AI & Your Local SEO Agency: One Year Later

Joy Hawkins of SterlingSky and Darren Shaw of Whitespark, joined Mike and Greg to talk about how AI has impacted local SEO. They discuss specific use cases and the future.

AI & Your Local SEO Agency: One Year Later

We are departing from our regular format to provide you with a summary of a recent interview with Joy Hawkins and Darren Shaw on how they are using generative AI in their agencies. Our regular format will be returning Monday. You will find links to specific tips and techniques highlighted below.

ChatGPT launched almost exactly one year ago, on November 30, 2022. Since that time it's safe to say AI has changed everyone's expectations about technology and the future of search. This week we invited Joy Hawkins, owner of SterlingSky, and Darren Shaw, founder of Whitespark, to help us assess the impact of AI on SEO and Local SEO so far. How are their agencies using it today, where has it been effective and where is it over-hyped?

Repurposing Human Content

Asked about AI integration into daily workflows, Joy Hawkins said, "It varies depending on the department or job. On the creative side, my husband, who does all our video editing, uses AI features extensively. They save him an insane amount of time." She didn't think, however, that AI was living up to the hype when it came to content creation. "When AI first came out, many thought it would replace content writers. We've found that AI is not near where it would need to be for that. We use it more for repurposing content input by humans."

Joy went on to say that AI can be effective as a kind of content assistant. "If you have content that has already been input by humans and you need to repurpose that, like take a list and make it a blog, take a blog and make it a script, it does a good job of that and requires minimal editing. But from scratch, you know, 'I want a 500 word article on this criminal law in Texas, it's really inaccurate.'"

Fact checking and editorial review takes as much time as creating the content, she argued.

Content Creation Tips: AI can speed up content creation but is most effective in repurposing human input (e.g., transcript to blog article) but not in creating articles from scratch. Video 03:15

More Client Content

"At Whitespark we use it to seed questions," Darren Shaw said. "For our clients, one of the great use cases is you ask a series of questions like, what are the common concerns that people have with a drain cleaning service? You ask ChatGPT to come up with that list of concerns and then you say, okay, now phrase them into questions. Then you give those questions to your clients and ask them to answer all these questions. You can either send them a form where they fill out their answers or you get on a Zoom call with them and record it. And then you just take their words, turn it into the transcript."

"We also use it for a number of other things, like coming up with Q&A questions because we like to pre-populate the Google Q&A section. We use it to come up with Google Post ideas. Let's say dentist has pages on all of these different types of services, we feed that to ChatGPT and say, 'create a Google Post based on this content,' or 'create five Google Posts.' And so it creates the content, and then our team still has to edit it. But it does take some mental load off of the job," he added.

Client Content Development: You can use ChatGPT to generate questions for client interviews to aid content creation. Video 06:32

Saving 30% of the Time to Create Posts

Darren discussed a podcast featuring Aaron Weiche and Andy Crestodina. "Andy talked about his process for using ChatGPT for content generation. I think he said that you're saving about 30% of the time, and that feels about right."

Joy Hawkins agreed. "We use it for Post as well. It cut down the time it takes to create a Post by about half. But that was because we had a really good prompt that included all the things that we wanted, based on a study that we did: make sure it has an emoji, make sure it has a sense of urgency. I love that it just places the emojis for you. That's a huge time saver."

She added that the prompt has to be specific. "I found if you're really generic, like 'optimize this title for YouTube,' it's bad. So you have to specifically tell it what to do and what things to include."

Google Posts and Q&A: Drafting Google Q&A and Post ideas (according to a best practices checklist), with human editorial clean-up. Video 07:55

Tools Beyond ChatGPT

Asked about other tools they were using, Joy said, "For images, we are using MidJourney and Adobe's." But she expressed concern about copyright issues. "My husband was telling me Adobe's AI was trained on their own stock images. So that feels more comfortable to me as an agency using something, where you know you're not going to run into issues down the road."

Darren said that people in his agency are also using Bard. "We were using ChatGPT to help with review responses for all of our clients. But apparently, [his employees] are preferring Bard for review responses over ChatGPT." His team also uses MidJourney for images, which he likes better than OpenAI's DALL-E.

