What should publishers do if generative AI makes search traffic go to zero? 

Adam Singolda
By Adam Singolda | 10 November 2023
Adam Singolda.

News sites, recipe sites, travel sites and more could see traffic drop by 20%, 30% or maybe 100%. Here are five things publishers can do to more than compensate for that lost traffic and revenue. 

It’s what’s keeping publishers up at night: the potential erasure of 20 percent, 30 percent or even more of their online traffic.  

That’s the potential problem that online content companies face, as search potentially shifts from solely delivering article links in response to user queries to promoting direct answers from Generative AI type technologies.  

With less traffic coming to their pages, publishers that want to avoid losing revenue because of Generative AI need a change in strategy.  Publishers have to make those who do come to their pages worth more.  

The depreciation of SEO traffic is their “Independence Day movie moment of truth.” That’s when the 1996 film’s fictional President Thomas J. Whitmore rallied citizens against an impending alien attack by exhorting them, “We will not go quietly into the night!  We're going to live on! Today we celebrate our Independence Day!” The end of SEO should be treated similarly (if slightly less melodramatically.)   

Here are five things that will help publishers more than make up projected losses from SEO’s downward shift: 

1. Pick the right battles: Canadian publishers and regulators may appear to have held off Google Bard’s incursion by demanding direct payments for their content. The search giant refused their demands and has suspended the rollout of its AI platform in the country. But there’s no stopping the flood of Generative AI. Publishers do deserve to be compensated, of course. But they need to go about it in a way that won’t invite resistance. This is time for publishers to cut deals with search engines and other AI operators. This is not good enough, as it’s only relevant for very large publishers who might “get a deal”, but still those who can - should.  

  1. Rebirth of the homepage: Too many publishers have lost confidence in being able to drive repeat visits to their homepage. SEO and social media strategies, too often, led publishers to concentrate on driving impressions to specific pieces of content,  also known as “side traffic”. But it wasn’t always the case, and this might be a good moment to focus on reviving the homepage and make your website a habit for readers.  

Naturally, the main way to do that is by reliably producing original, high-quality content, and introducing the homepage as an “Instagram/TikTok”-like page where it’s AI driven, it’s relevant, it’s personalised, and people want to go there to stumble upon stuff they may like but never knew existed. The average person spends an hour a day on TikTok, but only 90 seconds a day on publisher sites. 

If publishers make their homepage “TikTok”-like, but with trusted information versus the stuff found on social media, this can revive the homepage as the main page people go back to. Beyond that, it’s a good time to double down on expertise and professional journalism; original, exclusive content that delivers unique insights is the source of readers’ and advertisers’ trust in the publisher's brand.  

  1. Change your culture and recognize AI as a friend: The fear of new tech is natural, and rightfully so - especially when you’re considering the importance journalism plays in today’s world. But treating it as threat will only postpone inevitable losses, defeat, and finally, acquiescence to a quickly evolving business reality.  

There are endless use cases for how AI can help publishers — and we're only beginning to understand the full potential. For example, AI can complement A/B testing of creative work, while supplementing writers with auto-generated content that frees them up to do more valuable work.  

Generative AI can be used to augment publishers’ own search tools by providing readers answers based on the site’s archival content, it can automatically create newsletters, it can even change the page layout and user experience based on who the reader is, some people get bigger video players, some people may not get a video player at all - and so much more.  

  1. Think LTV, not pageviews:  What if a publisher did lose 20% of their traffic? Now is the time to shift to a longer term view of monetisation. Publishers should steal a page from successful SaaS companies, retailers and even telcos and optimize for readers' lifetime value (LTV). What if publishers earned 30% more per user from ecommerce, subscription packages, video views, native ads, header bidding, etc.? If less than 10% click on ads, and less than 10% buy products, and less than 10% watch videos, and less than 10% sign up to subscriptions -but the page layout people see never changes, isn’t that outdated? That’s a huge opportunity for publishers, and the Generative AI boogeyman might be forcing us all to change faster than we had planned to do.  

  1. Own your audience: this is a good time for publishers to rethink newsletters, browser notifications, partnerships with sister sites to drive traffic back and forth, syndication deals with big portals to get more exposure, partnerships with OEM manufacturers and with anyone that reaches consumers that may be relevant to you. If there was ever a time for publishers to think direct to consumer, now is the time.  

As Generative AI is apt to vastly change online media consumption, the time for experimenting at the margins is over, and we should all be considering “10x type ideas”.  

I’m optimistic. 

History tends to repeat itself, and we know from the past that where Facebook’s Instant articles didn’t provide enough value to publishers, in the end - they bounced. There is no doubt Generative AI tech is a huge revolution, but it won’t work unless publishers work. This is an opportunity for publishers to innovate in bigger and faster ways, embrace AI, and for Generative AI engines to find ways to compensate content creators in revenue, audience or both so we (consumers) can both enjoy the growth of AI, and the trusted journalistic content we all need for humanity to survive. We do not want publishers to go down, and have our kids learn about important things like health care, science, or technology from TikTok.   

Adam Singolda, Founder and CEO Taboola 

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