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AI & the Future of Search: Don’t Bury SEO Yet

Concerned about how your search visibility may change with the launch of AI-integrated search? Ready to scrap your SEO because of AI predictions? The constant influx of AI new may make you feel like you need to act now to protect your rankings, but read this before radically updating your search strategy.

Feb 26, 2024

11 m read

With Bing and Google racing to incorporate their artificial intelligence (AI) into their search platforms, there’s plenty of speculation regarding what the future of search may look like — and whether AI could be a death knell for traditional SEO. Past claims of SEO’s demise have been overstated — and any predictions calling for an obituary to be prepped are just as overblown and shortsighted.

Divining the Future of Search

While SEOs tend to forecast the future with the help of a keyword research tool, I’ve turned to a variety of AI tools and my own knowledge of the history of search engines to forecast what tomorrow’s search experience may be like and deconstruct some of the more, shall we say, imaginative predictions that have captivated AI enthusiasts, journalists, and startled marketers. 

Will AI Replace Search?

Let’s start with the most significant prediction — that AI will replace search as a way to access information or will somehow totally change the current search atmosphere.

No, We’re Creatures of Habit

First, people’s search habits are pretty ingrained. While younger users may begin integrating AI search into web browsing, it will likely be a harder sell for those accustomed to selecting their own information sources.

Similarly, voice search has slowly been building over time, but when it was first introduced, it was also supposed to radically change how people interacted with Google and Bing. Instead, voice search has carved its own niche. People tend to use voice search when they want specific information like an answer to a question, the weather forecast, or a sports score. Other top voice queries include:

voice search use statistics
Source: Comscore, 2021

A voice search often results in a specific answer — one where you don’t need to compare multiple search results. While some users opt to ask Siri or Alexa for nearby restaurants, most stick with asking for specific facts. Plus, you can’t just do a voice search in any situation — text search is more discreet.

And We Like Choices

People predominantly turn to Google or another search engine when looking for reviews or transactional information because they provide various options. I don’t think this is going to change. Comparison is key to these searches, and being unable to check different sites could be detrimental. And by that, I mean more expensive.

While we could ask ChatGPT, Bing Chat, or Bard to create a table comparing prices for different products or services, depending on how frequently those large language models are being trained, the information may not be accurate. Searches that require up-to-date information are best done on search engines. Google already excels with this. 

Google shopping SERP example for camping stovevs

While adding AI to the mix may one day make it easier to determine which of the options have specific features or a warranty without having to read every page, this would likely be an added feature to existing search engines rather than a totally new product.

Bard shopping example for camping stove

In the above prompt, I initially asked for links. Bard told me it wasn’t able to help me, so I removed that from the prompt. As someone who recently purchased a camping stove, I can attest that the above table would not be helpful in making a purchase. 

Plus, AI Increases Search Engines’ Energy Dependence

Training AI takes energy — and training it consistently so it can “ingest” knowledge and stay up to date will require that tech companies use a lot of energy every day. We don’t tend to think about the carbon impact of our web searches or how Google is able to maintain a massive index, but its energy use grows as the web grows. Googlebot and its new friend GoogleOther require energy to crawl the web and index sites. With Google planning to crawl sites less frequently to reach its 2030 carbon-neutral goal, where will AI fit in? (You can learn more about the potential energy strain here.)

Beyond training, AI also uses a lot of processing power, requiring its own dedicated servers and data centers. These needs may make it harder for Google to meet its energy goals.

How AI Will Impact the Future of Search

If AI isn’t going to flat-out replace traditional search engines, what impact will it have on the search landscape? Over the next few years, I think we’re going to see:

  • A decline in search volume for certain queries
  • Less organic traffic for sites targeting those keywords
  • A call for more fact-checking
  • Additional need for media literacy

But the future isn’t all doom and gloom. AI has the potential to:

  • Increase interactivity
  • Encourage better content creation
  • Improve personalization
  • Enhance niche search engines

Decline in Search Volume for Particular Queries

Adding AI chatbots to search engines may lead to a decline in search volume or click-throughs for informational queries that require a direct answer. For example, googling “population of New York City” leads to an answer right in the suggested searches. 

Google Search population example

The SERP has a nice graph that also lets you see the population of other large US cities.

Google population serp feature example

Google has already been leaning toward answering user questions as quickly and succinctly as possible. AI may accelerate that process. 

