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Will AI kill organic traffic? here’s what SEO marketers need to know

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Alexa, add organic baby carrots to my grocery list and play Walk This Way by Run-D.M.C.!

Artificial intelligence (AI) has revolutionized the way we live. From virtual assistants to self-driving cars, AI-powered technology is transforming us into a more efficient species by automating mundane tasks, providing personalized recommendations, and helping us make informed decisions.

But while AI is helping us turn on the lights by shouting and making it easier to find a cool disco to boogie with friends, SEOs and content marketers could have a tough time adapting to the rapid changes. With the possibility of AI providing custom-generated responses to digital search queries, folks might soon be less motivated to click through to your website to find the answer they’re looking for. 

Tech giants Microsoft and Google are starting to roll out AI to power their search engines, making the experience of looking for stuff online more intuitive. From a user perspective, this is great. Why bother sifting through endless search engine results when you can have AI explain what you wanna know directly? 

But this change might not be so great for marketers. AI is coming to search. This could spell trouble for those of us who rely on how search currently works to rank our content and drive organic traffic to our site. What happens if or when today’s search engine results page (SERP) goes away? How do we—as marketers—get that organic juice back? 

How is AI changing search engines and SEO marketing?

So far in 2023, we’ve seen the fastest advances in conversational AI since the first iteration of ELIZA was created by Joseph Weizenbaum in the 1960s. Like, wildly fast

Today, generative AI chatbots can answer questions about almost anything. In fact, ChatGPT was able to pass the United States Medical Licensing Exam. (“That’s ‘Dr. GPT’ to you.”). 

Interestingly, Flan-PaLM (another AI large language model—“Dr. PaLM”) received a higher score of 67.6% on the USMLE. The difference? Flan-PaLM was modified and trained on a medical database, MultiMedQA. Which proves the point that specialized AI marketing tools produce far better results than everyday AI tools that aren’t designed to achieve a specific goal.

At the forefront of this race to AI perfection sit Google and Microsoft. The creation of Bard and “the new Bing”, respectively, are part of a broader competition between the two search giants for dominance in the technology sector. And both companies are throwing down serious Benjamins in research and development in an attempt to come out on top. 

Leonardo Dicaprio throwing away money

Microsoft came out swinging earlier this year with a commitment of $10 billion to OpenAI, continuing their partnership on GPT—the large language model (LLM) which powers ChatGPT and (now) the AI features of Bing.

Not to be outdone by Microsoft, Google invested upwards of $400 million in ChatGPT rival Anthropic, and news outlets predict it will invest approximately $300 billion in AI by 2028— including its own chatbot, Bard.

Said former Google VP Jim Lecinkski:

If we are the leading search engine and this is a new attribute, a new feature, a new characteristic of search engines, we want to make sure that we’re in this race as well.

While it remains to be seen which company will ultimately come out on top, it’s clear that both Google and Microsoft will continue to fuse artificial intelligence into their search engines and, in doing so, completely transform the way people find stuff online

With the merger of AI and search engines, the race to hit the top of Google’s page-one SERP could be a thing of the past. (And sooner than we think.) 

Here’s the skinny: What AI-driven search means for SEO experts and marketers

For years, marketers have focused on creating search-optimized content to generate organic traffic to our websites. 

Using SEO principles like keyword density and optimized title tags (and with a little bit of luck), we could appease the unknowable deities of algorithms and be blessed with a position amongst the top results. Let us pray.

But if Microsoft and Google start using AI to generate answers to queries (and links and ads disappear from SERPs), what the heck are marketers supposed to do? Will creating high-quality, informative, and engaging content that addresses the needs and interests of your target audience still help us drive traffic? Or should we tear down our blogs and sell the copper wiring for scrap?

Mike Kaput at the Marketing AI Institute explained the emerging challenge thusly:

Mike Kaput's post about AI SEO future

Scary. And it begs another question: Instead of creating content for the current algorithms, will marketers need to start writing to appeal to (or appease) the AI? 

