the query shown earlier in ChatGPT and then, in the same chat session, tweak the prompt to be:

“You have a young family and want to move to Farnborough. What would a credible estate agent in farnborough have on their website?”

Wow, look at the difference. Now, do the same again but with:

“You are a retired accountant and want to move to Farnborough. What would a credible estate agent in farnborough have on their website?”

Wow, again!

Whilst these exercises highlight the differences in response, there is much value in looking for the similarities. All of these queries tell us that current generative AI returns a desire for quality and focussed content that addresses the user’s intent, and not their question.


C) Combating Misinformation and Fake Content

The prevalence of misinformation and fake content in the digital landscape has posed significant challenges. However, AI assistance offers a potential solution by identifying and filtering out unreliable sources. By prioritising credible answers, AI-assisted search will combat misinformation and help users navigate with greater confidence.

So it is not just what we say, it is also about how and where we say it. Assistive tools have the capability to include a huge number of highly relevant checks and cross-references in their models. These will be used when they generate responses.

How we say things will be mostly technical:

  • Is the source secure, is it maintained
  • is all of the digital footprint consistent
  • is it blacklisted anywhere?

Most websites (it really should be all, but it isn’t!) provide ‘security’ in the form of https encrypted communication. However, for the vast majority of sites that is done by Domain Verification (DV) which doesn’t actually provide any trust that the orgnaisation is who they say they are.

Where we say things will be about consistency, does the source have associated social media accounts, do they engage with people, are they maintained and are they verified in any way? This isn’t about counting ‘back-links’ and other SEO techniques. AI assisted search will be trying to ensure that any answers it presents will be built from reliable, comprehensive resources.

Our Cheese is Moving, How Do We Cope?

AI assistive search is very new, but it is gaining momentum and will dominate very shortly. How can organisations prepare for this?

A) Focus on the Goal

Appearing ‘top of Google’ isn’t, and never really has been, the goal. Establishing trust and credibility with digital consumers is the goal. From now on, those consumers can be real people or the AI models that are being used by real people as assistants.

Google have, for many years, stated that site owners should consider the reason they are creating ANY content and if the reason is to score highly then it is the wrong approach. Their message has always been to create quality content that reflects the organisation. With AI assistive technology it now seems that they will be able to deliver on that intention.

B) Do Things Right

With complex AI models supporting search, it will be essential that organisations do things right. Digital footprints can be assessed and examined in detail before inclusion in models. Whatever digital services an organisation has must be implemented properly to ensure they add to the credibility of the organisation rather than detract from it. Anything that detracts should be dumped.

There are simple things that will be important such as keeping ‘News’ up to date as well as more complex things such as not using the same resources and suppliers as known scammers. It will be better to remove or repurpose a ‘news’ section if the organisation cannot genuinely keep that current. It will be better to avoid suppliers who are known to work with low quality organisations than use them because they are free or low cost.

C) Build Consumable Content

Move thinking away from ‘pages’. Build content in categories and types that reflect the organisation’s activities, strengths and successes.

Take, for a simple example, an accreditations list where an estate agency displays the trade bodies they belong to and standards they have achieved. Don’t just list those on a page; create a content type that has the accreditation, any relevant dates, links to the body and add to that a detailed description of why it has been done and what it means for the organisation’s customers. Links to those items can be listed on a page but having them as individual content allows for more accurate consumption and a more focussed context for each one. It also allows for more detailed meta information to be created for each item, assisting their consumption by AI tools.

This may seem counter intuitive since generative AI should be able to pull those accreditations from almost any part of the site? True, but generative AI models are statistical and by creating focussed consumble content the probabilities are being raised around that content.

D) Do It Now!

The models that will shape the success of many organisations are being conceived now and will be building and training very shortly. There is no time to consider this in the normal business cycle. Businesses probably should have been adopting new strategies a couple of years ago. Some have but the remainder need to act immediately.

This doesn’t just mean ‘redesign the website’. Businesses should be examining their online credibility, looking at their content strategy, and looking long and hard at their digital profile.

Is it too late? No. Generative AI is still in the early adoption phase despite what the media and social networks say. Humans take time to adapt to change and it will be no different with this. That’s the good news. The bad news is that there are few barriers and plenty of advantages to moving even the staunchest Luddite into an AI assisted state. So, whilst we’ve seen this type of change before, we’ve probably not seen one that will happen so quickly.

Conclusion

AI is moving our cheese, there is no doubt. No-one really knows where this is going to end up, but it is reasonable to assume that AI assistants will appear in all walks of life to ease us into the brave new world we face. We already have the first versions of them.

For digital search this means that we have to shift our thinking from simply matching with the questions that our customers are asking to providing the answers that they are seeking. Crucially, we have to do that in a digitally credible way.

Starting with these strategies, we can help to get ourselves prepared, but we must start acting now. In Dr. Spencer Johnson’s book the mice who decide ‘wait and see’ don’t fare well. Don’t be one of them.