The tide of artificial intelligence is rising, and for digital innovators worldwide, the message is clear: You’ll have to ride the wave if you want to keep your head above water.

Experts across the web are discussing how AI will shape the future of the web, a topic that took center stage during a recent installment of the Webby Talks series with Claire Graves, President of The Webby Awards, and WP Engine Director of Product Management Jason Konen.

“The Race to Outpace” draws on insights from The Webby’s 2024 Trend Report (created in partnership with YouGov) to offer an analysis of the current state of AI, common fears and misconceptions about it, and how we can use AI strategically in this new age of innovation. 

Whether you rely on advanced technologies in your professional life or you’re simply a digital revolutionary who wants to stay on the cutting edge of the modern web, this presentation provides deep insight and food for thought regarding AI, how to harness its power for everything from personalization to search, and how it’s already reshaping the ways we interact with brands, products, and people online.

The Current State of AI

AI is changing rapidly, and this new wave of innovation comes with its share of criticism. From inherent bias to job insecurity, many concerns have already been raised about the fair and ethical use of AI. These concerns have been underscored in documents like the White House’s AI Bill of Rights and the Future of Life Institute’s petition to put a pause on AI experimentation.

And while the concerns surrounding AI may seem like a topic du jour, the fact is that AI has been a part of everyday life for many years.

“Headlines will make us think that AI is a new phenomenon, but in reality, it’s been around for a really long time, and it’s already pretty integrated into our lives,” said Graves.

She notes that Siri is an AI assistant that has been part of modern life since 2011, and tap-to-pay technology has been around since 2013.

Yet consumers still have a skewed perception of what AI actually is. Half of respondents to The Webby’s 2024 Trend Report stated that they don’t use AI—yet 84% of them admit to using Google search and 70% say they use map and directional applications, both of which use AI.

Positive Impacts of AI in the Modern Age

While it’s clear there is some lingering apprehension about the use of AI, much of that fear can be mitigated by showing the best use cases of AI tools in the modern age, which can be broken down into four simple categories. 

  1. Tools that streamline tedious tasks: e.g. Grammarly for writers and Descript for creating and editing audio transcripts
  2. Tools that personalize online experiences: e.g. AI-powered chatbots and search functionality for websites 
  3. Tools that foster a greater sense of imagination: 46% of survey respondents who work in media & production and 53% of those who work in entertainment state that they are already using AI tools to generate more imaginative projects at a faster pace
  4. Tools that create a greater social impact: 64% of respondents believe that AI tools can positively impact global issues like education, public health, food insecurity, and climate issues

These are the areas in which AI will drive innovation in the modern age, and it has the potential to quickly and effectively make positive change in our world.

“There’s a real opportunity to build tools for safety and humanitarian aid,” said Graves. “AI is fast, but it isn’t out of reach. There is fear, but much more hope and optimism.”

Jason Konen of WP Engine and Claire Graves of The Webby Awards discuss modern applications of AI and how it is already impacting developers and site owners
Jason Konen and Claire Graves discuss modern applications for AI, including its ability to greatly enhance search capabilities for site owners and their visitors

Where AI is Headed

Following her presentation, Graves was joined by WP Engine Director of Product Management Jason Konen to discuss how AI is already solving issues related to online search queries and how WP Engine’s Smart Search is harnessing the power of AI to solve search functionality issues for modern WordPress developers.

First, however, Konen tackled the issue of when and how companies should make the decision to implement AI for their own purposes. As we’ve seen time and again, early adoption isn’t always the right decision for every entity—just because a new technology has emerged does not mean it will immediately be of use for everyone.

“This is how I look at AI from a strategic standpoint: How can AI make what we’re doing better?” said Konen. 

“If the use of AI is grounded in a problem you’re trying to solve, then that’s a good application for it.”

One problem WP Engine is trying to solve using AI is the improvement of search functionality, specifically with WordPress. To illustrate why this is an issue, Konen discussed the historical phases of online search functionality, which he broke down into three distinct time frames: pre-Google, the Google age, and the modern age of search powered by AI. 

Before Google, web users had to know exactly what they were looking for or run the risk of reading endless search pages that may or may not contain relevant information. Enter Google, which simplified the search experience greatly. Search queries became more conversational and relevant results were easier to find. 

Now, with AI-powered search, you don’t really need to know the solution you’re looking for—or even the exact problem you’re trying to solve. Users can state a problem and AI will provide highly targeted, relevant solutions for the stated issue. 

Smart Search and the Influence of AI

These kinds of personalized, highly relevant results are exactly what product experts at WP Engine are imagining with Smart Search, because for many WordPress users, the inherent search functionality is not robust enough to meet the needs of the end user.

“If you’re just using a basic search tool on your site, you might be missing things,” said Konen. “That’s one of the reasons we built Smart Search in the first place.”

Allowing AI to consume and categorize a site’s content makes it possible for Smart Search to identify more accurate connections between a user’s query and the site content that gets served up as a result of that query.

Article recommendations are one application already being improved with Smart Search. Layering AI into the search component provides more relevant, more well-rounded article results for the end user on a site, even if they misspell or otherwise botch their original query. This is especially important for WordPress sites in which search functionality may be lacking.

“We had an internal example of a children’s health website, and a real search was for ‘poison,’ but they spelled ‘poison’ wrong and didn’t get any results,” said Konen. 

“If you’re going to a children’s health website and typing ‘POISON’ in all caps, you’re panicking—there’s something wrong. But there’s no results just because you misspelled it? That’s not helping anybody.”

One of the final and most important benefits of AI mentioned by Konen is the speed with which developers can innovate to create better user experiences. He uses Amazon’s related products algorithm as an example. While the algorithm works extremely well, it also took years of development by whole teams of developers to become as knowledgeable as it is.

“With AI, now you can say ‘let’s look at our site and do something like that.’ Is it going to be perfect out of the box? No. But we can keep modifying it,” said Konen.  

“It has democratized the ability to do those things, making it so it’s faster to bring to market. If you’re in marketing and advertising, you should be looking at this because it’s going to enhance the things that you’re already thinking about and doing, and make it easier to get to market.”

Race Toward Innovation with WP Engine

Check out the full Webby Talk: The Race to Outpace on LinkedIn or YouTube for even more insights and real-world examples showing how AI is impacting the digital pioneers of today.

Smart Search is in production and available for purchase today! Check out this page to learn more or add Smart Search to your WP Engine hosting plan today.

For anyone looking to get involved with the continued development of Smart Search, you can sign up to test the program in its Alpha phase. The user feedback we gain in this phase will be crucial to enhancing Smart Search in the future, but spaces are limited, so sign up now to get involved!

If you’re passionate about creating a digital future with WordPress, take some time to explore WP Engine’s world-class WordPress hosting or talk to a representative to learn more!