Mike Blumenthal observed that DALL-E is a bit more user friendly than MidJourney in the sense that it will interpret more general prompts and turn them into specific instructions. "I find the interesting thing about ChatGPT, with DALL-E, it does the command line work for you, which is fascinating."

What Do Clients Think?

"Clients are asking us about it all the time," Darren explained. "They're interested to know, 'Are you guys using AI? How are you using AI?' I think one of the big concerns they have is whether or not it might have a negative impact. So they want to know, is this going to cause us problems down the road."

He said that they're transparent with clients about using AI. "We do tell them and most of our clients are kind of thrilled about it. They're excited about it. They want to talk to us about it and find out what we're doing and how we're using it. And we haven't had any complaints, just that surface level concern [about rankings]."

Joy added, "I think the biggest concern people have is it being overused in content and then that content not performing well in Google." She said that her agency characterizes AI as an assistant to clients. "Our writers use it, but it's to get ideas, not to do the writing. And everything that we post is human edited."

Review Analytics & Other Uses

Mike explained a novel but very useful application of AI to reviews. "I was working with a large multi-location client who had 10 years worth of reviews. I took this client's 2000 reviews, put them in a spreadsheet, dropped them into ChatGPT-4 and asked it to calculate the average review score and totals for each of the locations. And for locations that have lower ratings in the past 12 months than the previous years, show the count of the reviews for previous years and the rating averages for the past 12 months. And then I asked, 'if the rating is less than 4.5, how many reviews would that location need to get to 4.5?'" He also asked for "other insights that might help these locations perform and which ones are doing well, which ones are doing poorly."

Mike said the output was "incredibly insightful," adding, "ChatGPT becomes a reporting extension for SaaS tools ... the output was just astounding to both the client and to me."

Review Analysis for Multi-Location Clients: Review responses, complex review analysis and insights that exceed the capacity of current reputation management products. Video 20:22

Darren jumped in, "I actually think that Mike's example is the most powerful thing you can use ChatGPT for – so much better than content." But he added other use cases: "writing Excel formulas, writing Python scripts, writing SQL; analyzing data is where I really think that that's a revolution."

He likened it to the calculator. "You could move forward in your life, doing long division for the rest of your life, or you could be like, oh, we have this thing called a calculator now, so I'm gonna use it, I'm gonna make my work much more efficient. I really feel like Chad GPT gives us that power now."

Data Analysis and Technical Tasks: Writing Excel formulas, Python scripts, SQL queries – similar to using a calculator for efficiency. Video 24:18

"One of our biggest use cases is dealing with service area pages or optimizing for near me," said Joy. "These are really annoying things where I feel like the bot can do it better than a human because it's just like, oh, you know, put near me in the sentence and make it sound natural. So we use it a lot for stuff like that and service area pages because the content is so similar."

Optimizing for 'Near Me' and Service Area Pages: AI can partly automate creating service area pages and optimizing for ‘near me’ searches. Video 26:38

AI's Impact on Hiring

"At the moment I have a stupid, not very good developer for 20 bucks a month," joked Darren Shaw. "If you tell it exactly what you want and how you want it, you can get it, but usually it gets it wrong. You got to do a lot of hand holding, so there is no risk of my development team being replaced by ChatGPT. The developers that I have building software at Whitespark, ChatGPT can't touch them. Maybe in five years, that'll change. I don't know."

Joy Hawkins agreed. "Definitely no one is at risk of getting laid off at my agency at all. I would say though, in all honesty, it probably is going to decrease slightly the amount that we hire in the next few years."

Does ChatGPT Make Us Dumber?

Greg injected the idea that maybe relying on ChatGPT makes us dependent and less capable. Nobody has to remember telephone numbers with smartphones. "You just tap the button. You can't remember the number except maybe your closest friends and family."

"It's a concern that I've had," admitted Joy. "I'm not sure if it's true or not. I haven't really found a way to tell if it's making people dumber or more dependent. You have to have checks and balances in place. I don't really see this as any different than that."

"I look at it similar to the calculator analogy," said Darren. "I love that I don't have to store those phone numbers in my brain anymore. And so that allows me to have other things in my brain. But [AI] is like superpower allows us to focus on things that are more valuable. I don't want to have to do long division on paper anymore. I've got a calculator for that and that frees up my time and my mental capacity to do more impactful work."

