July 12, 2024


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Will ChatGPT Spell the End of Search Engines?

11 min read
Will ChatGPT Spell the End of Search Engines?

Over the past several months, ChatGPT has been earning enough headline mentions that it’s becoming a bit of a celebrity in its own right. And as for the sentiment of those headlines and supporting articles, many fall into one of two buckets:

  • ChatGPT is so exciting—look at all the fun stuff it can do and time it can save!

  • ChatGPT is the end of the internet, our jobs, and life as we know it—the time is nigh to prepare for the robot revolution!

At Tinuiti, we’re largely members of the first camp. We recognize that ChatGPT (Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer) is likely to change how we use the internet—particularly when looking at the functionality and UI of search engines specifically—but where others see a threat, we see a valuable tool.

ChatGPT doesn’t need to be a replacement for anything to be revolutionary; it can be a pivotal cog in the wheels that help improve the search experience for marketers and users alike. In this article, we’ll discuss some of the biggest ways we expect ChatGPT might reshape search (no robot overlords required), and how it can make your life easier.


What is ChatGPT & How Does It Work?

ChatGPT is an AI-powered chatbot developed by OpenAI, an artificial intelligence and research company perhaps best known for their DALL-E and DALL-E 2 deep learning models. ChatGPT was launched in November 2022, and is currently free to use, having earned more than 100 million users by January 2023. For context, it took TikTok nine months to reach that number of users after its successful launch.

Similar to search engines, ChatGPT is designed to help you find the information you’re looking for online. Rather than simply eliciting responses or a list of links to choose from, ChatGPT enables users to engage in a form of conversation.

Users are even able to build on previous questions they have asked in a ChatGPT session, helping them get closer to the results they were looking for, much like refining a search query. These questions can also be driven by the user’s learnings from previous responses, making it easier to explore all those tangents in your mind without opening 100 tabs.

ChatGPT can even deliver an essay-length response given the right prompt, which naturally has many teachers and writers alike concerned. It has even tried its hand at penning a State of the Union speech, in the writing styles of William Shakespeare, Martin Luther King Jr., and other notable historical figures.

As shared by OpenAI:

“The dialogue format makes it possible for ChatGPT to answer followup questions, admit its mistakes, challenge incorrect premises, and reject inappropriate requests. ChatGPT is a sibling model to InstructGPT, which is trained to follow an instruction in a prompt and provide a detailed response.”

In order to deliver the information users are looking for, ChatGPT had to have a lot of training. OpenAI shared that the current model of ChatGPT was trained using Reinforcement Learning from Human Feedback (RLHF), with human AI trainers being instrumental in helping GPT determine whether a provided response was high quality.

To accomplish this, OpenAI had human AI trainers lead both sides of the conversation—a bit like talking to yourself. Trainers were provided with “model-written suggestions to help them compose their responses.” OpenAI then “mixed this new dialogue dataset with the InstructGPT dataset,” transforming that into dialogue format. Comparison data was then collected so they could compare the responses and assess their quality.

ChatGPT Considerations

While ChatGPT does function similarly to a search engine in that it can be used to find answers to queries, it’s important to remember that just like search results themselves, not all of those answers are going to be accurate. To make matters worse, ChatGPT is exceptionally adept at making inaccurate answers sound quite plausible thanks to its language capabilities. If you’re asking it a question about something you know little about, these wrong answers can be tough to spot.

Tools like ChatGPT and Google’s Bard, covered below, are fundamentally “asking” users to add conversation-based behavior to their existing query-based behavior. At least for now, it doesn’t look like they’re planning to have one replace the other.

Additionally, based on how ChatGPT functions today, it is also likely to be more useful for looking for answers than looking for things to purchase.

“For those who are using Google Search for educational or research purposes, I think the potential value-add of an AI-powered chatbot is obvious. But for direct-response or shopping-related behaviors, I think the use cases are a bit more nuanced. I think there are ways to use AI, and LLMs (large language models) particularly, to help make Google Search a more refined product, and to give people better results than what they’re getting today for a lot of searches. But I don’t view ChatGPT as a direct threat to Google’s search business.”

