How Small Businesses Can Stay Competitive | Small Business Matters
For years now, businesses have coveted that top search engine results ranking spot. But with AI search tools, that may now be an obsolete goal. So how can small businesses, in particular, utilize ChatGPT and other evolving technology to continue to get in front of their customers and clients? How do we “do” search in the age of AI? This week we turn our focus to AI tools and how small businesses can leverage them to remain competitive.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our interview.
Emily Garman: Hello there. Welcome to the Small Business Matters podcast. I’m Emily Garman. I’m your host for today. We’ve all heard the buzz recently around AI tools like ChatGPT: artificial intelligence that’s already drastically changing the way we interact with information online.
For years now, businesses have coveted that top search engine results ranking spot. But with AI search tools, that may now be an obsolete goal. So how can small businesses, in particular, utilize this evolving technology to continue to get in front of their customers and clients? How do we “do” search in the age of AI? Well, here to help us shed some light on all this is Wil Reynolds, founder and CEO of digital marketing agency seer Interactive.
Wil comes to us from Philadelphia, where he started his agency in his living room in 2002. Now, seer has more than 200 team members all across North America helping clients stay visible to their customers as the digital landscape continues to change. He’s a sought after thought leader and speaker at conferences and events where people come together to discuss the future of the internet.
Wil, we’re so glad you were able to take the time to be here with us. Well, let’s just get right into it. So, the burning question: Is SEO dead?
Wil Reynolds: No. You know, I have looked for, how far back can I find? The first “Is SEO dead” article, and the first one that I was able to find was the same year that I started seer.
So wow, in 2002, people were already thinking, is SEO dead? No, I think we get too narrow in our scope about what search is. So if search is going to Google, and typing words into something, that’s one thing. But I believe search is more of an attempt for somebody to get an answer.
And I think since the cave man days, we as humans have been trying to find ways to efficiently get answers to the questions that are on our minds. And if you think of that, more broadly as search, I think you’ll find that that’s never going away.
Emily Garman: Yeah, that makes sense. But we all know, it’s definitely changing from caveman days, to 2002 search was different than it looks now, for sure. So what implications do you see that these new technologies like ChatGPT, Bard, the new Bing–how are they transforming the way we do SEO and the way we think about SEO?
Wil Reynolds: So there’s two parts here. There’s how we consume answers to our questions, and then there’s how do we use these tools to produce content to answer those questions.
So I think ChatGPT, and the things that we’ve been talking about, and we’ll talk about today have two different themes. Okay. The one that you’re talking about as it relates to SEO. I think the bar just got really low to content production, so now, the first thing I think of is Google has to index potentially 10 x the amount of content with the same infrastructure.
So in a world where people can infinitely produce as much content as they want, how is Google, or a search engine in general, going to manage this deluge of content production from just a crawling, processing, and infrastructure standpoint? And what I go back to is they’re going to more than likely index the content and the answers from the domains they trust the most.
So, you know, if you’re a new site, or you’re a relatively new site, and you are producing just tons and tons and tons of content using some of these tools, I think there’s a pretty good chance that some of those rankings may not have a chance to see the light of day if those terms are competitive enough to where larger companies and more trusted companies from Google are ranking.
So I would caution people against just trying to produce as much content as humanly possible, and instead, my pivot, and what I’m recommending for my clients, is where do we have information that we can feed into ChatGPT to get a different answer than what every other Joe Blow would say.
“Oh, I’ve got to write a blog post about termites.” Right? Fine. You go in. Anybody can do that. You can do that. I can do that today and get similar answers. But imagine if I took all my chat logs in a region that talked or included the word termites, and then I fed that in to Chat GPT and said, “based on what you see my customers saying, my unique content, what kind of content would you write related to X, Y, or Z or getting rid of termites?” And it might give me a totally different answer than it would the average person. So I’m trying to instruct my clients to say, where can we get data that will then enhance the answers that we’re able to use these tools for, to produce a better answer, connect with what’s on our customer’s minds.
Emily Garman: That is a really interesting way to think about it. I love that. So if I’m a termite business, keeping with that theme, do I still need to think about things like back links or are those still important? If I’m a new business, I don’t have that advantage of a domain age or a trusted domain. Would it still something I want to do, to get other people to link to me that might have more valuable domains, like an .edu domain or a .gov domain, or is that still valid?
