ChatGPT’s arrival accelerates lifestyle publishers’ move away from SEO-driven content

robot nurture

The arrival of generative AI chatbots brings with it a unique threat to publishers that produce online content to answer the simple questions readers enter into search engines, like what time the Super Bowl is airing and how long it takes to cook pasta noodles. 

These chatbots — such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Microsoft’s ChatGPT-powered Bing — have the potential to take away a portion of publishers’ search-driven traffic, with their ability to generate answers to prompts without requiring a user to click through to an article.

As a result, lifestyle publishers like Bustle Digital Group and Leaf Group are moving resources away from SEO-driven content and into original stories and personal takes. BDG’s editorial shift will also prioritize original visual content, especially “relatable, humorous, shared experiences [and] advice” stories, said Wesley Bonner, head of social and audience development at BDG. At Leaf Group’s home design site Hunker, the focus will be on content that shows writers’ “taste, opinion, expertise and point of view,” said Eve Epstein, Hunker’s svp and gm.

But this shift is no small undertaking. While BDG, Leaf Group and fellow lifestyle publisher Trusted Media Brands have yet to see a notable change in the share of traffic coming from search since ChatGPT’s launch in November, referral traffic from search makes up 25-30% of BDG’s traffic and 80% of Trusted Media Brands’ traffic. Leaf Group declined to share how much of their traffic comes from search.

If AI chatbots take over the role that Google search currently has, it will be a “bigger issue for us to solve,” said Beth Tomkiw, Trusted Media Brand’s chief content officer. “My hope is that there will still be a place — even if it’s a smaller place — for the quality of work that comes from a real human,” she added. While Tomkiw is having conversations about what this would mean for TMB’s editorial strategy, no changes are taking place yet.

Deemphasizing search-driven content isn’t necessarily a new move for publishers — it’s just picking up speed. History tells us the scale model in which publishers chase clicks to build an audience doesn’t usually work to drive a successful business. It’s part of the reason why publishers have worked to build direct relationships with their audiences over the past few years — from subscriptions to newsletters — to rely less on referral traffic coming from platforms.

“For publishers who are still very focused on the page views as a primary metric, that’s going to be a bit of a problem,” said Jim Robinson, the founder of Clickseed, an SEO and audience development consultancy that works with publishers. “If that’s been your strategy, you might be a little behind the curve anyway.”

BDG shifting resources away from SEO

Aware of the impact AI chatbots will likely have on the way people use search, BDG is doubling down on moving away from its reliance on SEO-based stories and short news hits to drive traffic, said Emma Rosenblum, chief content officer at Bustle Digital Group.

Many digital media companies “were built on just the base level traffic of those service stories that now I do think in the next five years will not be necessary … because these technologies will be doing it way better, way faster and way cheaper than a human being who’s paid to write these search-based stories can do it,” Rosenblum said.

“We don’t want to be doing those stories,” she added. “That utility that we provide is going to disappear so quickly. And I’m glad because we hate doing stuff like that. … All the things that a computer could not replicate is where we’re going to put our money.”

BDG is investing in more original visual content, interviews, profiles and feature stories, Rosenblum said. While this means BDG will be producing less content overall, the company will produce more short-form videos for social media distribution. A chatbot can’t “try on jeans” and produce images of a pair of jeans on different body types, Bonner said. 

Lifestyle publishers’ “most valuable assets are their photography and visuals that they may bring to a piece of content” now that ChatGPT is in the picture, said Melissa Chowning, founder and CEO of audience development and marketing firm Twenty-First Digital.

When asked how BDG plans to make up for a potential loss in traffic with these changes, Rosenblum said in an email that the company is “not planning to scramble to make up for some potential traffic loss… If traffic dips a bit, it dips. Chasing Google is a losing war for digital media companies, which is why we’re building up areas of our business like events and newsletters, neither of which are dependent on outside platforms.” The company’s newsletter business has grown to over 5 million subscribers, a 32% growth year over year, for example.

Less traffic means less eyeballs to serve ads to, which could take a toll on BDG’s business. But Ronsemblum said programmatic revenue will continue to be a “small” part of their business going forward, with the “lion’s share” of revenue coming from direct advertising. “In this new world we’re expecting our revenue from events and newsletters to grow enormously, offsetting any potential programmatic loss,” she said.

Adoption of AI chatbots remains to be seen

Leaf Group’s Epstein believes ChatGPT’s launch is simply a “continuation” of the evolution of Google search and is not “altogether new or surprising.” Publishers already had to reckon with “featured snippets,” a feature launched in 2014 (with a significant update in 2020) that pulls a section from a publishers’ page to answer a user’s prompt right on the Google search page.

However, the adoption of chatbots remains to be seen, and for this reason it would be “premature” for a publisher to “actually put a really significant strategy change into action” at this point, Robinson said. For now, publishers should be watching their referral traffic analytics to see if a real shift in user behavior is taking place, he said. 

“I think there is an immediate need to be having these discussions,” Clickseed’s Robinson said. “That plan is a good one anyway, even if you take ChatGPT out of the picture. Who wants to give all that power to Google?”

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