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Generative AI: How to prepare for the next evolution in organic search

What is generative AI, how does it impact discoverability in search, and what should you be doing now to prepare for the change?

Shayna Burns

23 August 2023

5 minute read

For the past few months, Google has been experimenting with using AI to generate search results, and Bing has already rolled out its generative AI experience to the public. These changes are designed to improve our search experiences, but what does it mean for business?

This article is a primer on what generative AI will look like in organic search, what it means for brands who rely on search for discoverability, and what you should be doing now to prepare.

What is generative AI and how will it be used in organic search?

Generative AI simply means content/assets that are created by artificial intelligence. 

In organic search, a notable way we’ll see AI in practice will be in a new form of featured snippet – that is, content that appears in ‘position zero’, above traditional search results, that aims to answer a query directly on the search engine results page (SERP).

Current featured snippet

The current featured snippet includes paragraphs, listicles, videos and/or images usually from a single source, with the source linked directly below the snippet for easy click-through. It provides a single experience for each query.

Google snippet

Source: Google

Upcoming featured snippet

AI will generate a snippet that is an aggregate of multiple sources, with sources cited and linked off to the side. The experience and layout can evolve based on how the user interacts, e.g. by asking follow-up questions, clicking related links, etc.

Gif example of an AI generated snippet

Source: Google

As you can see in the gif above, there is an overall layout update that pushes traditional listings down. While this change is intended to improve the search experience for users, it will also keep users on SERPs longer (giving them more exposure to search engine advertising, and less time clicking through to your website from organic listings).

For more information and visuals of what featured snippets will look like, explore Supercharging search with generative AI by Google.

Easily-answered queries will be most affected by AI

Exactly when you’ll see AI-generated snippets will depend on what you’ve typed into the search bar:

  • Queries with more AI-generated results: FAQs, definitions and other factual, easy-to-answer queries
  • Less impacted queries: Those intended for advice (e.g. financial, health, legal, government) or that require complex answers because of the inherent risk facing search engines if the answer is wrong.

How might this change impact your discoverability in organic search and traffic?

  • Fewer clicks from snippets: If your site has been appearing in ‘position zero’ and receiving clicks from this coveted placement, expect to see fewer clicks. While you may still be a cited source, your site link will move from below the snippet to the side. Not only will this impact click-through rate, but clicks will be distributed across multiple sources.
  • Fewer clicks from organic search overall: With more queries being answered directly on the search results page, and a layout change that pushes traditional results further down the page, expect to see fewer clicks from organic search.

    While there are several strategies you can implement to adapt to the evolving search landscape, you should start managing stakeholder expectations on the likely impact on organic traffic.

When is this change going to happen?

Bing’s AI-generated search is already in action using Microsoft’s Edge browser. Google’s Search Generative Experience (SGE) is in an experimental phase via Search Labs in the Google App and soon in Chrome. Check out their SGE features update from 15 August 2023.

So, what can you do to maximise your findability in search in this changing landscape?

Generative AI aims to use the text, images and videos it deems to be a) the most relevant, b) the best match for the intent for the search query, and c) the most credible.

With this in mind, we recommend the following strategies:

Lean into your role as a deep subject matter expert

  • Rather than targeting many different ‘head terms’ (short keyword phrases with high search volumes) with a high-level of content, go deep on a smaller set of niche topics that are highly relevant to your business and your customers with ‘long tail’ keywords).
    • Head term example: “Cancer symptoms”
    • Long tail example: “Bowel cancer symptoms in men”
  • Sense-check your work by putting yourself in the user’s shoes. Would they feel your content fulfils their search, or is something mismatched or missing?

Tip: In addition to standard keyword research, we recommend UX research to understand what your customers are interested in, what information they need, in exactly what language and terminology they’ll search, and what they want to do with that information.

Demonstrate your E-E-A-T (Experience, Expertise, Authority and Trustworthiness): Show both AI and users that your content is credible:

  • Add author details (name and role title) and when the page was last reviewed for accuracy, and use author markup. 
  • Cite your information sources and add external links.
  • When you aren’t able to provide more information or next steps, link generously to trustworthy external websites that can help fill the gap.

Diversify your digital assets: Search engines will continue to include text, image and video content, surfaced in different places (in both AI-generated areas and traditional ones). Make a point of expanding beyond text and creating images, infographics and videos when it makes sense for what your users are searching. 

Interlink everything: Search engines discover content through links, just as we do. Help surface the breadth of your work by using internal links to interconnect related content. Just as the new featured snippet experience evolves as people click around, so can their experience on your site.

Don’t avoid FAQs and other easily-answered questions: It may no longer be a high-impact SEO strategy, but providing FAQs on your site will continue to serve a purpose: to benefit the readers who are already on your site. 

Start managing stakeholder expectations: The overall impact AI-driven search experiences will have on our measurable performance (website traffic) is yet to be known, but the likelihood is organic traffic will not continue to grow at the same rate. We recommend preparing stakeholders for this change sooner than later.

The good news is many of these recommendations have aligned with SEO best practice for years, and they advance the natural integration between UX, content strategy and SEO - so there shouldn’t be a radical change to your SEO strategy. 

Consider this period an act of focusing; to help get cut-through in the crowded search space, we can throw back to legacy operating system UNIX’s philosophy: “Do one thing, and do it well.”

Main image by kenshinstock on Freepik.

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