During a pitch my team and I were giving to a client in the research and development space, the client’s VP of Marketing turned to us and said: “What will a website look like in 2020?” What an awesome question! My mind immediately went to how artificial intelligence (AI) is going to impact traditional digital.
However, you view artificial intelligence -- world killer, job killer, bogeyman, omnipotent divine force, blessed creator of the singularity, hype cycle du jour -- it is certain to have an impact in a whole variety of ways. The development of AI is an unstoppable force meeting an easily moved object (how you spend your time).
What all this really means for digital is that in the near term (years) the growing sophistication of AI poses the first substantive existential threat to the website in its venerable twenty-two-year history (I’m using the founding of Yahoo! in 1995 as the birth of the modern website).
Let me try to explain.
People spend their time online doing one of six things1: Using social media, searching, reading, sending email, consuming audio and visual media, and shopping. AI will impact all of these areas, like improving the persuasiveness of the curated information feed you get from social media that does nothing but reinforces your worldview, personalizing your shopping experience from eerily accurate to downright creepy to beloved vital shopping assistant, and reducing your email volume by eliminating certain emails you send today (think scheduling). But it’s with changes to how search and reading work online where AI poses a major threat to the very existence of certain websites.
Today the algorithm that matters is the search algorithm, how easy it is for a bit of software (the Google index) to catalog your site content and make it discoverable to humans when they are looking for information you have. Think about the time you spend with information retrieval, like looking at restaurant menus, looking for providers of a certain service or product for a work task, managing children, determining how long it will take to travel somewhere, the schedule for a ferry, hours for a business, and facts to satiate your curiosity or win an argument. Throw in some decent AI into the mix and very quickly (years, but still) and we enter in a new era, where more information is delivered to you by an AI doing the work than you having to find out answers on your own.2
(Remember too that the keyboard, screen, and mouse are just wildly inefficient layers of abstraction. You can think faster than you can type. With work moving ahead on neural interfaces a website’s visual component has even less value over time.)
Google itself -- the creator of the world’s most efficient gateway into the vast information of the Internet -- is helping in this transition by pulling more and more information right into its search results. They started this trend several years ago by pulling in rich information on the sidebar, like showing upcoming tickets for shows in your area when you searched a band name. They continued this with the introduction of Google AMP, a way for them to show a complete article in search results from another website without ever having the user leave Google.com (try it by searching for “red sox” on your phone”). Publishers aren’t pleased, but it doesn't matter. Google made the experience better for the user, and better UX, in the end, usually wins.
Brandon Evans, one of the first people to understand the titanic changes happening because of social media when it still in its infancy, wrote a spectacular piece in Fast Company about how social media ushered in the age of discovery in marketing. He correctly saw that purchase decisions were shifting from traditional media pieces explaining the merits of a product to their circulation within digital social groups.
Social will continue to be of massive importance, but the slow but steady progress of the sophistication of AI will cause more information to be delivered directly to you by clever little algorithms. The age of discovery will soon give way to a new age, the age of automated curation. And in a way, algorithm optimization is the new marketing budget.
The traditional website isn’t going away anytime soon, but what success means for certain websites is about to change dramatically.
What does this all mean for your the website you are redesigning today? Here my five tips for making sure the website you build today will be ready for artificial intelligence:
1. Don’t make the future harder
No battle plan survives engagement with the enemy and no speculation (read fancy guesses) survives the arrival of the future. It isn’t possible to plan perfectly for what will happen because it’s uncertain, but in principle, you should try to make thoughtful decisions that won’t make the success of your digital presence harder in this new reality. When asked how he runs the sprawling conglomerate of independent companies that make up Berkshire Hathaway Warren Buffett likes to say that there isn’t a master plan, he’s just trying not to do anything stupid. Good advice.
2. Focus on standards
However, the AI algorithms of the future consume your website content focusing on web standards today will only improve how easy it is for your content to be consumed, disseminated, and displayed on other devices. Being standards-driven is at this point in the history of the web old advice, but still good advice.
3. Embrace the change
You are about to lose control of content and the conversation is going to continue to move away from where you are comfortable and what you control (your website) to places you are less comfortable and have little control. Embrace the change and focus on how to have a greater impact in the conversation, wherever it’s happening.
4. Focus your content strategy on insights, not content
What secrets about the world does only your organization know? What ideas create genuine enthusiasm in folks on your team? What excites you about the here and now? Those things are insights. Insight always has value, regardless of where they live. Share it with the world.
5. Optimize the site for performance and search
This should not be a surprise but it is important to address as websites continue to make it harder for their site to be indexed by search engines. To perform well in search (today) and to perform well on a phone (also today) a website needs to be lean in the code and assets that make it up. Embracing this leanness will make it easier for your content to be distributed and consumed, and making things easier tends to have a good return on investment.