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Generative AI: What does the future of SEO look like?

One of the main ways in which we harness technology is to react to changes in the biggest technologies across our industry, and they don’t come much bigger than Google. 

With this in mind, three of our experts - one each from our technical SEO, digital PR and content teams – take a look at what these changes could bring and how we’ll look to stay ahead of the curve. 

What’s new on the SERP? 

As promised, in the past few days Google has launched AI-powered search results into the SERP landscape. In this tight and quickly evolving battle for the most cutting-edge advancements in Artificial Intelligence, Google’s Search Generative Experience (SGE) brings a new way for users to interact with the search results, delivering an engaging journey like never before. 

While the feature is only available for a select few lucky users in the US so far, social networks have been flooded with news – and plenty of screenshots! - so we can already get a feel for what the future of digital searches may look like.

The layout of the SERPs has undergone a transformation. The first notable change is that organic results have been pushed further down the page (yes, again!) As if it wasn’t enough with adverts, answer boxes, featured snippets, carousels and people also ask (PAA), the new SGE block means traditional ‘blue links’ are often now below the fold, struggling for visibility. 

It’s not quite game over for traditional organic results, at the moment not all searches have an AI answer available, and lots of SGE results also incorporate organic sources into their answer, giving the opportunity for publishers to show up at the top of the page. 

However, where clickable elements and citations are missing, authors and brands have been alarmed by potential content plagiarism. This will be a key point for Google to address.

A second concern for this new landscape is the same information being repeatedly displayed, especially for local terms where map packs seem almost duplicated; and informational searches where the new SGE answer matches the existing featured snippet. 

This double listing will further limit exposure to a wider range of sources, risking a narrower understanding of certain topics by pushing other sources further down the page. Certainly, we are in the early days, so it is still unknown if the featured snippets and other rich snippets will live together alongside the SGE box, or if they will be completely replaced by them, but access to diverse information is crucial.

Commercial and Transactional Searches

On the other hand, when it comes to commercial and transactional searches, the AI-powered answer has expanded the existing shopping features, showing a larger range of clickable products in a bigger carousel, giving higher visibility to product detail pages over category pages.

As mentioned before, this is just the beginning of a new era, with the Search Generative Experience a key step forward towards an enhanced search experience, but its impact on users and potential remain to be seen. Nonetheless, the importance of SEO persists in an evolving form. 

The SERPs have always been in constant flux, and the introduction of SGE will continue to shape them. Rather than grumbling, it’s time to embrace new strategies, learn, adapt, and leverage the new search environment to continue to engage users by providing the best online experience possible.

How do the latest Google advances impact Digital PR?

Scrolling through SEO Twitter following Google I/O was much like navigating a digital cataclysm, full of pessimistic SEOs crafting apocalyptic narratives that could rival the most sensational Hollywood blockbusters.

Whilst there’s no avoiding that things are changing for the industry, as a Digital PR specialist, I couldn't help but take a sigh of selfish relief. Google has made it clear that the new search experience is “rooted in the foundations of Search” and as such, we can say with some confidence that links will likely remain one of the most important ranking factors, both for traditional SERPs and AI-powered search.

But that doesn't mean that things won't change for us either...

EAT, Pray, Link

If E-A-T signals weren't already crucial, they're do or die now. As Digital PRs, we're uniquely positioned to help assert brand expertise and authority, and crucially, build trust with our brand's audience. 

By securing coverage on external, relevant websites, we can showcase a brand's credibility in key subject areas, and by building links from credible and well-respected publications, we can demonstrate to Google that our brand is an authoritative voice on relevant subjects. All this means that as Google rolls out its new generative search experience that places E-A-T at its heart, Digital PR could play a pivotal role in helping a brand feature within the generative search results.

New opportunities for cross-channel activation of Digital PR campaigns also open up as a result of Google's latest changes. The new perspectives tabs present new opportunities for user-generated content (UGC) to feature prominently on the SERPs. And as such, using UGC, influencers, and brand spokespeople to amplify campaigns on platforms such as TikTok, Twitter, and Reddit could become an increasingly effective method of landing your campaign content on the SERPs. 

Whilst there are currently a lot of unknowns as we enter a new era of search, I'm incredibly excited to see where this takes the industry and even more excited about the crucial role that Digital PR will play within this new era.

How could SGE impact content optimisation? 

There are a number of potential changes that SGE could bring for content optimisation, with some that particularly stand out right now including:

Fewer click-throughs

With a new layout in the SERPs to battle with, this means standard search results will be pushed even further down the page – after the AI response and any other SERP features Google decides to show.

Of course, as Greg notes above, not every search query will produce an AI response. But even if it doesn’t happen as SGE launches, it’s likely in time that most queries will receive some sort of AI answer. 

This could impact click-through rates in the SERPs, which means less organic traffic. So, it’s more important than ever to make sure your title tags are hitting the mark.

More ‘Zero-click' searches

With more information in the SERP, comes less need for users to even click through to a webpage – particularly for informational searches. Now, this isn’t a new challenge. We’ve seen it with other SERP features like featured snippets, but at least they still had citations and links. 

Bard draws on information from a variety of LLMs (large language models), meaning there may not be a source. This is one of the biggest issues we’re encountering through our AI tests – the lack of authoritative sources.

In theory, once a user begins engaging with Bard on the SGE interface, it may well then provide links where further information can be found. But ideally, we’d want to start seeing citations upfront. Google is big on trust as we all know (E-E-A-T), so it would be good to see it follow its own advice and start providing sources upfront. 

Optimising for SGE

It’s still early days, but once SGE begins to roll out more fully, we’ll be watching closely. As we start analysing the type of content appearing within the AI space, we can figure out how best to optimise for this space – if we even can optimise for it. And, if we can get a citation for it.

If SERP features, such as featured snippets, already reduce the CTR of classic organic results by 22%, it’s important content marketers are ready for SGE.

Our approach to content optimisation has always considered the ever-evolving search landscape, so this latest change is no different. With our unique approach to strategy and bespoke toolkit, we’re well-equipped to understand – and optimise – for what’s coming. 

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