Content Differentiation

"There's a podcast in the affiliate marketing world I listen to called Authority Hacker," explained Joy. "I love it because the affiliate marketing world is super spammy compared to local. And even they're telling people 'don't just publish 5,000 pages with click of a button.' There's lots of people out there that'll tell you to do it. I think that Google had to change their stance on it though, to not be against AI when they are also using and producing AI."

She added, "The business description is now being generated by AI. So they can't contradict themselves. But I think it's more like, 'when is it appropriate and when is it not?' And I would say for the majority of content, it's not appropriate to use AI to generate it. And we're seeing more that Google is favoring real life data and real life stats. Like case studies; they work phenomenally because you're putting in your own data, you're publishing something that doesn't match 500 other pages online. So we're seeing that kind of stuff win really well in local."

ChatGPT and E-E-A-T

"I think that Google recognized there's no way to perfectly identify what's AI-generated and what's not," observed Darren. "This whole move towards E-E-A-T, you're speaking from a place of expertise, authority and trust when you are doing that with your content and experience. And that's what I'm actually trying to squeeze out of our clients. That's why we do the interview style. We don't just want to have ChatGPT write the service page on Invisalign or drain cleaning or whatever; we want the client to write that page. But we know they don't have time."

He added, "So you get ChatGPT to write the questions. But you get it from [the client's] voice. Why are you special? What do you do that's different? And that's a new piece of content that Google hasn't seen before. And I think that is the type of content that's going to work now and into the future."

Google increasingly wants E-E-A-T. But Joy Hawkins thinks that Google doesn't always favor that in search results. "I think traditional SEO plays are still super valid. We have a lawyer client who I got to outrank the government of Texas. Is he more authoritative than the government of Texas? Hell no. But he outranks them because we do a lot better SEO than .gov sites generally do. In an ideal world, yes, Google wants to reward E-E-A-T but I do not think they are there all the time."

Asked about whether AI, ironically, will push the SEO industry to create better content, Darren Shaw said, "I think maybe, yeah. It's happening in our agency. We're trying to like level up our content, add more expertise, not just droning out service pages that are the same as everyone else's. When you can extract the unique voice of your specific client, that feels like better content."

Local SEO Will Thrive

"I don't think my job's in danger or Darren's job's in danger. I think we're fine," observed Joy Hawkins. "I think local is one of the most genuine things out there, when it comes to reviews and photos and so many things that you just can't fake. So I'm not really worried. I think the changes will probably divide what type of local SEO agency you are. The division between the people that are relying heavily on AI versus the people that are more like what Darren and I are talking about."

Speaking about broader changes in search, Darren Shaw said, "I always think that for one word answers, like what is the square root of X? How old is this person?, our AI assistants will answer those questions. If that's the SEO world you live in, then your SEO is in danger. But with local, you need to explore the businesses, you want to do the research, you want to look at the reviews, you want to look at the photos. You want to get a sense of whether or not this is a real business. I think that local is one area of SEO that will continue to thrive."

Optimizing for AI

Darren was quick to add, "I do think that the way that people are getting data will change and I think that Google's at risk if they don't If they don't pick up the pace. If you look at the new ChatGPT voice thing it's really good. So right now we think about the Map Pack and ranking in these three results or Google Maps. Will the interface be different in the future? And will our jobs as local SEOs be to optimize our clients to be returned by ChatGPT voice or however Siri is pulling results? I could see a shift like that happening in the next three years."

If the interface is different, Mike thinks Google and Apple are in the strongest position to take advantage of that shift. "The incumbents in your pocket, Android and Apple, have a huge advantage. Because if it takes a year or two to roll out [broadly], they have the resources and money [to improve their voice assistants] versus ChatGPT building a piece of hardware."

He added, "Entities are going to provide the foundation for any future search. So I think that we'll stay largely the same in broad parameters of making sure that the entities are accurate, detailed, down to the product level, up to the corporate level and everything in between, including reviews and all that stuff. So to some extent, it's going to be the same because it's going to be knowledge graphs driving all that."

Overall, Mike said, "That gives Google a huge advantage because their local knowledge graph is still, despite its many flaws, still the best."

You may watch or listen to the complete interview on using ChatGPT in local agencies on