As a Digital Marketing agency with local and national clients, we are often tasked with designing and executing digital marketing strategies whose ultimate goal is a positive return on investment. Because we deal with small and mid-sized businesses, otherwise known as SMBs, strategies and channels that do not directly contribute to the bottom line, like brand awareness, are often nixed in favour of more direct strategies like paid ads, SEO, and social media.
But lately, we have had our digital marketing clients here in Ottawa and further afield asking us about the coming changes to how companies get found on the web. AI plays a significant role in this change, but it’s not the only force of change coming for the so-called ten blue links.
Searching the Web: The Past
For decades, search engines like Google, Yahoo, Bing, and nearly every other engine (with the notable exception of Ask Jeeves), have mostly stayed true to a straightforward format: Ten blue links. You type in a question or keyword query, resulting in a page with ten blue links to external websites.
At the start of this format, the algorithms that controlled which website appeared in the search result and which order was laughably easy to manipulate. And thus, an entire industry known as SEO (search engine optimization) was born. For over two decades, SEO professionals have paid close attention to changes in search engines’ algorithms to divine the exact ranking factors required to appear in the top positions for any given query.
Of course, search engines evolved. Ranking algorithms became infinitely complex and, at times, even leaked to the public like we recently saw with the Yandex source code leak.
With their evolution came the realization that there was a ton of money to be made by encouraging users to stay on the search engine’s website instead of sending them off to a third-party website.
Searching the Web: The Present
More or less, Google has been at the forefront of a years-long effort to provide better answers to users searching for many common queries without referring them to a third-party website. For a time, many believed that voice search through assistants like Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri would shape how people search for information on the web, but that has largely not come to pass.
The introduction of SERP (search engine results page) features, however, has resulted in a significant reduction of organic traffic being driven to third-party websites, and the trend is accelerating today.
More and more SERP real estate is being occupied by ads and a bevy of SERP features, often resulting in what is known as “no-click searches,” i.e. a search engine query that results in the user getting their answer without having to navigate to another website.
With the advent of people using their mobile device as their primary computing device and thus their primary searching device, real estate, especially “above-the-fold,” i.e. the bottom of their screen before they scroll to see more results, has become extremely valuable, and is often taken up by 3-4 ads or other SERP features other than links to 3rd party websites. Many Google searches now don’t even result in 10 blue links anywhere on the first page; it’s more like 6-7 links depending on the query.
This has become particularly problematic for third-party publishers and websites that depend on being found organically through search engine results. Just look at all the real estate taken up by these SERP features:
PEOPLE ALSO ASK BOXES
And there are even many more Google SERP result features such as:
- Weather panels
- Related searches
- Hotel packs
- Job listings
The Very Near Future of Search on the Web
Another technology that is ushering in seismic shifts in the way people search for things on the Internet is AI. Large Language models like ChatGPT and others are being quickly adopted by tech-savvy consumers and search engines like Google and Microsoft’s Bing.
It doesn’t take an overly sophisticated prognosticator of the future to see where this is going. How people seek and get information on the web will be ever more tightly controlled by how search engines like Google integrate generative AI results into their search results pages.
Here’s an example of what Bing is doing with their Generative AI search results at the moment:
And here’s an example of a new AI-powered search result from Google’s Bard, now available in most countries (oddly, not in Canada as of this writing).
The trend is clear. The ten blue links are getting a significant demotion in their prominence on most search engines’ results pages. And there’s no question that this will impact SEO and how companies and their content is found on the web. But there’s more to this story.
If the new AI-powered search results demonstrate anything, it’s that both Google and Microsoft know that there is a delicate balance to how they integrate this new technology. They must balance the desire to provide authoritative AI-powered answers, thus keeping the user on the search engine’s website, with the need to give people the option to seek information from other sources.
There are a few reasons for this:
- LLMs are at their core prediction engines. They predict what the next word in any given answer is supposed to be based on billions of points of training data, i.e. scraping of the web. This can result in AI answers being wrong, hilariously off-topic, or simply made up.
- People have been trained to search for things on the web by clicking on links for decades. Humans like a choice. Modifying this behaviour will not come quickly, especially if they are seeking diverse opinions on something like a purchasing decision.
- Providing 3rd party sources for information will help absolve Google and others of potential legal liabilities stemming from providing incorrect, potentially harmful or dangerous AI-generated results.
- Even a company like Google cannot possibly collate all of the world’s information into neat AI answers, especially around breaking news and other timely information. They will still have to rely on 3rd party publishers.
- Ultimately, companies like Google and other search engines must be wary of antagonizing 3rd party publishers. The result may be that if too many of them simply refuse to allow Google to scrape or crawl their content, it will ultimately reduce the quality of Google’s usefulness as a search engine.
- There have already been examples of large content owners and publishers suing the makers of various AI-generated content for what they perceive as the illegal scraping of their content to train their respective AI systems. As Google and other search engines put the squeeze on all kinds of web content publishers, these legal battles may become far too costly for them.
So, is SEO Dead, Again?
A running joke in the SEO community is that SEO has been declared dead so many times that we’ve all collectively lost count of that proclamation. After the initial hype of some new technology coming along to destroy the value of SEO, it has usually wound up growing in importance for anyone wanting to be found on the web, particularly by customers who directly express a purchasing intent through their query.
