Will AI Kill SEO?

Jun 15, 2023SEO

Short answer – not today. 

Still, it is a big deal. Don’t take this conclusion as a denial of the transformational potential of this moment we’re in. But with all big shifts in technology, there’s a rush to draw conclusions about how our world will change. For today, let’s offer some nuance. Below are some reasons I am extremely interested in the changes happening in the world of tech, but not yet preparing for the end of search as we know it.

Search Engines Need to Make Money

During an SMX interview, Google VP of Search Kathy Edwards was asked about how clickthrough rates via Search Generative Experience (SGE) results compared to traditional results. Kathy gave a cagey answer centered around the idea that Google didn’t have enough data to offer any insights of conclusions about click behavior. 

My take? The clickthrough rate is massively lower. Reminder: how does Google make money? Advertising. Specifically, people clicking on ads. If Google said SGE was going to the rolled out wide scale and clickthrough rates were lower (even modestly lower), their stock price would crater. 

Maybe Google is at a crossroads for how secure their future as the leader in search. But for as long as they’re in that position, they are going to be an advertising company. Which means they either need to completely upend their revenue model and/or figure out how to get people to keep clicking on links to sites.

Microsoft is in a different position in that they make money via software/services and search is an area where they can take much bigger swings. But Bing still has the same revenue model as Google. And even if Microsoft could convince hundreds of millions of people to change their behavior, they’d run into the same issue of revenue as their search engine scaled to be a true competitor.

ChatGPT is a Novelty

A lot of people have visited the OpenAI website to try out ChatGPT. And while accessibility has improved via various apps and integrations – it’s still a separate tool from traditional search. A small number of people have, for now, incorporated it into their work for a host of useful reasons. But again, it’s a separate tool from traditional search. 

Even while still in this novelty/curiosity phase, we’ve seen competitors (like Bard) jump into the AI language model world in ways that work to incorporate these tools into existing habits. Obviously the tools need to be useful, but similar to Facebook introducing Reels to keep people from bouncing to TikTok, it’s often much easier to adapt a habit vs create a new one. It’s possible people will abandon Google for ChatGPT or something else, but that Google alternative needs to be compelling enough to make people form a new habit and stop “Googling” things.

People Value Choice

Again, for now. There are a number of questions that people are totally satisfied with getting a single answer. The temperature in your city. The day of the week. Who won the NBA Finals. The universe of questions where people are okay with a single option for an answer can certainly expand.

But still, the beauty of the traditional search result page is that even if you click on the first non-ad result 60% of the time, you have the ability to click on other options. It’s your choice which resource you select.

Even when we’re being fed content we didn’t ask for (discovery), we’re still making a choice of which content we watch to completion or engage with at all. Which leads me to…

AI Can Help SEO

This doesn’t mean it will, but it can. The potential is there. By that I mean we can reduce the amount of searching needed without changing the number of websites visited (or ads clicked).

The concept of discovery has been taking off for years now. It’s the core concept behind TikTok. But all of the biggest sites on the internet have integrated some version of it, if they didn’t have it already. 

This technology already exists, but it can get better and more widespread. Instead of seeing the search box as the only thing on Google.com, imagine a world where Google serves you a list of pages/sites that it believes will be useful in the moment. You can still search if you want something else, but the main idea is you don’t have to. But you’re still going to websites.

In this world, doing great SEO is even more critical as you’re trying to rank for concepts and interests, not keywords. 

This is much closer to reality today and requires no formation of new habits. But ultimately we must wait and see what users gravitate towards and what the tech platforms want to push. 

We’re not necessarily at a pivot point in the world of search, but we could be. All we can do is be open to the possibilities and diligent about watching what is actually changing vs what is exciting for the moment.

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