Wil Reynolds: I think Google uses .edus and .govs as a proxy for trust. So one of the things I used to say, when I believed that links from those sources had a higher value, is I would say, if Emily can’t just go register a.edu or a.gov and Wil can’t go register a .edu and a.gov, then that creates a proxy for Google, because that’s a massive hurdle to be able to register one of those domains.
So back in the day, I’d say, 2015, 16, et cetera, 14, 13, Google used that, in my opinion, as a proxy for value. But then, as Google got better, they didn’t have to rely as much on that big hurdle in your domain registration to be able to increase the value of the link. They have found other ways and other factors to look at.
So if I was a new business starting up, to be honest, if it was me, I would run a deep analysis on domains that are in my space that have been able to rank in the twenties and thirties for a few years, have been consistently not doing great, but still existing, and I would buy that domain more than likely, and then give myself a leg up from the beginning. Versus if you just start from scratch and you truly believe that search and content marketing is one of the ways that you’re going to really and truly impact your business. Do you really want to build up three or four years of trust with Google? Or do you want to take someone who’s got some trust already, already in your space, already thematically relevant, and then start from that building block to then build on top of?
Emily Garman: Makes sense. Why start from scratch if you don’t have to?
Wil Reynolds: Well, the problem is, in this world where so much content is going to be produced, I instantly think, what are they going to do to manage that and what’s the easiest way to manage that? To be like, we’re going to crawl you once a week if you are a new domain, but we’re going to continue to crawl Orkin 5,000 times a day because we see more brand signals that they’re probably a better answer. We see more user signals that they’re probably a better answer, and I don’t know you yet and I don’t trust you enough yet to deploy my resources on consistently crawling your site, which will mean it’ll just take a lot longer if you start without some wind at your sails.
Emily Garman: And my initial thought there is, well, that makes it more difficult to get started. It makes it more difficult than ever before to break into a business. But we’ve been saying that since 2002 probably as well.
Wil Reynolds: That’s true. That’s true.
Emily Garman: So I’ve been, I’ve been curious about some of the other ways this technology like ChatGPT is being used, particularly around people with disabilities and how this changes search. So we’ve got visual search, natural language processing, the ways that we can input more than just typing something into a search engine. We can put in images, we can have a conversation with a search engine now. And that’s really changing the way that we search. How is that going to change again, the way we produce content and that we need to make sure we’re producing it in an accessible way?
Wil Reynolds: That’s a really good question. What that reminds me of is when we were told that voice devices were going to change everything and that we were all going to talk into our phones and our Alexa devices and 50% of search was going to be like that and it didn’t ring true. You know, I have not done a voice-driven search on my phone in weeks or months. The only thing I really do it for is for timers when I’m cooking, right. Because my hands are dirty. So it’s a great time to use that. So from a people changing how they put words into boxes standpoint, I think that will… I’m cautious about believing that somehow that’s going to vanish, and that it’ll go away.
I think the visual search, in many instances, is more likely something where you don’t know exactly how to describe the thing that you’re looking at, so you probably have searched for it a couple times, can’t find it. You’re like, let me just take a picture. And the quality of the answer that comes back is exactly what you were just looking at, and I think the quality is why image search works so well. Whereas how many times would you say something into an Alexa device, and then it’s blathering on, and you’re trying to get it to stop because it’s giving you the answer you didn’t want and you’re like, I should have just typed it in. Like now I’m like trying to get it to stop and what’s the right word to make it stop? So I feel like the voice thing never worked the way that people thought it was going to take over. I do believe that the image search and using that and the accessibility that also comes with that is going to be huge.
The other thing I think is most interesting about Chat GPT, chat driven search, is the context. The fact that that thing stays in context with your previous questions is a game changer because so often we had to type in extra characters to repeat something that we had searched for before.
So I searched for something, didn’t find what I want, but then I have to repeat those characters. Now I can just say, no, I only want to see results from this site, or, no, I want this. And it knows that what I’m talking about is what was up above. I think that’s huge, because what that’s going to do is not require people to have to enter in as many things when they’re typing, because you can just kind of stay in a chat, like we would talk.