But let’s be clear: Many of these queries aren’t particularly useful for increasing targeted organic traffic to a site. These are informational searches that, while they may lead to additional users running searches, require a fast answer. That’s part of why Google began quickly answering them with different SERP features. Its approach is to “present information in the most useful way,” and SERP features that quickly provide the information have proven popular. 

Less Organic Traffic

Part and parcel with the above — if there are fewer searches or particular searches are answered directly in SERPs, you may see less organic traffic if you’re targeting those queries. These types of high-volume searches rarely have a transactional intent, so while you may see less traffic, it may not impact your bottom line directly.

Take a look at your keyword strategy. Are you targeting keywords for queries that a SERP feature or a chatbot could easily answer? If yes, you may want to run new keyword research and include plenty of high-intent keywords to help you target searchers looking to purchase or engage your services.

Increased Need for Fact-checking

Current AI tools aren’t capable of fact-checking and have been known to “hallucinate,” which is a nice way of saying they can make things up. Some prompts use this ability to have AI make predictions based on information it wasn’t trained on.

ChatGPT predictions for the future example

While Google and Bing don’t fact-check the info they highlight in SERPs — or even in featured snippets — users can get information from multiple sources, allowing them to find the most accurate result or the one that meshes most with their worldview. Thus, searchers looking for information about ideas and products that aren’t objective facts may prefer to sort through potential sources rather than allow AI to make that determination for them. 

Greater Demand for Media Literacy

More schools are teaching media literacy — and with AI creeping into so many industries and avenues, there will be even more demand for this type of education. 

Once content-generating tools hit the market, tools for spotting AI content quickly followed. As humans, we want to know when something has the potential to be misleading. The same thing happened when photoshopped images became more popular. Now, more people are questioning whether images or content are AI-generated. Thus, we need greater insight into why this matters and how to identify AI-generated content — especially when it’s used to affect human sentiment (like in marketing). 

Possible Benefits of AI-Integrated Search

Could AI make search engines cool again? Not to say they were ever not cool, but there haven’t been many radical changes to search engines in the past several years. Embedding AI chatbots or AI responses could bring more people to Google Search or Bing. Why? Because it has the potential to make search better.

Interactivity

AI chatbots add a level of interactivity to search, which may keep users on the search engine page longer. This aligns perfectly with Google’s goals. While its stated mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” it also wants people to use their products, including Search, as much as possible. Interactivity could help increase time on-site and create an enjoyable experience for the searcher.

More Focus on Information Gain

There’s a lot of copycat content on the web. Some of it’s intentional due to businesses wanting to rank for the same keywords, and some of it’s unintentional because the content is simply based on fact. Since AI will be able to easily answer factual questions it’s been trained on, creating content featuring new information will be a key determining factor for ranking well in future searches. When you provide information no one else does, you increase your chances of standing out.

Personalization

Google previously touted its personalized search results and then retired them. So what will make new attempts at personalization unique? Personalization powered by machine learning and large language models (LLMs), combined with improved search intent analysis, may help search engines create personalized SERP features based on aggregated user data. The predictive power of today’s LLMs is better than any before — making more intuitive-feeling personalization possible. And, perhaps, it won’t feel intrusive.

Improved Industry-Specific Databases

AI could impact how people in certain industries access information. If AI is trained on non-web sources, it could have a more specific impact on industries that rely on that information. One example is training AI on medical journals to create a specific search tool for medical professionals and students to help them access important information quickly. Similarly, integrating AI into Google Scholar could make it easier for academics to find relevant articles and improve their studies. 

For this to work, though, there would need to be a level of transparency that isn’t yet available with AI. Basically, AI would need to show its work. Why did it pull certain articles? How can users verify the information provided by the AI tool is accurate (especially if they don’t have access to the article)?

All of these benefits could lead to increased use of search engines featuring AI, but that may not necessarily translate to a benefit for businesses if those businesses aren’t prepared to evolve their SEO strategies to align them with the future of search. Let’s talk about what that will look like.

How SEO Will Still Be Critical in the Future of Search

Not all users will rely on AI. Plenty of people are skeptical of the technology, and if given the chance to turn off AI functionality, they may. But even with complete AI search engine integration, SEO will still be a determining factor in search visibility. That’s because SEO best practices = quality, which is what search engines want and may be what tomorrow’s AI looks for, too.

