Digital marketers dedicated years to optimizing websites, creating content tailored to keyword phrases in attempts to outperform search engine algorithms. However, the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) in Microsoft Bing and Google may have completely transformed the landscape of search engine optimization (SEO), potentially playing a significant role in affecting site traffic.
Making Search Work for the People
Yusuf Mehdi believes we are in the early stages of AI-powered search. In February, Microsoft’s Consumer Chief Marketing Officer acknowledged the challenges faced by search engines.
“People are overwhelmed increasingly with too many links when they’re trying to find simple answers,” he stated. “But 40 percent of the time people click on search links, they click back immediately. That’s a sign they’re not finding what they want…”
He’s not wrong.
Look at your recent search and gauge for yourself.
Today, how we think about queries is not how we search online. We need to learn two different syntaxes. But now, generative pre-trained transformers (GPT) and large-language models (LLMs) aim to streamline things, letting us type out queries the same way we might think or speak them aloud.
When planning for an upcoming trip, I decided to attend a baseball game. However, I didn’t know the stadium’s policy on fans bringing cameras. Turning to Google and Bing, I typed out a query based on specific key phrases such as “camera policy baseball game [stadium name] [baseball team]” but was inundated by hundreds of links that didn’t immediately answer my question.
When using the GPT-powered Bing and Google’s Bard, I felt more comfortable inputting my question based on human speech. Why? Because I wasn’t playing the SEO game. Immediately the platforms presented answers in a conversational format, though I took it with a grain of salt — AI is still notoriously filled with misinformation, so it’s prudent to verify as much as possible.
From SEO to AISO?
Admittedly the acronym needs work, but marketers and content creators will have to shift their thinking around search traffic. After years of Search Engine Optimization, we’ve entered the Artificial Intelligence Search Optimization content stage.
Microsoft was the first of the big two search engines to embrace AI, dubbing OpenAI’s GPT technology as its “co-pilot.” When attending the launch event in February, I was reminded of the time Bing was first introduced back in 2009. Back then, it was dubbed a “decision engine” centered around three trends:
- People want faster access to knowledge: They expect engines to understand the intent of their query and give them information, answers and shortcuts to help them complete their task. If your query tells us you’re looking for a band’s next concert outing, why can’t we just make that information appear right at the top of the page?
- People expect more than just 10 blue links: Not all queries are the same so why do most of the answers you get back from engines look the same? There are certain queries (like trying to research a vacation) where different user interfaces can actually help people get their task done more quickly. So knowing this, and realizing that knowledge comes in many forms, we’re creating a more visual search experience to make searching easier and, dare we say, a little more fun.
- Lastly, there is an increased focus on “getting stuff done” with search: Clearly people are looking for a way to decrease the amount of time they are sifting through the web assembling the information they need to make a decision. We focused on how we can speed the information gathering process, and then give you great tools to help make better decisions.
Microsoft tells me it no longer describes Bing as a “decision engine,” but it appears that the philosophy behind it remains. With AI, it can provide more contextual information to users, potentially inspiring more decisions to be made.
Google would release its own AI offering months later, first with Bard and then recently with the launch of its Search Generative Experience (SGE), which bears a striking resemblance to Bing. However, something that may work to Google’s advantage over its competition is the data it has across commerce, images, videos, documents, search and its home-grown models.
Both Microsoft and Google are reticent to call their use of AI as anything but an experiment. But the technology’s introduction has created some consternation from publishers, marketers and content creators worried about how they’ll be affected.
AI Has Publishers on Edge Over Search Traffic
Changes in search algorithms shouldn’t necessarily scare publishers. They’ve endured multiple updates over the years. But wide adoption of AI could significantly change what we know about SEO today and this new experience has publishers worried they’re going to be further exploited, even while the platforms disagree.
At least one prominent critic alleges this is all a ploy by search engines to keep the traffic all to themselves. Luther Lowe, Yelp’s Senior Vice President of Public Policy, tells me:
In 2004, Larry Page said the purpose of Google — in contrast to the first generation of search engines — was to get you off of Google and out to the web as quickly as possible.
It’s hard to decouple the rise of Google from the rise of Web 2.0, as it diffused virtually 100% of its traffic to the web. It was a pluralistic web characterized by novel consumer services, blogging, and competition. But once Google gained dominance in general search, it began siphoning traffic away from the web and to itself. It morphed into a walled garden.
The exclusionary self-preferencing of Google’s ChatGPT clone into search is the final chapter of bloodletting the web.
It’s easy to believe what Lowe claims. What happens when Microsoft and Google no longer call their ChatGPT-like offerings experiments? If search engines provide you with the answers you want, what incentive do you have to click through to one of the so-called 10 Blue Links?
Marketers are skeptical about AI too with many saying they’re “at least slightly concerned” about how AI-powered search engines would impact their content’s SEO rankings.
On one hand, if generative AI does work as intended and surfaces information from credible sources, those websites should see spikes in traffic from Google and Bing. It could also reduce SEO gamification and oust clickbait articles from the top of search rankings.
Perhaps AISO will incentivize content marketers and creators to abandon producing the so-called “race to the bottom” articles and instead spend the resources on developing higher quality work that’s targeted, much more relevant and something the AI should constantly reference — no longer writing based around keywords but the actual questions users have.
However, it is imperative Microsoft and Google explain to publishers that they don’t have a “most favored nation”-like status and that new and smaller sites can equally compete against big-name outlets. These tech firms must also assuage fears that their AI isn’t stealing/scraping work without properly compensating publishers.
What Can Publishers Do About Search Now?
It’s too early to tell about the scale that AI will have on SEO traffic. Though it’s safe to say that traditional SEO isn’t going away — the 10 Blue Links will still be there, just lower on the page. How long until Microsoft and Google make their AI experiments permanent is unclear. But a majority of users could still search the old-fashioned way instead of jumping right into AI.
Even still, it would be wise for content marketers and publishers to further explore AI’s impact on their businesses in order to stay one step ahead of changes Google and Microsoft might make. Already some are using AI to produce works, such as content ideas, writing drafts, generating photos and videos and even identifying search keywords.
Expect more news about SEO changes thanks to AI to be revealed over the next year and beyond.