Emily Garman: Yeah, it’s always open. And, and, and that brings up a question that I have about the way those chat interfaces work too. So if you are having a conversation with your ChatGPT about termites, and I am too, and I’m in Oklahoma and you’re in Philadelphia, does it draw information from both of our conversations to inform the other? Or are we in a silo? Is this just my conversation and my Chat learns about what I’m talking about in the context that I have, and yours does too? Or does it learn from both of those and bring bringing them into each other, if that makes sense.
Wil Reynolds: It depends on what we’re feeding it. Okay, so if you and I are both saying, “I’d like a blog post about termite damage,” then we’re going to get very similar things, because it’s using a similar language model to try to figure out what word should be around a blog post like that.
But imagine one of our big things is, we go out to Google and I take all those “people also ask” questions. So when you think that Google has those “people also ask” questions, where do you think they come from?
They come from Google watching people search for all other kind of words after they search for this word, and then they give you an answer to that based on which sites seem to have answered the question the best. So what I will feed in to my termite information are all the questions that are on people’s minds from Google.
If you don’t have that same extensive catalog, then we’re going to get very different answers, and my bet is that my answer might be more connected to what the customer wants, because I’m feeding ChatGPT a series of questions that Google’s already determined is on the customer’s mind, and that’s how I think you and I end up with different answers.
Now, if you’re using public ChatGPT, they can take that information and then use it to train models down the road. But if you’re using the private version of it and you’re throwing things at it like this, as I understand it, that does not get put back into the language model for other people to be able to learn from.
Emily Garman: Interesting. Okay. So I know you and I are thinking about using this tool to come up with the best content to serve customers. But say I’m a termite business and I want to know what kind of content I can put together that’s going to best answer my customer’s questions.
So I’m more interested in asking the AI, what do my customers want to know? What kinds of questions are people asking about termites? Do they want to know what they look like? Do they want to know what time of year they tend to swarm? I want to know because that’s what my customer’s searching for.
So I need to figure out what content I can produce that will best answer their questions. So the search engine will rely upon my website to say, “oh, well, in your area, this website’s producing great content to answer these questions.” And I’m going to connect you there. Because it seems to me like when I do any kind of interaction with Chat GPT, it doesn’t serve me a list of links. It doesn’t give me a list of termite businesses to go to. And those links could also be based on online business reviews, too. I mean, it might, if I said, “what are some great termite treatment places near me,” but it’s giving me information back, not links. So if I’m the termite business, I want to be the source of that information.
Wil Reynolds: Yeah. This is going to be one of the more interesting things for everybody listening to monitor. If the search engine doesn’t tell you what sites it pulled information from, then they are more at fault for wrong answers. If they say, well, we just kind of took answers from these different sites and kind of combined them, then they can say, well, we got the information from here, which then allows them to kind of say, not us, them. Right? So I believe that what we’re going to see is citations. So right now, as I understand it, Bard is very rarely offering citations.
But then if you use perplexity.ai, which I think is a great interface for chat driven search, if you use that, they give you like five or six logos and domains of sites where they pulled that information from. And I believe that Chat GPT’s integration with Bing does something similar because here’s the thing. I think people are freaking out about some of this stuff, but Google has been using AI to give people direct answers for like seven or eight years! When you go and type into Google, “what day is St. Patrick’s Day” or what is this or what is that? They just give you the answer. So we’ve already been losing those clicks.
So the person that says, “What day is St. Patrick’s Day?” Well, yes. If your business is built around ranking for something that gives people a simple answer and then wrapping a bunch of ads and other crap around it, then you should be worried.
But at the end of the day, very rarely do I search for something on ChatGPT and get a good enough answer to it for something I’m really researching or something I really am going to spend money on. And then I do no other searches and I don’t go any deeper than that. I don’t go to anybody’s website like, what’s the best lawnmower? Okay, it gives me this, what’s the best lawnmower for this? It just gives me an answer, and I’m not going to do any other research, like, I’m going to spend four or $500 on a lawnmower? I’m not going to do any other research? It’s like at some point I believe that people will want to take those early answers and then educate themselves, but then I believe we’ll see if I’m right or wrong. For high consideration purchases, people will then kind of say, “well, I’m not just buying these headphones off of ChatGPT telling me which ones are the best for people that are in an office.”
