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The Future of Websites in the Age of AI and SEO Decline

There’s a lot of concern amongst website builders about the impact AI will have on web traffic. And it’s not just AI that web developers have to worry about. Google is phasing out third-party cookies by the end of 2024, social media referrals continue to decline, and mobile application platforms have a checkered history of supporting the web. So can the website survive all of this?

One person who has a closer view than most of these trends playing out is Josh Koenig, co-founder and chief strategy officer at Pantheon, which runs a SaaS-based website management platform (they call it “WebOps”). Pantheon helps customers build, host, scale, and manage WordPress, Drupal, and NextJS sites. It’s similar to Acquia, the company formed by Drupal founder Dries Buytaert, whom I also spoke to recently about the future of websites.

The perilous state of websites was highlighted in a recent study of 1,000 consumers conducted by Pantheon and Hanover Research. A stunning 90% of respondents reported that they’d had “negative digital interactions.” While the top complaints were being spammed with emails (52%) and unhelpful customer service (44%), the third biggest complaint was “issues with a brand’s website” (41%).

AI Integrating with Websites

Yes, generative AI is cause for concern for website builders — after all, why would someone visit a website if they can get answers to most of their questions from an AI chatbot? A familiar pushback is that AI ultimately can’t be trusted, because it hallucinates and you don’t necessarily know where the information is coming from. Koenig repeated that pushback to me, but he also argued that websites are inherently more trustworthy because we have an existing system that ranks them: Google search.

“One of the ways that Google historically was able to […] provide a lot of value [is] because it’s like, look, we found a lot of answers out there to your question or to your search query, and we’ve tried to give you the [answers] in the order that we think is most authoritative.”

Of course, that’s cold comfort if Google itself starts phasing out search listings in favor of an all-knowing chatbot — and Google has already signaled this shift. So perhaps the answer is for websites to integrate their own custom AI experiences. Koenig said Pantheon is helping its customers do just that. He cited a new Yale University site called askYale, which is an AI chatbot based on Yale’s web content (although it’s currently limited to “hospitality-related information”).

“So I don’t think that the user interface of a chatbot is going to kill all websites anytime soon, just because of the amount of effort it takes to do it well,” said Koenig. “But I also think that for large organizations that actually have a lot of information that’s scattered around, it’s an opportunity to put in the work to organize it better — particularly if part of your website’s utility is just getting people out into the right piece of information more quickly.”

The Social Media Conundrum

As for the continuing decline of referral traffic from social media, Koenig puts some of the blame onto the infamous “pivot-to-video” strategy that most social media services have gone through (X/Twitter being the latest example). But he also mentioned the decline in the effectiveness of “micro-targeting.”

“The utility of micro-targeting through social platforms is going way down, as device privacy settings and other stuff are going up,” he said. “And so marketers are finding they’re getting less traffic because they’re spending less on those specific channels because they don’t work as well as they used to anymore.”

At Pantheon, Koenig said they’ve been advising customers to invest more in creating “interesting content or an interesting experience” and hope that it results in “earned traffic” to their own property. So they’re seeing customers do less “pay-to-play” to social media influencers, and instead try to use those funds to attract users to their own websites.

This kind of strategy would seem to be a good match with the emerging fediverse, where participants are encouraged to own their own content and connect to third-party services (like Mastodon for micro-blogging or Pixelfed for photo sharing). I asked Koenig if Pantheon’s customers have been exploring the fediverse. He thinks it’s a ways off.

“The challenge is going to be […] we have to be able to get to a world where it’s easy enough for regular people and regular marketers to participate fully in that space before it can realize its promise.”

Jamstack for WebOps

Finally, since Koenig and I last spoke in August 2022, Jamstack has had a pivot back towards simplicity. Astro and Remix seemed to have gained ground on Next.js as a web framework, while Netlify has been pushing its “composable architecture” as an enterprise version of Jamstack. I asked if any of this has led to changes in how Pantheon operates.

Koenig noted that about 90% of its work is still based on WordPress or Drupal, but that it has been building its own Jamstack platform. This work began a couple of years ago, he said, when they noticed that customers were using its WebOps platform to run headless CMS systems. While some of those customers were happy with the Jamstack approach, he did note that some were “recoupling [backend to frontend] a year later, because it was just not maintainable.”

Taking those lessons on board, Pantheon wants to provide a solution that gets back to the original promise of Jamstack, which Koenig described as “you can go really quick and you can build something that’s really stable, and it’s not a lot of overhead.”

So will Pantheon’s Jamstack solution compete with the likes of Netlify and Vercel?

“We are extending the value of our web apps platform to JavaScript-powered websites,” he replied. “So that is fundamentally, on some level, the same thing that Netlify and Vercel do. You push code to them, they deploy it on their CDN, Bob’s your uncle. So we have that same capability — not as sophisticated and mature as theirs because, you know, they’ve got almost an eight to 10-year head start on us, but we’re getting there.”

Koenig said its solution is more akin to Contentstack, which describes itself as a “fully automated Composable DXP” [Digital Experience Platform] with a headless CMS. Koenig also likes the word “composable,” but for Pantheon, it refers to a bundle of third-party services that its customers can choose from. He says it’s about “picking those best-of-breed vendors and making them work well together.”


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Richard MacManus is a Senior Editor at The New Stack and writes about web and application development trends. Previously he founded ReadWriteWeb in 2003 and built it into one of the world’s most influential technology news sites. From the early…

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