Portrait of Josh O'Donnell

Josh O’Donnell, Sr. Strategist, Paid Search at Tinuiti


Is ChatGPT a Threat to Google?


If Google didn’t make any changes to adapt to the post-ChatGPT landscape, it could be seen as a threat to how many people would continue to use Google as their primary search engine. But simply put, that isn’t happening.

Google is constantly evolving to meet the changing needs and demands of users and advertisers, with advances in AI and machine learning fueling many of those updates. Among the most foundational ways they evolve is through Google algorithm updates. In addition to the nuanced changes Google is making to their algorithms every day, they also make significant adjustments as necessary to improve user experience and search result quality.

It’s also important to consider that like all new things, the lasting power of the thrill is yet to be seen. Will this simply be a fun new techy thing users experiment with for a few weeks, and quickly forget? Or will this be something that some of us consider a crucial tool in our daily lives, while others simply don’t latch onto the trend at all?

Josh O’Donnell, Sr. Strategist, Paid Search at Tinuiti, notes that ChatGPT may have a similar path of adoption as voice assistants…

“If we think back to when home voice assistants like Amazon Alexa first launched, it suddenly seemed like everyone had one, and many thought that search would be drastically changed as a result. But today—while voice assistants are inarguably very popular—the core search experience has persisted, with added functionality for voice-enabled searches. I think we will see a fairly similar path for AI-powered chat tech. The search experience will evolve to incorporate the new technology, augmenting the search product and powering better search experiences, but the core concept of what a search engine is and what a search engine does will continue to persist.”


How ChatGPT Will Likely Change Google Search


Google is already heavily invested in the AI space, and has a history of adapting to changing needs and technologies. Google recently announced their own conversational AI technology—Bard A.I., powered by LaMDA—noting that it will roll out to “trusted testers” before a public release in coming weeks.

Google announced LaMDA (Language Model for Dialogue Applications) in May 2021, sharing at the time that they had “invented machine learning techniques that help us better grasp the intent of Search queries.” They also shared that “LaMDA’s conversational skills have been years in the making,” and the language model was built on Transformer, the “neural network architecture that Google Research invented and open-sourced in 2017.” Other recent language models built on Transformer are Google’s own BERT, and GPT-3.

This is all to say that the idea of AI isn’t new to Google, and their own research and technology have helped pave the way for ChatGPT. That said, with great power comes equally great responsibility, and Google has not only power but a reputation to protect. When you’re the world’s largest search engine, the bulk of your work comes in maintaining your position, while others in your space can afford to act more quickly in the name of hoping to secure some of your users.

While Microsoft has plans to integrate GPT into Office products and Bing search by March of this year, and is heavily invested in OpenAI, we expect to see any major changes from Google to be carefully experimented with before widespread release.

Below are two ways we expect the widespread adoption of ChatGPT might change the Google experience:

Option 1: AI-Powered Enhancements to SERPs

In this scenario, the Google search experience as we know it today would remain largely unchanged, but would be updated with some minor AI-powered enhancements to better help users cut through the noise and clutter that SERPs sometimes provide.

Option 2: Refining Searches with AI-Powered Chat

In this scenario, Google would adapt to a new AI-powered chat + search experience, which would present a more refined way to search for things. However, it’s yet to be seen whether the preference for a chat-powered search interface is truly something that will stick with consumers beyond the “aha” moment we currently find ourselves in.

For a preview of what Option 2 might look like on Google and Bing, check out You.com.

search results for "best laptops" in YouChat on You.com

Source: You.com

The end-user preference between these two options will be largely dictated by the nature of the search query. For example, simple Q&A searches are going to be better suited to the Q&A format that an AI-powered chatbot can provide. However, for most queries, we still believe search engines will be the preferred route for users.

Sample Scenario:

Let’s consider a searcher is looking to buy a new pair of running shoes. Are they more likely to find value in a list of results along with images of different shoes and customer reviews to help them evaluate which shoe is right for them—like they do today—or would they rather have ChatGPT just tell them what shoe to buy without considering any other sources of information?

For these purchase-related searches—the vast majority of searches that fuel Google’s ad revenue—the traditional search design still seems to make the most sense.