I’m probably going to want to listen to some people on YouTube and get some examples of how the noise canceling works and all of those extra things around my decision.
Emily Garman: And it’s not giving you those links yet at this point. I mean, I haven’t had that experience.
So Bard doesn’t, but Bing does give you links out. And Perplexity gives you links out. And I think that Google’s going to have to, because otherwise, every time their search engine gives you the wrong answer, you’re going to blame Google. Whereas at least if they go, here’s where we kind of got the answer from…
And there’s also going to be FTC issues. There’s going to be things related to copyright issues. Like, wait, so you use my website to train your AI, I can see that you’re using part of my copy, but then you’re not going to link out to the originating source. Well, is that plagiarism? So I see Google wanting to avoid that by literally just being like, “here are the sources.” It’s so much easier for them than to manage that legal battle.
Emily Garman: So thinking back again to our termite business owner, they are going to be thinking about how they can exhibit that authority to these AI tools in a satisfactory way. That they’ll be the ones that it will pull content from it for results. So, If I’m saying I’ve got these questions about termites in my house, I’m a customer, I’m confused. I’ve got these bugs. I don’t know what to do. I’m asking ChatGPT or Bard these questions, and eventually, maybe we’ll get to the point where it’ll say, “probably best to consult a person who knows about termites in your area to come out to your house. Here is a list of some companies in your zip code.” And that’s where we’d want to make sure we got placed in that list somehow.
Wil Reynolds: Exactly. By having the best content. Exactly. I think especially for a service like that, that’s local, it actually gives you a chance to compete. So I think it’s really important, especially for small businesses.
I think one of the worst things about search when it comes to small businesses, and I started off working with mostly small businesses. Your business consultant or business coach really needs to help you to not waste your time. Building out content, trying to beat people who have years and years of history of Google crawling their site, of them having ad budgets that are a hundred times larger than yours to build their brand reputation, which Google sees as a signal.
They’d be like, well, people are searching for their brand a bunch. Orkin–high trust, high trust brand associated with termites. We’re just going to rank their stuff. And I think too many SEO consultants are like, we need to write a page about termites. Well, no. What you need to do, and I think you said this earlier, Emily, and, and my style of that is, take the word termites, run it through, search for it in tons and tons and tons of zip codes. And then what you’ll find is that Google might be placing different types of answers, different types of suggestions and different zip codes because they know things differently in Philly versus in Arizona.
Here’s a great example. We have a client that’s in the decking space and those little “related searches” at the bottom, if I typed in “deck contractor” into Google, in those bottom related searches, in Philly? One of the recommendations was “roof deck.” And the other recommendation was “Amish deck builders.” Why? Because the Amish are really big right outside of Philly. Right. And we build our decks on our roofs because we don’t have backyards here. So Google’s intelligence and looking at what people search for in Philadelphia, is able to show you these extra suggestions.
So if I’m a local business, I’m taking the zip codes around me and trying to see what has Google already learned in my region. And now if I’m a Philadelphia-based deck contractor, you better believe I’m going to talk about “quality like the Amish,” you know, “get a great view from your roof.” And “here’s how we build decks on roofs to make sure you don’t have leaks.”
So Google’s already understanding. The customer is going to be looking for those things, but yet we’ll just build a page that’s generic that says, “we build decks,” right? Come and check out our decks, and we’ll show images of decks in people’s backyards in the suburbs. When the searches are done in Philly, actually show you that people are looking for very different results.
Every time you do a search on Google, Google has to show you their IP, their billions of dollars they’ve invested in the machine learning and the algorithms they’ve built and whatnot. They’ve got to show you that in order to have good answers. So as a small business, this is one of the best ways to verify the quality of the search consulting you’re getting.
Google the words, look at the “people also asks,” look at the related searches in your area, in your region. And then look to see if your SEO firm or your content marketing firm is doing the same thing. Because if Google says, I expect people to talk about roofs, I expect them to talk about Amish, and I expect them to talk about certain neighborhoods when they do this search, then why would I ignore that intel that Google’s already displaying to me for free when I go to build the content? Right? Yeah. Simple, simple, simple.