There’s no definitive answer yet on how marketers should handle AI in search—yet. As with most things, significant changes come with positives and negatives. AI can help improve a customer’s experience with a business by personalizing content and enhancing the quality of interactions. It can also increase competition as more companies turn to AI to churn out content. (Of course, the quality of said content can be a whole different story.)

AI-powered search engines for SEO folks to keep an eye on

Geez. Just when you’ve cracked the search algorithm code, in walks AI to screw it all up again.

But before you give up your day job and go work in a kibbutz, let’s take a quick look at how a few search engines plan to integrate AI into search results—and what it’ll mean for your organic traffic.  

Microsoft’s Bing

While the prospect of Bing integrating generative AI in search results is a lil’ worrisome, Microsoft claims its goal is actually to drive more traffic to publishers and assist in increasing revenue

First, we want to drive more traffic to publishers in this new world of search. It is a top goal for us, and we measure success in part by how much traffic we are sending from the new Bing/Edge. 

Second, we want to increase revenue to publishers. We seek to do this by both driving more traffic to them through new features like chat and answers and by also pioneering the future of advertising in these new mediums… 

Lastly, we want to go about this in collaborative fashion working with the industry to continue to foster a healthy ecosystem.

Huh. Maybe this “AI search” thing isn’t gonna be so scary, after all?

Microsoft has already released a new version of Bing integrated with GPT, and continues to invest to make it a more competitive alternative to Google—which currently dominates the search engine market. As of March 2023, Google holds 85.53% of the market desktop share, while Bing clings to the bottom rung at 8.23%. But Bing has been faster to market with AI, and it’s got Google spooked—so, we’ll wait with bated breath to see what happens.

Graph showing the market share of leading desktop search engines worldwide, with Google way above Bing

With these recent updates and improvements, Bing is becoming a more robust and versatile tool for users searching for information online. This opens up a whole world of opportunities for marketers to explore new channels and strategies.

Google’s Bard

For most of its 25-ish-year history, Google has comfortably claimed the majority share of the search engine market. There’s a reason why we use Google as a verb and Bing still makes us think of Chandler on Friends

But for the first time in a long time, Google is having their reign is threatened by AI-enhanced competitors like Bing. It explains why they scrambled to release Bard after ChatGPT amassed one million users in the first five days of its launch—and 100 million in its first two months.

Although perhaps not as sophisticated as some alternatives, Bard has the benefit of a more extensive database and can provide real-time, up-to-date information where other chatbots might not. (Version 4.0 of ChatGPT, for example, is only trained on data up to 2021.)

Since most of Google’s revenue comes from ads, many question how this will impact Google, marketers, and businesses relying on revenue from paid advertising. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, “Google executives have stressed that search products using conversational AI features should not upset website owners, in part by including source links.”

Again, good news for marketers—but until we know for sure, best be prepared for changes.

Waldo

Waldo is a new, AI-powered search engine—and it’s interesting because it does two noteworthy things. 

First, before providing you with results, it asks you to drill down your queries with a few clicks. Folks often use very generic keywords that could yield a number of different results, some of which are likely to be wrong. Waldo avoids that by trying to help pinpoint exactly what type of responses you’re seeking. 

Waldo also provides answers in the form of a conversation (instead of 10 links to random websites) and cites its sources. As it stands, this is fundamentally different from how Google and Bing work.

And—unlike other popular search engines—Waldo doesn’t rely on advertising as a primary revenue source. Instead, it operates on a subscription-based model, where users pay a monthly fee to access the search engine. (There’s also a free version if you’d like to take it for a test run.)

This approach allows Waldo to prioritize user privacy and level the playing field with organic search results without targeted ads or tracking. (What a concept!)

So, what does this mean for marketers? Since Waldo is (mostly) a paid service and allows users to hyper-tune their search, it encourages users to be more engaged and invested in what Waldo serves up to them. And isn’t that exactly the type of potential customers you would want to see your business’s name in the search result? (Go grab a cloth—you’re drooling.)

What can marketers do to remain relevant in the age of AI SEO?

As search engines continue to integrate AI chatbots to provide answers and information, what can you—the marketer—do to adapt and prepare for this seismic shift?

