These days, SEO practitioners cannot start their workday without reading some kind of headline about AI. However, most of the recent announcements surrounding AI have centered on national search results rather than local SEO, from Bing Chat’s image answers to publishers featured in Google’s Generative Search Results.
It’s relatively unknown how AI will impact local search. And this sense of bewilderment doesn’t stop there. Google’s other recent initiatives around the Perspectives feature, short-form video, and changes to the Google Business Profile (GBP) platform all speak to uncertainty surrounding Google’s future as a search engine.
Despite these unknowns, I will forge ahead through this steaming hot plate of confusion and share my predictions of what’s next for local SEO and GBP.
We’ll look at a few changes with AI that will affect GBP:
- Google’s new Search Generative Experience includes the local pack, but it will struggle to remain up-to-date.
- Perspectives yields new opportunities in the local review space.
- Review spam will get worse, then better, then the same.
- GBP support will get more automated🥲
Ultimately, these changes have altered the physical appearance of search results, but overall local SEO strategy won’t change much. We’re seeing plenty of attempts from Google to modernize its interface, but the core content remains the same or similar.
1. Generative AI Search Results Won’t Improve Local Search
If you log on to SEO Twitter or LinkedIn these days, the future is dark:
“SEO is not dead, but could lose relevance as a traffic channel in the future” – Olaf Kopp
“The world is underestimating how much of an apocalypse Google’s new experience will be.” – Eli Schwartz
SEOs are concerned that SGE, or Search Generative Experience, will reduce organic traffic and delegitimize SEO as a marketing channel. Google has introduced SGE as its solution for AI in search results, using a system similar to Bing GPT.
Because SGE populates the entirety of above-the-fold search results, many SEO practitioners fear that it will impact organic traffic. After all, why should a website try to rank in traditional search results that aren’t even seen by most users?
SGE includes the local pack, but this doesn’t really mean much. Credit: Digital Danielle
So far, I’m not concerned about the impact of SGE in local search results. It’s not adding any value. Because it lacks real-time data, SGE can’t meet users’ local needs as effectively.
How SGE Works and Why It’s Not Effective for Local
SGE is an AI chatbot that picks search results for you based on its large language model (LLM).
Traditional search results are modeled on a query—a crawler fetches results based on a few words.
AI search results are more conversational—an LLM interprets the context of human language.
The LLM from SGE has been added on top of Google’s existing model. It’s a robodog designed to fetch the best stick (LLM chat AI) that’s running on top of a technology designed to bring you the best stick available (Google search).
While the SGE uses a lot of SERP real estate, its impact in the local space is unclear. Google states that the SGE “will provide context about local places, using AI-powered insights that make it easy to compare and explore options.” This statement really doesn’t say much. It’s the equivalent of saying that a coffee shop offers multiple lattes without posting the menu.
So, how will local search work on the SGE? Poorly. An LLM doesn’t reference a live index—it’s static. To develop the LLM, engineers trained it on a massive data set, and they can’t update that data set on a regular basis.
It Lacks Context
Think of an LLM like an English-to-Spanish dictionary. It parses words and helps you understand and speak the language, but it doesn’t have access to news and events in a Spanish-speaking region.
The base technology behind SGE doesn’t understand when there’s a flood that wiped out 30 basements driving demand for sump pumps or that the newest local taco truck is trending on social media. Its functionality is dependent on its ability to connect real-time information in the index with its LLM model, a technology that Google describes as Retrieval Augmented Generation.
It Relies on User Generated Content
To understand real-time local information, Google relies on user-generated content through its Knowledge Graph, which is interpreted through an index of Google Business Profile, social media, and local news.
SGE doesn’t index reviews. It depends on Retrieval Augmented Generation to connect its index with its LLM, but the LLM isn’t interpreting the content of recent reviews. The LLM is limited to its AI training database.
Local Information Changes Too Rapidly
It will be difficult for SGE to naturally integrate local search elements because this information changes so quickly. The trendiest restaurants in Denver in 2022 are not the same in 2023. The relevance of local information centers on its ability to adapt to community trends.
Regardless of the connection between SGE and local, we also won’t experience a large change with the SERP interface. The local pack has historically consumed the top of organic local results, and now it is being used in SGE. Since the SGE references the top three organic local results (as shown in the SGE screenshot), this isn’t much different than achieving the Local Pack.
SGE has not shifted the paradigm for local SEO—it resembles the current configuration, and Google can’t keep it up to date.
2. Reviews Will Become Even More Personalized
Google Perspectives is a new, personalized tab in search results—it’s Google’s answer to TikTok. And it’s a bigger deal for local SEO than SGE. While Perspectives isn’t an AI feature, it could significantly impact Google’s narrative for first-person experience in search results.
In Google’s announcement for Perspectives at I/O 2023, the search results preview included information from Twitter, Reddit, TikTok, and YouTube. Users click a tab in search results and then view a feed that emphasizes user-generated content. Perspectives is a change of pace from the news articles and corporate websites that typically rank in traditional search results.
In its announcement about Perspectives, Google directly references the addition of Expertise to its E-E-A-T changes in 2022. Google’s shift toward first-person experiences reflects a transformation in its user base. In 2021, TikTok became the world’s most popular domain—yes, even more popular than Google. Younger users aren’t connecting with Google, and the search engine will continue to attempt to capture this market.
