If it looks like a cat and sits like a cat, it must be…
OpenAI’s ChatGPT is a novelty that most SEOs are exploring right now for its ability to have a conversation with us about complex questions. It may be a major search disruptor and a threat to Google, a useful tool, a source of inspiration, and a societal ill, all rolled into one, but what I want to highlight today is that there is a very good reason the content generated by this system comes with lots of disclaimers.
Over the past twenty years, I’ve probably answered tens of thousands of questions relating to local search marketing. I’m sure I’ve gotten it wrong lots of times, but one thing that’s never happened is that the people requesting my consultation have mistaken me for an omniscient entity. Local business owners and marketers in fora, email, DM, and on the phone understand that I am just a person doing my best to give them good advice. Concerns arise when I consider what applications like ChatGPT may be mistaken for – an expert, a genius, a demigod?
Let’s do an experiment today to see what happens when we ask ChatGPT some of the commonest local SEO questions that humans like me are used to fielding, and let’s imagine what would happen to local business owners if they built their marketing strategy on the advice received.
The Local SEO ChatGPT Experiment
In which ChatGPT merrily instructs me to set about building GBPs for virtual offices
Contrary to ChatGPT’s answer, the guidelines for representing your business on Google prohibit the creation of listings for virtual offices. Unfortunately, our hypothetical local business owner has just built one on the strength of this bot’s advice.
2. In which ChatGPT encourages me to violate Yelp’s guidelines
Yelp specifically states, “Don’t ask for reviews,” but our hypothetical local business owner is out there right now disregarding this policy, thanks to ChatGPT’s advice.
3. In which ChatGPT promulgates one of the most persistent local SEO myths of all time
It must be one of the oldest myths in local SEO, and it’s one that marketers have to keep refuting because it keeps floating around out there in the ether. With AI promoting this myth, our hypothetical local business owner will now spend hours geotagging all of their imagery for its promised ranking benefits.
4. In which the suite number myth lives on
Every local SEO will immediately recognize this situational question in which the inquirer is trying to differentiate one business from another at the same address, and wanting to know if adding a real or fictitious suite number will help Google separate out the entities. What people like Joy Hawkins know that ChatGPT doesn’t is that Google ignores suite numbers, but the myths persist.
5. In which the robot starts to head down a better path and then goes totally awry
Initially, I was worried that our hypothetical local business owner asking whether they can create a Google Business Profile for a lead gen business wasn’t receiving a ChatGPT answer that began with, “No!” Google’s guidelines specifically list lead gen companies as being ineligible. ChatGPT ignores this, and proceeds to instruct the inquirer on how to create a forbidden listing.
A brief ray of hope shone out for me when the ten-step instructions were followed by the warning that (correctly) explains that you shouldn’t create GBPs for businesses that lack physical locations. “Good,” I thought. “This will cause the lead gen practitioner to pause and adhere to guidelines.”
My hopes, however, were short-lived when the bot followed this up with the head-slapping suggestion that the lead gen brand resolve their dilemma with the creation of a virtual office! We’re back to square one with ChatGPT causing users to fall afoul of Google’s most basic guidelines.
The Results of a ChatGPT-led Local SEO Strategy
Let’s imagine that our fictitious local business owner has mistaken ChatGPT for an expert, and has acted on this advice. What happens next:
The Google Business Profile for the virtual office is hard-suspended and likely permanently removed for guideline violations, negating any investment the owner had made in creating the listing.
The hours invested in geotagging images are all wasted, and have eaten up valuable time the business owner could have spent in pursuing tactics that do influence search engine rankings.
The business owner who may already have been heading down the wrong path in hoping that fictitious suite numbers will make Google believe that the separate categories of a single business each deserve to have their own listing will experience suspension of one or both listings sooner or later.
The lead gen business owner will be suspended on two counts: 1) for listing a lead gen business in the first place, and 2) for listing a virtual office.
Once they are caught, the business name is mud on Yelp, where their profile is stamped with an ugly public warning for engaging in prohibited practices.
What we have here, then, is not a local SEO strategy, but the shreds and tatters of disinformation that could result in reputational damage, loss of time, and wasted marketing budget. These are significant real-world consequences.
A Mind of Metal and Wheels
Last year, I was invited to contribute an article to a large publication, commenting on the subject of how writers like myself feel about the intrusion of AI into our craft. I wrote a thoughtful essay entitled Art Vs. The Machine, in which I drew on J.R.R. Tolkien’s philosophy of the gifted human use of tools vs. the coercion of wills that underlie the development of much machinery. My essay remains unpublished, as yet, because the publisher rejected it in favor of an ode to AI that admonished writers to sublimate our fears and get with the program.
My heartfelt sentiments were clearly not a good match for the publisher’s agenda, and the debate about AI should absolutely include all voices and viewpoints – some people are very excited about the arrival of ChatGPT and will laud Google’s analog, if and when it arrives, but others are not applauding. Teachers, for example, appear not to feel that you get the world’s next Tolkien when machines do the “thinking”. My own take at present is that, if I were to use the present incarnation of ChatGPT to write my Moz Blog column, all of you would be reading local search marketing disinformation right now. I strongly hold that you deserve better than that from me.
In fairness, I want to conclude that ChatGPT got some answers to my local SEO questions right, correctly referencing sections of the all-powerful Google guidelines. I was pleased when it was able to talk to me in Swedish, and was surprised when it managed to respond to me in Irish Gaelic. But the bot lacks the art of Elvish. I asked a question in Sindarin, and ChatGPT had no idea what I was saying:
When I translated my question into English (Westron, for all you Tolkien philologists), ChatGPT understood what I wanted, and its reply contained a revealing proviso that should be a reminder to all AI users about a critical difference between the machines and us.
For now, I’ll be continuing to write my column in the old-fashioned human way, remembering specific (and wonderful!) interactions I’ve had with local business owners and industry colleagues, and drawing continuously on my personal experiences.