More thoughts from Mike:

Mike Kaput's post about how AI is impacting SEO

Next, we’ll get into a few things you can do to stay relevant and continue to drive organic web traffic. (Spoiler alert: It mostly comes down to good content and effective storytelling.)

Create content that is high-quality and unreplicable

(Is “unreplicable” even a word?) If you create something totally original and true to your brand that no one can duplicate (irreplicable? unduplicable?) then you’ll always be at the top of search results. Full stop. This is usually best achieved with original research. Study or survey your audience to discover what they really care about and share the results with them. 

Quality matters, too. As search engines increasingly prioritize generating accurate and reliable content, creating well-researched, authoritative content is more critical than ever. 

At the end of the day (at least for now), any content published on the web will still require a human touch. If you’ve used ChatGPT or any other large language models, you know the outputs can be functional, but sometimes dull or repetitive. AI-generated content is now the baseline for quality—so make sure yours is a cut above.

Build affinity for your brand

Your brand is the most important thing you have going for you, so use it to your advantage. Let your audience know what your company stands for—its values, and its philosophy. This helps build the emotional connection your customers want and is one of the best ways to create a lasting relationship with your audience. 

You can do this by telling stories that highlight the humans behind your brand. Think what TOMS did for the buy-one-give-one model. People flocked to buy TOMS shoes because they knew they were helping someone with their purchase. It resonated. Brand affinity was huge.

Screenshot of the Our Story page on the TOMS shoes website

Connect with your audience

Build up your community by making lasting connections with your audience. Social media is the quickest and best place to start. If search is going the way of branded content, then make sure your brand is known to your audience. And rallying a community around your brand will help you get seen and heard, even through unbranded searches. 

Optimize your content

The bread ‘n butter of search engines is to help users find high-quality, useful content. So it stands to reason that the better your content is, the more likely search engines will surface it in response to searches.

“Well, sure,” you’re probably thinking. “I know my content is sick, but how do I convince the search engines of that?”

Optimize! (And stop saying “sick,” wouldya?)

  • Structure your content so it’s easy for search engines to understand it and any relevant context.
  • Keep your content well-organized with clear headings and a logical structure.
  • Make sure your content is relevant and aligned with user intent by answering questions, addressing common pain points, and making it easy to read.

By optimizing your content, you’re giving it the best chance of being cherry-picked by search engines and displayed on results pages, whether those results take the form of snippets, free-form text, or interpretative dance video clips. (Hey, you never know).

Emphasize entity-based optimization

Generative AI models have a strong understanding of entities, such as people, places, and things. Leverage this by focusing on entity-based optimization and integrating it into your content naturally. 

If this concept is new to you, then Google’s definition of an entity might help put more context to it: “A thing or concept that is singular, unique, well-defined and distinguishable.” And an entity can be colors, dates, and ideas—not just physical objects.

Example:
911 is the emergency number in North America
9-11 is the date of the terrorist attacks on the USA
9-1-1 is a TV show, with a sister-show 9-1-1: Lone Star 
Reno 911! is a satire TV show

Many content creators will return to storytelling as a way to bring products to life and capture the attention of generative AI. Don’t let your storytelling go to waste! Take advantage of schema markups to provide search engines with structured data about entities and optimize entity-related metadata. 

Marketers (and anybody who cares about SEO) need to embrace change in AI search 

As Bob Dylan so eloquently put it in the key of C major: Change is a-comin’

It’s impossible to ignore how rapid advancements in AI tools are revolutionizing the marketing landscape as a whole. We need to recognize the transformative potential of AI and prepare ourselves for the ch-ch-changes it brings. 

The rise of AI-powered search engines poses both opportunities and challenges. You can embrace ’em and become unduplicable—or you risk becoming nonessential. (That’s when you can start looking at flights to Haifa). Keeping up requires a shift in how you strategize for search, optimization, and engagement.

The key lies in finding the right balance between human creativity and AI-driven capabilities. And if you stay adaptable, open to innovation, and proactive in understanding and leveraging AI technologies, you’ll thrive in the age of AI-driven SEO.



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