Search finds, chat extracts

The title of this post is from last week’s People vs. Algorithms newsletter. What starts with a grim evaluation of BuzzFeed’s latest earnings leads into a grim prospectus of the online media industry in a world where platforms such as TikTok and Chat GPT upend established publishing business models.

In this world, publishers that have built their reputation on listicles curating the best posts from Reddit lose out to TikTok accounts scratching that same itch but wrapped up in bite-sized, personality-driven, 20-second video clips. People don’t go to BuzzFeed for random amusement, they go to TikTok.

Then there’s search. When you know what you’re looking for, you realize that Google’s search results page is no longer that efficiently clean place that it used to be. There are more distractions on a a Google SERP than a suburban strip mall lined by used car inflatable air guys and their flailing limbs.

Search for the best hotels in NYC and you’ll notice that not only the first couple of results are sponsored, the embedded map, People Also Ask box and other remaining links are also heavily SEO’d and lead to pages that are either full of sponsored links as well. Anyone who has searched for a recipe knows that the actual list of ingredients is buried down on the bottom of the page, after you’ve scrolled past the history, entomology, and evolution of the dish, all while generating impressions on the accompanying advertisements that may or may not be related.

Conversational AI interfaces harken back to the utility of early Google as they cut right through all this. I have to admit that 80% of my ChatGPT use is asking for the ingredients of a cocktail. The response is wonderfully refreshing with its “just the facts” presentation.

The web starts to look different, half chat box, half vertical video.

BuzzFeed’s Dirty Laundry

Lifestyle publishers that get their revenue via ads running on their site need to prepare for this new world. If curation of the social web is no longer seen as a value add and the “How to. . .” or recipe post just becomes raw material for a ChatGPT response, then how does this publisher, who is paid to introduce advertisers to their audience, get paid?

The arc of the internet is long and unpredictable but bends toward user empowerment and ever increasing fidelity. An endless stream of algorithmically sorted vertical video is the current endpoint. Robots that do much of the work to make sense of things for you are coming faster than you can say “human augmentation.”

BuzzFeed’s Dirty Laundry

John Battelle, who wrote the book on search, the last technical innovation, has some ideas. The first two (affiliate and subscription) are the logical continuation of existing business models but the second two are more interesting.

“NPR-style” underwriting – There’s an opportunity for a specialized AI to be sponsored by a brand in the same way you see certain brands feature prominently in certain magazines. Going back to my search for a cocktail recipe, does adding a classy, relevant brand ad to an AI search that’s been specifically trained on a curated dataset for the purpose can not only help pay for the experience, if done tastefully but also add to it.

Building programmatic search ads “at scale” ruined the curation of high-end brand advertising. To make a good conversational search experience takes time and expertise. Great care should go into curating training sets and iterating continually to produce quality results. Hopefully the same care will be given to accompanying advertising.

The branded agent – this brings to mind something that was pondered but never came to be when search became a consumer product. Search can go both ways, there’s the retrospective search where we search the past and then there’s prospective search that is like a standing search that only notifies you when there’s a new “hit” in the future. Prospective search is familiar to anyone who’s played around with a financial news service, Google Alerts, or services such as IFTTT or Zapier.

If I think of it, I have multiple standing search queries across multiple services that vie for my attention when they get a hit. Spotify lets me know when an artist that I have on repeat is coming to town, American Express tells me every week how much I’ve spent on my card, and ESPN is laughing at me right now because my NCAA bracket is a mess.

These are better known as push notifications and, if you’re like me, you get too many of them. Maybe this is where conversational AI will provide help. Notifications are like a one way conversation – various services trying to start a conversation, most of them failing. Apple has attempted to offer user controls but it’s so complicated to set up that entire articles are written about how to configure the Notification Center.

World War I U-boat controls

Maybe notification management is where we’ll see sponsored conversational AI agents provide value. Allow an AI access to your notifications to get filtered or enhanced notifications and chat conversations informed by your lifestyle and interests.

Invite The New Yorker AI, sponsored by Calm to manage your weekend notifications and allow you uninterrupted time with their long-form journalism partners.

Let Bicycling‘s AI, sponsored by Peloton look at health-related notifications and suggest that you take your indoor training on the road with the upcoming Five-Borough ride.

Use the Eater AI sponsored by Resy to look for food & drink recommendations and get access to a branded conversational AI module that has a history of not only where you’ve been but also all the places you have “on your list.”

We give Google access to our retrospective search, are we prepared to give an AI access to our prospective search in return for personalized AI?

Imagine asking your personal AI when that Italian restaurant your friend texted you about last week is open for a Friday evening reservation. You then ask it to check which of those days works for your date and, when you hear back, you ask the AI to secure that reservation with your credit card. Skip a few beats and then your Peloton AI pipes in to suggest a longer than normal ride for you the following day to work off all that pasta. Respond “sure” and then it’s on your calendar for Saturday morning.

Is this a dream come true or a nightmare you want to avoid? We’ve been here before. What privacy will you give up in return for convenience? It comes down to trust. We’ve been burned by the platforms who took our trust and used it to spam us with irrelevant messages in pursuit of CPCs at scale.

Would things have been different if we opted in to brands we trust to broker our preferences. What if publishers such as The New Yorker, Bicycling, or Eater managed our privacy and brokered it to its advertisers. Wouldn’t you feel differently if you were putting your trust in an editorial voice that you identified with as a subscriber and reader and not some faceless technology stack that only sought to harvest your clicks?

Now is the time for publishers to jump in front of conversational AI development and use their editorial expertise to craft experiences that cater to their readers. Use this Precambrian period to establish a reputation for quality and avoid disintermediation by the platforms again.


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