Emily Garman: You’ve got to know how to look for the clues. And I think that’s the strategy that so many consultants and agencies use, and if you Google “how to promote my business,” it’s just “Content. Content. Just write content.” But you can save so much time and energy by being really smart about it. That’s a great example that you gave.
Wil Reynolds: And it’s sad. One of the things that I feel is just sad, is a lot of business owners come to us hoping that we can help them in something that they don’t know how to.And that created a boom of people with laptops showing up and being like, “I can help you out.” And then the variability from what you can get. Like if anything, especially for small businesses. I wish–my company works with a lot of larger and mid side businesses, but I wish some days that I could still work with the smaller businesses that I built my business on, because I watched these folks, unfortunately, get ripped off and I watched them. I’m like, why are you building content around termites? You’re never going to rank for it. The number one is Orkin. The number two is Terminex. The number three is this company. They’re all huge brands. So I think that, you know, hopefully one of the things that people will walk away with from today are just a few nuggets on how to evaluate the quality of the consulting they’re getting.
All they have to do is with their own eyes, take a look at the results and learn to ask better questions of their consultants and the people helping.
Emily Garman: Learning to ask better questions. I mean, that really encapsulates everything we’ve talked about. We’ve got to figure out how to learn to ask better questions because the information is there, but it makes such a difference in what we give it that determines what we get back.
Wil Reynolds: 1000%, I would say. The other thing I would do, if I’m a small business and I’m Googling things, and let’s just take maps out of the equation because maps, if a map shows up, you’ve got a chance to compete with the biggest players. That’s the beauty, right? But if a map doesn’t show up and you’re writing content, that’s more “content content,” right? Where it’s like long form written content, let’s just say. If you see the top four or five results are all really big brands, I would say you might want to avoid writing that content, because when we end up in a chat driven search world, which I think we’re going to end up in, at best, there’s going to be four or five links out to some citations.
So this idea of, “oh, I’m going to rank it 30 and work my way up to 20,” there is going to be no 30, there’s going to be the top five or six, you know, recommendations in this chat driven search world, and then no other traffic to be had. So if you’re a smaller business now and you’re making big investments in content, I would be very cautious about overinvesting on the types of content where you see these other sites ranking above you, because today you can end up at nine or 10 when they’re in 1, 2, 3, and 4. But in the future, I think they’re going to be in 1, 2, 3, and 4, and there may not be a set of answers below that at all, which means your number six now gets really no visibility, which means it doesn’t help your business.
Emily Garman: Right, so we’re back to quality, not quantity. Work smarter, not harder, and ask better questions.
Wil Reynolds: And know your customer better. Yeah. You know, it’s so interesting. It’s like people are saying, Oh, I want to produce content. Let me go use ChatGPT,” and it’s like, well, no, go talk to your customer. Transcribe those things and then put that in ChatGPT, because now you’re hearing more from local customers that you know what their problems are in a way that ChatGPT will have no freaking idea.
And then you can own being the go-to in your region or in your zip code or in your city. But otherwise we’re just all going to write the same content outta ChatGPT. You have to feed it something that only you have. And I think that knowing your customer better will be a competitive advantage that small businesses are much better at than huge businesses.
Emily Garman: Definitely, definitely. That’s some great information. Wil, tell us how our listeners can find out more about seer interactive. Where can we find you online?
Wil Reynolds: Sure. So I’d be remiss if I didn’t say you can Google me. My name is Wil Reynolds, with one L, and our company is seer interactive.
We’re on the normal places, Twitter, LinkedIn; those are probably my two that I’m on the most. And I always tell people, we’re accessible. So if you have a question about something you’re working on, yeah, I’ll do my best to get back to you.
Emily Garman: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much, Wil. This has just been a really interesting discussion. You’ve given us some great examples that I think any type of business–if you are in the termite business, you’re, you’re in luck–you’ve gotten some great examples today! But even if you’re not, there’s a lot of actionable a advice here that we can think about going forward.
It’s, it’s exciting times to be in the internet field, that’s for sure. Wil Reynolds, from seer Interactive. Thanks for joining us today for the Small Business Matters podcast.
Wil Reynolds: Thanks for having me.