On Wednesday, May 10th, Google hosted their annual I/O developer conference – something that all of us in the digital marketing world had been waiting for.
Usually, I/O doesn’t focus very much (if at all) on Googles core product – Search.
In fact, this developer conference is usually focused on everything else but Search.
And that’s because the core function of Search, hasn’t really changed all that much since Google launched.
Sure, the algorithms that decide the rankings have changed and evolved significantly over the last 10-15 years. But the search interface and experience is pretty much the same as it’s always been. You do a query, and Google gives you a list of websites that might answer what you’re looking for. With a few ads thrown in for good measure.
This year though, that’s all about to change.
In the coming months, you can expect to see a very different type of search result for many queries you type into Google.
Before we dive into what those changes are, let’s remember that there have been a lot of (admittedly much smaller) changes to the search interface over recent years. We’ve seen the introduction of things like featured snippets, the knowledge panel and other rich snippets and enhanced results sets for different verticals. And each time, more experienced SEOs have found leverage. Here at Marwick for example, we’ve ran campaigns where the main goal is to increase featured snippet counts, or implemented specialized recipe schema markup to help client recipe content be displayed in the recipe card carousel right at the top of the SERPs, to name just a couple of examples.
And this time will be no different. As long as your SEO team is experienced and curious, they’ll be able to help guide you through the upcoming shift in search and better position your business for the years to come.
So… what’s changing?
Well… for some queries, not much. But for others… pretty much everything.
Check out this short video to see some of the highlights and some real time examples of how the search results are going to look:
As you can see from the video, informational and research intent queries are where generative AI has some of the biggest potential, and these types of queries are about to be disrupted in a big way.
What does it mean for website owners?
That’s the big question.
And the answer kind of depends on where the bulk of your traffic comes from.
If you’re a publisher, or a blog for example, a lot of your traffic likely comes from people who are researching the exact types of queries that are going to start being served with generative AI answers.
The generative AI section still cites sources (which is a step in the right direction compared to Bing and OpenAIs efforts), but the reality is that the citations are hidden away and most people won’t even see them, let alone click them.
For this type of content, some website owners should probably prepare for traffic declines.
But this is the first of many changes coming over the next couple of years, as AI tools help to surface unique, helpful, insightful and opinionated content from real people with subject matter expertise.
In fact, Google quickly followed up this impressive demo, with a much less reported on but equally insightful and important announcement. In the coming months, we’ll see the release of a major update to the Helpful Content System with a new “perspectives” feature also coming to Google search.
Check out this quote from the link above:
“In addition to making it easier to find authentic perspectives, we’re also improving how we rank results in Search overall, with a greater focus on content with unique expertise and experience.
Last year, we launched the helpful content system to show more content made for people, and less content made to attract clicks. In the coming months, we’ll roll out an update to this system that more deeply understands content created from a personal or expert point of view, allowing us to rank more of this useful information on Search.
Helpful information can often live in unexpected or hard-to-find places: a comment in a forum thread, a post on a little-known blog, or an article with unique expertise on a topic.”
While AI is on track to be able to answer basic questions, it can never have the opinionated knowledge that comes from real life, authentic human experience. Google knows that, and users know it too. And users will always want to seek out the opinions of other people who are experts at what they do.
The sink or swim for website owners then becomes how willing and able they are to distill their experiences, opinions and perspectives into unique and insightful content. And of course, how well their SEO team can optimize its visibility in the rapidly evolving search landscape.
Why the big change?
The entire 2023 I/O conference was built around one key thing – AI. And they made it clear that AI is going to touch every part of their business in the coming months and years, as the massive recent advancements in the field open the door to endless use cases and applications to so many industries.
Some of the earliest applications for recent AI advancements have been in the world of search and information retrieval – a domain Google has almost entirely owned for over a decade.
Late in 2022, AI powered chat GPT was busy taking the internet by storm. Within 2 months it was the fastest growing app of all time, ever, as more and more people turned to it for answers to questions and access to information.
This worried Google, to the point where upper management declared a “code red” calling founders Larry and Surgey back from semi retirement.
Then, early in 2023, when Bing sent shockwaves through the industry and announced their partnership with Open AI to bring GPT powered AI and integrate directly into Bing Search, Google was suddenly left on the back foot and with a major problem.
All of a sudden, they were faced with the possibility of having a real rival. Someone with the magic combination of a disruptive technological edge and distribution potential to actually cut into their market share. Or at the very least, their margins.
Do Google want to make this move? Doubtful. For one, more space for AI generated content in the SERPs means less space for Ads. And if that weren’t reason enough, generative AI could also open them up to further regulatory scrutiny and brand/reputation damage if models aren’t tightly controlled for accuracy, balance and bias in the answers they produce.
But the risk of not moving is even greater. Whether it’s an existing competitor or a new one, or a whole host and series of competitors, Google’s virtual monopoly on the world of search came under threat more than it ever has done before.
They didn’t have a choice but to act. And now, neither do you. If content is still more of an after thought in your marketing strategy, or if you don’t have a solid plan in place to demonstrate that all important E-E-A-T through high quality and opinionated content, you might just have some tough times ahead.
Matt is Marwick Marketing's Division Leader for SEO & Web Development and has over a decade of digital marketing experience in everything from local to national and international campaigns. He's led high impact strategies for major brands and currently oversees Marwick's global SEO and Web services.