Will ChatGPT and Bard upend Search advertising as we know it?

Will ChatGPT and Bard upend Search advertising as we know it?

Since launching at the end of November, OpenAI’s ChatGPT chatbot has become the all-time fastest-growing consumer application, eclipsing 100 million monthly active users in January.

It has taken the media industry by storm. Digital tech publication The Information has seldom gone a day without a new report on the innerworkings of OpenAI, or Google’s own development of a competitor program. At other news outlets, the buzz around AI has been similarly unceasing; The Media Leader even got on the train, publishing a Fishbowl series interview with ChatGPT in December.

And then, last week, there was the (problematic) unveiling of Google’s competitor AI, Bard, and Microsoft’s announcement that it would be incorporating ChatGPT into historically second-best search engine, Bing.

General reception to the usefulness of the current generation of chatbots has been mixed, ranging from outlets and commentators declaring it the biggest thing since the original iPhone launch, to science-fiction writer Ted Chiang critiquing the technology in The New Yorker as merely creating “a blurry JPEG of the web”. News trustworthiness ratings company NewsGuard meanwhile sounded alarm bells over the technology’s ability to generate disinformation at mass scale.

“This tool is going to be the most powerful tool for spreading misinformation that has ever been on the internet,” NewsGuard co-CEO Gordon Crovitz told The New York Times. Content AI developer Nick Duncan echoed the concerns in an interview with The Media Leader last August, saying that content AI can have “terrible effects” relating to disinformation, and that the current lack of industry-wide standards is frightening.

A supplement, or a replacement?

For digital advertisers and publishers, news that ChatGPT and Bard will soon be formally integrated into Bing and Google’s Search has brought with it uncertainty about the future of the ever-changing medium.

After all, if users can receive better (and accurate) answers to queries from chatbots than from Search itself, might they be less likely to view and click on paid Search advertisements, news articles, and webpages?

“I’m asked daily by clients and interested parties what this technology means for marketing: will it take away jobs? What does it mean for paid Search?” says Sarah Salter, global head of applied innovation at WPP media agency Wavemaker.

Google Search pulled in $42.6bn in advertising revenue alone in Q4 2022, down 2% year-on-year. Google and Microsoft doubtlessly will look to monetise their chatbots further as they more broadly integrate them into their search engines. OpenAI already charges $20/month for ChatGPT Plus, a version of the tool with additional features.

For her own personal work, Salter says ChatGPT has already become invaluable. “It’s like having an assistant who works at x1000 speed,” she tells The Media Leader. “It’s helping me gather my thoughts, get to quick insights, curate text and even stop me worrying about my son’s repetitive colds. Yes, the answers aren’t always accurate. Yes, there is bias. But with this in mind, I keep persevering through sharper prompts; I get a better answer than I would through traditional search.”

The inaccuracy of some answers was on full display last week. Google’s Bard embarrassingly gave an incorrect answer to a question in a promotional video, and the gaffe sent the tech company’s stock tumbling by 8%.

“Google has a high bar for launching these kinds of products because of their low tolerance for reputational damage, and we have seen why last week with that embarrassing slip-up,” says Niamh Burns, online research analyst at Enders Analysis.

“But this kind of inaccuracy is a chatbot problem, not a Google problem. There’s no reason to think that ChatGPT is any more likely to generate accurate answers, and I’m not convinced any chatbot is ready to handle hundreds of millions of requests without some serious unforeseen issues.”

Enders Analysis is yet to be sold on the idea that AI will rewrite how consumers interact with search engines in the near term; one of the research firm’s reports last week called it an “investor-soothing buzzword” for big tech companies. “AI is being pitched almost as a magic wand that can be applied to any workflow—in reality its usefulness will vary.”

Burns and Salter both believe that both Microsoft and Google are trialling their chatbots as a supplement to Search to make the user experience more dynamic, rather than as a direct alternative that will upend how people use Search to source information or consumer products. In other words, don’t expect paid Search to drastically change—yet.

“People don’t click on ads because they are answering the kind of basic informational question a chatbot can answer”, says Burns.

A negative impact on publishers?

The long-term impacts on news publishing, which benefits greatly from traditional Search, are likewise up in the air. Because ChatGPT and Bard collect information that existed at a certain time across the web, it’s unlikely the current models are able to keep up with more recent news reports. ChatGPT, for example, reports it “only has knowledge up to September 2021”.

However, prompting the chatbot to provide intelligence about more recent events can still give accurate answers. The Media Leader asked ChatGPT why Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter could be considered controversial, and the chatbot was able to give a response despite his purchase of the company occurring in October 2022. A recent article by Wired further found that the chatbot would routinely summarise key points from articles that may be otherwise locked behind paywalls, and may not always give accurate attribution.

As a result, the chatbots could have a negative impact on publishers. Richard Reeves, managing director at the Association of Online Publishers (AOP), intends to meet with publisher members of the trade association to understand more about the pros and cons of the situation. Other major UK digital news publishers The Guardian, The Sun, and MailOnline were unable to comment by the time of publication.

That has not stopped innovation specialists like Salter from being bullish on the technology, with her telling The Media Leader that it could completely change the way consumers consider how they use Search, moving it closer to personal, rather than general, application.

“It is moving Search from access to information to creation with information. A sizeable proportion of search marketing is already automated from audits, backlink monitoring, automated bidding, and more. ChatGPT can provide search volumes for keyword research and provide quality ad copy.”

She adds that from a workflow perspective, ChatGPT can also help ease strain on marketers, who are often overwhelmed by various day-to-day tasks that generative AI can assist with. According to her, there are over 500 generative AI companies actively building marketing tools spanning content creation through to personalisation. Meanwhile, a new crop of employees labelling themselves as “prompt engineers” are already looking to sell their services to help businesses get the most out of the chatbots.

“If you’re looking for what you should be doing now as a marketer, start,” she advises. “Start experimenting internally.”

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