Even if Google integrates Bard into every SERP in position zero, many people will still look to see what other results exist, especially when they’re researching. Those results will likely still be ranked using Google’s Algorithm — Google isn’t just going to ignore the algorithm it’s been honing for decades. Instead, it’ll likely use what it believes to be the best components of its algorithm for any future tools, even as it plans to upend the search landscape (like with Magi).

Google’s algorithm is currently its best estimation of human desire — it aims to connect querents with what they’re looking for. It takes an informed guess at search intent and hopes to provide the best result at the top of SERPs. While this doesn’t always work, it works well enough that Google is a leader in the industry with an incomparable market share.

Until Google can create a better model — and I don’t think that will be any time soon — it will continue to rely on its well-guarded algorithm, and search engine optimization will remain the best way to rank well.

How To Future-Proof Your SEO

Predictions are easy to make, and people are hardly ever held accountable for them. However, right now, taking action matters. If you want to be at the forefront of SEO when the tide shifts, I recommend the following. Thankfully, they’re all SEO best practices, so you may already have processes in place to protect your rankings.

1. Incorporate Long-Tail Keywords Into Your Keyword Strategy

The way we use AI chatbots differs from how we search. When “communicating” with AI, we tend to make requests rather than enter short queries. Optimizing your site content around these long-tail keywords may help you safeguard your SEO when AI is more fully integrated into Search or Bing.

Be clear and use a conversational tone if appropriate. If you’re answering a question, treat it like a featured snippet and answer it directly. 

While you’re at it, look into question keywords, too.

2. Optimize for Voice Search & Natural Language Queries

Know what also requires long-tail keywords and a conversational tone? Voice SEO. Optimizing appropriate pages for voice search may help you capture future AI traffic. The goal of this is to mimic the way people use AI to get information. While there’s no guarantee the way we currently use AI will be how we use it in the future, incorporating voice search into your SEO strategy can provide other benefits unrelated to AI. Not only might it help Alexa and Siri users find you, but it serves as a way to naturally include semantically related keywords in your content.

3. Create High-Quality Content

High-quality content will always be a critical aspect of SEO. Whether the content is on a product page or an informational blog post, it needs to be well written, well structured, and answer the query connected to your keyword theme.

Search is all about information — and AI is only going to enhance that. Fact-checking isn’t a priority right now, but I can see it being a major factor in future AI iterations. Having accurate, useful information may help you maintain your rankings and weather any search updates. 

Start to let go of word count — I know it’s hard — and focus on information gain. What can you share about a topic that no one else has? Or how can you share information in a different way to better help your target audience?

In terms of structure: Make use of headings and subheadings. They help highlight important sections of your content and provide contextual clues to crawl bots. This will help search engines spotlight a specific part of your page that directly answers the user’s query. (Again, think of featured snippets. When you click through to the featured page, it goes directly to the highlighted section.)

Does “high quality” mean you can’t use generative AI? No, you can totally post AI-assisted content and rank well on Google. It just has to be useful and accurate. Follow these recommendations to create high-quality AI-assisted content. Keep in mind, though, that AI is trained on existing content. If you want to provide completely new insights to maximize your information gain, you’ll need to do the heavy lifting yourself.

4. Implement Schema

Using schema is like providing search engines with a map of your page. It helps you point to and explain different types of content and make them easier for crawlers to understand. Also known as structured data, you’ll need schema for rich results. 

The following resources can help you get started:

5. Optimize Your Business Profile

Bard and Bing can already pull in business information from the web. If you want to be featured in those AI requests, optimize and update your Google Business Profile and your Bing Places profile.

An optimized GBP is critical for getting found in local Google searches as well as on Google Maps. Bing use is increasing, and if your analytics show you’re receiving traffic from that platform, it’s worth claiming your Bing Places listing.

You can learn how to optimize your Google Business Profile here.

6. Stay Informed 

Things are changing pretty fast, but not so fast that you can’t keep up with them. To give your website the best chance, make sure to stay on top of AI advancements and algorithm updates. Set a Google alert or use a tool like Feedly to aggregate AI and search news. 

The More Things Change…

There are a lot of pessimistic takes on the future of search. But AI’s impact can actually make for a more intuitive and useful search landscape. If we build and optimize for that future, we can reap the benefits of both improved rankings and a more user-friendly website chock-full of quality content. Thankfully, you don’t have to buy a crystal ball to predict what factors will help you stand out in SERPs — an SEO agency can help you adapt to the changing search landscape so you can maximize your current framework while simultaneously building for the future.

If you need a partner to help you navigate the road to SEO success, schedule a free consultation.

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