As part of this aggressive youth targeting, I predict that Google Perspectives will add a new dynamic to a business’ review cycle. Instead of targeting reviews from all types of customers, local businesses will increasingly lean on a hyper-local “influencer” style of local review. Encouraging customers to create a video review or a self-made testimonial might change the landscape of GBP reviews.
On TikTok, people look for influencers to tell them about lesser-known, trendy restaurants. Google will offer its Perspectives feature for similar first-person experiences with local businesses.
Because Perspectives is sourced from multiple channels, it offers numerous opportunities to stand out from other local businesses. Google may end up connecting local content from Perspectives to a GBP profile, enhancing the reviews section.
Perspectives will target a younger audience—71% of TikTok users are in the 18 to 34 demographic. Google might start to include first-person video reviews, possibly sourcing them from third-party video websites. Local businesses can inspire short-form video content from a younger audience by:
- Defining a user persona for a younger demographic
- Determining if any local competitors have been featured through first-person experiences
- Encouraging genuine interactions between staff and customers (no canned responses, treat your employees well)
As local SEO evolves, much of it will move away from optimizing a certain web page or profile and into attracting content produced by customers. By improving business operations, locations will begin to stand out and prove themselves worthy of content from younger customers. Success in local search will still rely on reviews, but the format for them will change.
3. Review Spam Won’t Change
In 2022, Google removed 20% more fake reviews than in 2020, including 20 million attempts to create fake Google Business Profiles.
AI will exacerbate fake reviews across GBP, with some spam companies already integrating AI technology to write them. A Google search for “ai review generator” produces numerous options to improve a business’ review count. It’s against GBP and FTC policy to create fake reviews, and the initial wave of spam will challenge these organizations.
However, every advancement in AI content generation also results in an advancement in AI that detects fake reviews. It’s a perpetual game of cat and mouse that developers and spam fighters will wage for ages to come.
Local business owners can expect the following:
- Competitors improve rankings with the integration of fake review spam.
- AI detection technology from GBP identifies the fake reviews and removes these competitors.
Ultimately, the rise in AI reviews won’t impact day-to-day operations for a local business beyond an initial dip and correction in rankings. The best approach with reviews is a shift toward targeting Perspectives review traffic, as well as staying the course with current review tactics.
4. GBP Support Will Dwindle
Sometimes I reminisce about the earlier days of GBP when contacting support was only a phone call away. You’d dial a phone number, wait 30 minutes or so on hold, and get the help you needed. These days, contacting GBP support typically happens through an email request. If that email request isn’t properly formatted, GBP support might ignore it. If you do everything correctly, it still might take weeks for GBP support to respond.
When GBP support does respond, they’ll often ask to confirm identifying information about the business and then take a few more weeks to respond. I usually set expectations with businesses that the turnaround time for a request with GBP support is a month.
Paying a human being to provide customer support is expensive. AI doesn’t require a salary, while a person does. Though GBP’s paid Local Service Ads continue to expand, the GBP platform itself is free and requires resources to maintain.
With this shift toward email support and long wait times, many users have moved to the GBP forum for support, which is managed by GBP product experts. These product experts are able to expedite certain GBP requests to Google support. Some local SEOs have theorized that Google is using the free labor of its product experts on the forum as a way of filtering out extraneous customer service requests.
In another attempt at cost savings, GBP updated its management dashboard in November 2022. Many local SEO practitioners explain this change as an attempt to simplify the GBP management experience for small businesses, which would reduce customer service requests. This update, described as the New Merchant Experience (NMX), equipped local business owners with a dashboard that intuitively updates a GBP directly in search results.
Making an adjustment in search results might help small businesses more directly understand the impact of a GBP change. When GBP users make a change and can immediately place it in search results, this might reduce the volume of customer service requests.
Google’s decline in phone support and its shift toward in-search management speak to a larger move toward making the GBP platform more efficient. When Google needs to cut costs, it will look at removing support for cost-intensive tools like GBP that are free to the user.
As Google’s AI chat technology continues to improve, it would make sense to replace some human support with Bard or a similar LLM. This move toward AI support would further reduce costs and contribute to the collective shrug that Google has directed toward its GBP platform.
The Future of GBP and AI
So what’s the future of local search, GBP, and AI? It’s a mixed bag—search traffic won’t change much for local, but managing GBP will become more challenging.
Google’s shift into AI is reflective of society’s current fascination with digital automation. People are exploring how an AI assistant can save them time and simplify their lives. Google is attempting to address the arguments that its search results have become unhelpful and gamified by SEO.
For the most part, these AI discussions seem to ignore how well Google has captured the local market. The local pack delivers search results that are customized to the user’s location, favor positive reviews, and consider community recognition as a ranking factor. While the GBP platform may continue to frustrate local SEO practitioners and small businesses, its local relevance will continue to reign.
Local SEO isn’t going anywhere. Businesses will continue to earn top rankings in GBP by improving their customer experience and community involvement. Regardless of how many times we read the word “AI” in a headline, human beings won’t change, and neither will their need for local search results.
The post Local Search Isn’t Dying, But It Is Changing: 4 Predictions About the Future of GBP & AI appeared first on Portent.