You Can’t Impose Crappy. (Or Can You?)—Short and Long Term Fallout from the Rapid Adoption of AI Information Tools

If you’re like me, you’ve already taken AI tools like ChatGPT for numerous spins to test out their capabilities. Before long, it became apparent that those tools will find a ready market—people will begin to “search” in a whole new way.

Although they aren’t quite ready for prime time, their power is incredible. This may sound banal, but I was able to determine how many boxes and items I could fit into a U-Haul moving van recently, much more quickly than I would have been able to find the answer via conventional search methods (and doing my own math).

Inevitably, Google was going to have to hop on the AI train and embed it into the search experience sooner than it might have liked. The business model of the world’s largest seller of ads starts to blow up as they decide on the fly how to serve these future consumer behaviors. (The frequency of AI mentions from the company in keynote presentations over the past year has almost been like a strangled cry after accidentally ingesting rat poison: “AI? Oh, we’re fine with it!”)

In some ways, these changes exhibit continuity in the evolution of consumers wanting more up-to-date ways of interacting with the smart Q&A machine that is their device as technology becomes available to satisfy those urges. Who can forget the delightful ad for Bing, parodying the off-base, incorrectly personalized results given by yesterday’s search engines: “Moms who wear jeans to match their teen’s jeans!”

Resistance is Futile: The Borg of Search

Like my PZ colleagues on the organic side of the SERP, when rapid changes seem set to upend comfortable assumptions in the Google Search and ads world, you’ll notice a lot of panicked and purely tactical industry responses that put the cart (the needs of entrenched participants in the SEO and SEM visibility chase to keep the exact same revenue flows) before the horse (how people use technology to satisfy their informational, economic, and emotional needs).

The best way to understand anything in these times is to step back and work through the behaviors and experiences that make intuitive sense to people. It’s tough swimming against the zeitgeist. Even in an environment with some pretty strong monopolistic tendencies, you only have to look back at the recent history of media and information consumption to recognize: you can’t impose crappy.

Remember the legendary story of how the Sony Music execs laughed Steve Jobs out of their office when he broached Apple’s vision for pricing, the iTunes world of the future? “We’ll just keep telling the consumer how it is and how to buy,” they thought. They thought wrong!

Look at Microsoft. They always seemed comfortable in their role as The Borg, imposing crappy on people. At a Bing Ads gala we attended in New York some years ago, MC Colin Jost roasted the company, firing off a few zingers about the long reboot thing just as you’re late for your plane, etc. The fact that the “hey, Microsoft Windows is crappy” dialogue was so universally accepted as comedy fodder indicates some major scar tissue. Don’t get me wrong, Microsoft is very successful today, but consumers know crappy when they see it. See: Bing market share, Microsoft browser share, Microsoft not being able to produce a mobile OS or win with phones, etc.

Yesterday, I drove by a state-of-the-art billboard on the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto (owner: Astral Media), and for all to see, the blue screen of death! Yep, dark blue in larger-than-life format, with a bunch of code gibberish about the error. Funny! As Google spun Google Marketing Live out on the West Coast, Microsoft Hiccup Live was broadcasting to Toronto motorists.

Let’s face it, there have been significant windows of “opportunity” where even smaller fish could temporarily impose crappy on a bunch of consumers in the digital world. I believe there have long been significant forces at Google, in the organic world, fighting against that.

Your Ads Will Adapt to Service… Google

On the paid search side, we have every reason to worry that Google has used its monopoly position to not only impose more ads on consumers than would be desirable or healthy, but also to arbitrarily impose higher advertising costs on their loyal advertisers. It’s not great.

I’m not a fan of what seems to be Google finally going harder after the “each-other’s-brand queries” revenue stream. The way match types work today, and baked into the Performance Max campaign type, it appears that many advertisers are advertising on their competitors’ brand names without knowing it. Of course, this puts pressure on the auction, driving CPC’s upward and annoying consumers. Crappy, crappy, crappy.

Five years ago, I grew concerned about the tone of the biggest tech companies and how they seemed to envision an all-enveloping world of personal utility with smart homes, smart t-shirts, Google Glass, iOT, brain implants, and so on. None of it seemed to have a clear revenue model. Except that the rumblings sounded like a complete reset: the ability of a few larger companies to work their way into the conversation. A technologist-monopolist’s dream.

Gone, all these pesky spammers. Gone, all of these small to mid-sized businesses intent on advertising under conditions of relatively full disclosure to consumers, with the audacity to expect the myth of an “auction with rules and fair pricing” to actually be true! In their stead, a pact among big, bigger, and biggest companies to once again return to their former glory days of imposing crappy.

People don’t like monopolies. Monopolies keep trying to be monopolies. What do we do in the meantime?

In the meantime, current user behaviors persist. We’re still using keywords to search. Ad formats range from keyword campaigns to feed-based Shopping campaigns and to other formats across display, programmatic, YouTube, Gmail, Meta, LinkedIn, and so on. And then there’s all things organic: the old Search, the new Search, email, short and long video, and so on. “Moms who like screens that match their teen’s screen!” Yeah.

So, as I’ve predicted and advised for about a dozen years now: as advertisers, it’s imperative that we spend the next two years making money the old-fashioned way: using highly effective ad formats.

Trying to predict exactly how to pivot after that is a mug’s game. People like Bill Gates lost the thread of prediction years ago. They invest in farmland and try to help the world cure terrible diseases.

Do your best to make a living through this latest era of digital transformation. While executing on the basics, remember that people use technology to satisfy their informational, economic, and emotional needs.

For years, Google has been a pretty strong defender of that faith. That’s where keyword and ad Quality Scores came from, even in the realm of making money hand over fist from ads, which were meant to be as relevant as organic search results, in an ideal world.

During some give-and-take at an SEM conference in London over a decade ago, a rep from a subprime lending company suggested it would make sense to advertise on queries like “today’s lotto results” and “I need money.” No, it wouldn’t have. Not in Google’s world. Your highly specific, high-margin product isn’t meant to be considered by everyone interacting with the Q&A box. If the box begins to suck like that, they’ll stop using the box—or find a different box.

Cue the army of SEOs, and no small number of advertisers, who will now—as they always have—set out to violate key principles of user intent in an entirely new environment.

To paraphrase my dear friend Shari Thurow: Good luck, spaaaammmer!