The value of search is that you get multiple options and perspectives from a variety of sources all centrally displayed on one page. GPT-3 and other LLMs will help augment this design to make it more relevant and useful, but we don’t see it fully replacing search as a tool, at least not anytime soon.

For more information about Google’s work on similar projects, check out a few additional developments they have announced in recent years, including:

Graph showing PaLm language model ability growing over time, exceeding the average human’s language ability

Scaling behavior of PaLM on a subset of 58 BIG-bench tasks

Source: https://ai.googleblog.com/2022/04/pathways-language-model-palm-scaling-to.html


Additional Expert Takeaways on ChatGPT


“Technology is not going to replace all that we do. But here is one thing it is going to reduce the use of — our fingers. So that instead of merely typing, we can increase the use of our brains & our voices, not to mention our creativity & analytical thinking/problem-solving. Today, we can’t imagine a world of work without email or Slack. But email & Slack didn’t replace humans talking to each other. They just made it faster & more efficient than picking up the phone or faxing. Same for ChatGPT and all the others that will come in its wake.”

Portrait of Zach Morrison

Zach Morrison, CEO of Tinuiti

“I like to think of innovations in AI similar to what we experienced with graphic design. Before Photoshop, digital images were expensive, and not something you could do in-house—and forget about editing or enhancing photos yourself. Photoshop brought all the power to your desktop. We went from thinking Photoshopped images were unbelievable to being weary and in disbelief (that’s Photoshopped!). Today, thanks to Apple and Google, and their AI solutions, our camera phone photos are unbelievable (that came from a phone?!). Then there are those that take those filters and enhancements too far (looking at you, r/instagramreality).
So now we have tools like DALL E and ChatGPT in our hands; if we do this right, we’ll get some unbelievable results, enhancing human creativity and capability. Abuse it? Well, we’ve been here before. We won’t believe what we’re seeing, hearing, or reading.”

Portrait of Nirish Parsad

Nirish Parsad, Practice Lead, Emerging Tech at Tinuiti

“Once I have the idea, the slowest part of my working process is starting. It is much easier for me to provide feedback than to start. ChatGPT has been great at starting for me, which allows me to [heavily] edit, finesse, and finish, accelerating the whole process. With the extra time comes more ideas.”

Portrait of Jesse Math

Jesse Math, VP, Integrated Solutions at Tinuiti


Closing Thoughts

GPT-related tech will undoubtedly disrupt the industry, but it’s hardly the first disruption, and it’s unlikely to threaten Google’s existence, power, and purpose. And—in the right hands, given the right prompts—it can function as an important time-saving tool for searchers and marketers.

Bear in mind that we don’t miss the irony of writing about something that many writers feel will render their jobs obsolete; if that’s the case, it’s a bit like training the person who will replace you. But that’s where it’s important to consider that ChatGPT is drawing its answers and conclusions not from things it has written, but human-provided and uploaded information. It is “intelligently” analyzing that information to determine the best answer to provide, but the information itself did not originate outside the human mind.

Additionally, while ChatGPT has an abundance of information to work with in generating a response, that response will always be based on things that have already been written. If we over-relied on AI-generated content for gathering and generating information, the internet would start to look like a slightly nuanced piece of rehashed duplicate content. Google already knows we don’t want that.

It’s also worth considering that those full-bodied answers ChatGPT often generates when answering a question are exactly the kind of content that professional writers strive to create.

When Google has determined that a resource is a relevant answer for a given query, that landing page is typically rewarded with a higher ranking for related searches in the organic SERPs. In that sense, ChatGPT—which would be drawing its information from what it deemed to be the most credible sources on the internet—can be thought of more as an efficient aggregator. And that is one of the many ways our teams are using it at Tinuiti—as a thought-starter that gets some initial ideas down and flowing.

So in what specific ways can marketers make the best use of this tool to improve their efficiency, and free up more time for strategy and execution? Check back soon for an upcoming blog post providing actionable tips for how PPC marketers can start using the GPT tech that’s available today to make their day-to-day activities easier, or contact us today to chat with a (human!) expert.

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