It’s early 2023 and there’s a new rule which says you can’t write an article without referencing AI in some way. So here’s a brief look at how AI could change things when it comes to your SEO strategy. But first, we need to check some long-standing assumptions.

Many organisations measure the success of their website by the amount of traffic it receives. This will have been measured with reporting which is derived from tracking codes embedded in the website (i.e. how Google Analytics works). This approach often becomes a key metric for reporting internally on how well the website and digital campaigns are performing.

“This month our page views increased by 10% over the same period last year – we must be doing something right”.

In order to attract an ever-increasing level of traffic, the SEO strategy will say that the website should optimised for search engines so that it appears on the search engine results pages (SERPs). If you’re lucky enough that your website appears in the top ten results the assumption is that this will help drive organic (i.e. free) traffic to your website.

However, there’s an issue with this approach. It’s based on an assumption that users will get what they need from a visit to your website. But increasingly this isn’t the only way that people are using the internet.

How are people receiving search results now?

Google and other search engines have always been changing the design of their results pages and adding new features. Design changes and AI-powered techniques have been having an effect on how people get answers for some time now. One example is personalised search in which results can differ based on a user’s search history, location, language settings and other factors. Here’s three other examples:

  1. Predictive search: Predictive search provides suggested searches and answers while a user is typing their query. Often this can have the effect of nudging a user to try a different search phrase than the one that was originally going to be typed.
  1. Answers on the search engines’ results page: Type in a keyword search to Google and besides the ten organic search results it’s likely that you’ll also see other content. This includes sponsored results, knowledge graph panels, related searches, ‘People also ask’ options, and featured snippets.
  1. Voice search: Voice search allows users to search for information by speaking to digital assistants like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant. This makes search queries more conversational and can provide direct answers to simpler questions.

The common factor in the three examples above is that search engines can provide answers to users’ search queries without sending the user to your organisation’s website. The search engines use the content from your website to answer users’ queries, but your website doesn’t get the traffic.

This needs to be considered within the context of your content marketing strategy. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that users aren’t being delivered to your website if their queries are being answered. However you can’t easily measure how many user queries are answered this way, and you could be losing some opportunities to upsell, cross-sell or otherwise promote specific call-to-actions that only exist on your website.

So far we’ve covered what has already been happening for some time now. What’s next when it comes to AI in search? The big news in this area has been around how the search interface could change to become more chat-based. Google is introducing Bard but perhaps the bigger story has been how Microsoft has added ChatGPT to its Bing search engine (you need to use their Edge browser to try it out).

What will this mean for search behaviours?

  1. More zero-click searches – like the three examples above, users can get their queries answered without leaving the search engine and without visiting your website.
  2. Conversational based searching – with searches based on natural language rather that specific keywords.
  3. More targeted searching – instead of relatively generic searches like ‘electricians in Chester’ users might try ‘I’m adding a work-from-home space to my house need an electrician to help with new sockets’.
  4. More engaged traffic from search engines – if the basic queries are handled within the chat interface, it could result in more qualified leads once a link is eventually provided by the chatbot.

How does this affect SEO strategy?

Your SEO strategy should already be more sophisticated than merely measuring the traffic that comes to your website. You need to consider not only how your content works on your own website, but how it works when it used by a search engine on their results pages or outputs. AI chat might lower the overall traffic but increase the quality of that traffic. Reporting needs to be connected to specific organisational goals and KPIs. Over time it could be important to switch focus from quantity (of page views) to quality of interactions.

One thing is clear – a lot of change is coming over the next few weeks, months and years. AI will get cheaper and the open-source community’s ability to innovate will accelerate the change. Companies are looking for competitive advantages and governments are beginning to consider bringing in regulation.

As individuals working in the digital space we need to investigate what is happening. Try out Bard, login to Bing and experiment with their Chat tab. Can you find answers to the queries that your users may have? How does your content get used and represented by the AI models? Are they providing up-to-date and accurate information?

Always check your assumptions and stay curious.

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