That’s, by the way, what makes Google Ads particularly effective. They are capturing the user, who is often already at the bottom of the sales funnel and ready to make a purchase.
But this time, I think it’s different. No, SEO is not dead, and no, your company should not stop investing in it, but I’m telling my clients that some adjustments to strategy and tactics need to be made to thrive as a publisher of content on the quickly changing web.
First of all, if you are working with a digital marketing agency, your first question to them should be, how are you adapting to the coming changes in how people search for things on the web and the implications of AI-powered answers demoting the ten blue links in significance? If they can’t give you a good answer, it’s time to rethink your engagement with them.
So, as an Ottawa-based digital marketing agency and specialists in SEO for small and mid-sized companies, how are we at LRO Solutions advising our clients on how they can adapt to these changes?
How Small and Mid-Sized Businesses Should Adapt to AI-Powered SEO SERPs
Decipher How AI Search Results are Picking References to List
As I mentioned above, it appears that most search engines will continue to reference third-party websites in their AI-powered search results for some time.
Like with any search result, there will be a method to that madness that SEO professionals will eventually figure out and begin to manipulate for their own and their client’s benefits. This may take some time, but staying on top of this information will be vital to gaining organic search traffic.
Invest in More Sophisticated Keyword Intent Research
Only some queries will be AI-powered. In fact, I would bet that the majority won’t. That’s because most of the searches performed on any given day in search engines like Google are what’s known as long-tail searches, or even wholly unique searches (15% of them) that Google has never seen before. These searches are extremely specific and often have limited search volume.
In cases where AI can’t answer the question sufficiently, search engines will fall back on the so-called ten blue links to guide people to 3rd party resources that may be more helpful in answering a long-tail query.
By focusing on long-tail queries related to your company’s products or services, you’ll be claiming real estate that, while not well-trodden, may still result in valuable customer or lead acquisition due to the hyper-specific nature of the inquiry.
Don’t think “electric bike.”
Think “orange electric bike with white stripes and fat tires that can go 100km on one charge and is foldable“.
Of course, discovering what these long-tail queries are is what any good digital marketing agency will be able to uncover for you.
Invest in People Authority
Authority never goes out of style, at least not when it comes to search engines and search engine rankings. The more authoritative an engine like Google perceives your website, the more likely it will be promoted higher on the search results page and perhaps even be referenced in the AI-generated search results. That is the entire concept of EEAT.
Part of this authority is derived from backlinks. The more trustworthy and authoritative links your website gets, the more trusted it is as a source of topical authority by Google.
But part of this is what I call “people authority.” Companies’ reflexive instinct has often been not to allow their employees to take credit for the content they publish on behalf of a company. Some go as far as banning employees from posting on or engaging with the outside world through social media accounts in fear of a potential faux pas that may reflect negatively on the company.
I think this is a mistake. If you invest in the right people, you should be confident that they can represent your company on the web in the right light. Some guardrails may be necessary, but more important is giving your employees the tools and time they need to be seen as authorities in their respective industries or field. Their built-up authority will trickle down to your company, thus helping cement your domain expertise in the eyes of customers and search engine algorithms.
Give your employees the space they need to publish blog posts, white papers, case studies, podcasts, newsletters, videos, and short-form videos in as wide a capacity as you feel comfortable.
Invest in Video
And speaking of video, it should be clear to nearly every digital marketer and business owner that video is here to stay. The more your company invests in it, the more it will reap the rewards.
By virtue of owning YouTube, Google, the search engine, has every incentive to surface video results in their SERPs. Simply put, the more traffic they drive to YouTube, the more money they can make from advertisers. So, will they drive traffic to your YouTube videos or to your competitors? The choice is yours.
Gone are the days when investing in video was simply a quiver in your marketing arsenal. Now it’s a necessity. With the advent of AI video tools, it’s also become, on orders of magnitude, cheaper to produce high-quality, authoritative video content.
Invest in Paid Ads
Like social media and its various channels, the days of freely flowing organic traffic to your website from search engines are slowly ending. It may not happen overnight, but it’s already been coming for a long time, and the generative AI revolution is simply hastening that coming reality.
One way to fight against this is to simply realize that all of these 3rd party sources of organic marketing are, in the end, for-profit businesses, and most of them have created incredibly targeted advertising platforms that allow you to reach your potential customers for, in some cases, less than a dollar per lead.
Of course, the costs of running and maintaining an effective paid advertising campaign are highly dependent on how competitive the market that your company operates in, as well as how good the people implementing your paid campaigns are at creating and optimizing those campaigns.
Today’s ad campaigns on platforms like Google Ads, Facebook and Instagram are extremely sophisticated in finding the right customers for you. Audience targeting is less complicated than ever, but what remains an art form and challenge is creating copy and ad creative that will convert at a profitable rate. So why not get good at it, or hire an agency like LRO Solutions that will do it for you?
We have experienced experts that have placed millions of dollars of paid advertising on these platforms and found ways to create copy and creative that has driven profitable earnings for companies of all sizes.
Need help with your digital marketing or SEO for your small or medium sized business? Get in touch with LRO Solutions today.