Google’s introduction of the generative AI search experience is the most recent initiative in its scramble to publicly roll out all-things-AI-search since the launch of ChatGPT in November.
But the question remains: Why is Google’s generative AI search experience a big deal?
In addition to being the most recent update, Google’s generative AI search project is its most concrete AI search engine initiative. (Google’s initial response – Bard – was widely criticized for lack of citations, and its long-term AI initiative called Magi, which I write about in my blog Google’s Project Magi: What to Know & How to Prepare, is still shrouded in a bit of mystery.)
Although generative AI capabilities are currently just available in its Labs pilot experiment (so features and functionality may change before a larger scale roll out), they’re an important predictor of what will eventually become Google’s standard search engine experience.
Because many (if not most) companies rely on Google’s search engine functionality to generate income, it’s essential to understand the changes that generative AI will bring to the search engine, and to know how to respond to these changes.
So, in short, Google’s generative AI search experience is a big deal for good reason. And that’s why I’m sharing these 4 “what to know” aspects of this new functionality, as well as how to respond to these changes in a way that will protect (and even boost) your website’s SEO.
#1: Google’s generative AI response format will be conversational, AI-generated content.
This biggest, overarching change to the user experience means that instead of a list of relevant pieces of content, the response to a search query will be a conversational, single-voice answer offering information gleaned from other websites’ online content.
A few cherry-picked relevant sources (right now it typically provides three) will appear alongside that response, and the standard set of listings will appear below the response.
Critics who are testing the experience cite a few concerns, including that the responses appear to plagiarize authors of online content, and that the content is not always accurate when it’s consolidated in this way.
But this format often makes responses more user-friendly and is able to highlight very clear answers to simple questions, such as requests for tips on a certain topic.
What to know for SEO:
I write more extensively about general preparation tips in my blog Google’s Project Magi: What to Know & How to Prepare, but the highlights are: write content for even more niche audiences, keep following all standard SEO best practices, and produce content that is conversational, accessible and clear.
#2: Generative AI search provides more comprehensive answers to nuanced questions.
Say you are planning an extended family (large) afternoon birthday party for a 6-year-old when visiting out of state on a long weekend. But you don’t want to spend too much money. Instead of breaking your search up into a bunch of small, time-consuming queries – “Best kid birthday venues in Somewhere, USA” “What are the hours of x, y, z birthday venue” “Kid birthday venues that will accommodate 40 people” “birthday venues within $XX budget” – you can write one question:
“Provide me a list of venues to hold a 6-year-old’s birthday in Somewhere, USA that can accommodate 40 people and can be reserved for less than $XX.”
Then the search engine will provide you with a list of options and supporting details. Mothers of 6-year-olds everywhere are planning a nap with the extra time this saves them.
Google’s recent “Supercharging Search with generative AI” blog provides a similar example with a query comparing the merits of two national parks when traveling with a 3-year-old and a dog.
The goal of this nuanced, comprehensive answer is to make people’s stressful lives easier by answering their complex questions. But it will also mean that the search engine is delivering the first line answer, instead of directing the searcher to a content provider. This is a significant change. So let’s dig into how companies who provide content can respond.
What to know for SEO:
Add nuance and detail to your content, and produce content in a conversational style.
If the downside of the search generative experience is that some sites receive less mass volumes of traffic then there also may be two silver linings:
1) Those same sites may receive fewer leads in the generative AI experience, but they will likely be more qualified leads.
2) Smaller sites that cater to niche products or services may receive more leads.
Whatever category your business is in, cater your content to a specific, relevant audience and add all the details. Position your content (whether that’s a blog, video, or other – and a combo is the best) in an approachable, conversational style that is likely to be pulled into Google’s initial answer. That’s the best formula for popping up in this more nuanced SERP to qualified leads.
#3: Shopping will be more intuitive and easier than ever.
Just like Google’s generative AI experience can provide a comprehensive answer to throwing a complex birthday party, it can offer specific and relevant products to very unique needs, as well as factors to consider.
So instead of going to 20 stores to find an outfit for an upcoming autumn wedding with a dress code of “urban outdoor chic”, you can do one Google search and get some high quality options with details and factors to consider for each one.
This capability is built on Google’s Shopping Graph, which has billions of product listings with comprehensive, constantly updated information on each product.
Note that this is likely the first step in Google’s grand plans to revolutionize online shopping. You can read more about the long term plan for shopping via search in my blog about Google’s Magi initiative.
What to know for SEO:
Optimize your products and website to pull structured data. Register your products and services on Google’s Merchant Center to get additional visibility on the Google Shopping Graph, and keep that information updated regularly, so that Google can pull the information in response to queries. Highlight any awards the product has won, or rankings it receives.
In any content you produce about products, be as detailed and descriptive as possible.
#4: Google’s generative-AI search will at least attempt to ensure that humans’ perspectives are still in the mix.
Let me be clear: The very act of rolling out this generative-AI search experience takes the searcher one step further away from other humans’ thoughts and perspectives (because the initial response is AI-generated content!).
Google is making an attempt to re-introduce human perspectives (they call them “authentic perspectives”) by adding a “Perspectives” filter at the top of search results.
There could be some value to this. Since the dawn of search there have been oodles of poor-quality, formulaic, keyword-bombing content that probably hasn’t helped very many people. So it’s not a loss to replace those pieces of content with AI-generated responses.
It would be a loss to no longer hear thoughtful commentary, user feedback, expert advice, and human perspective. That is really what this filter is trying to bring back to the center. (Although as of right now, a searcher has to click an extra button to get there.)
What to know for SEO:
Make every piece of content very very human. Include people’s gut perspectives when they trial things, feature user reviews (the more detailed the better), offer advice as you would to your neighbor popping over for a chat.
It could be helpful to partner with influencers, particularly micro-influencers who are known for working in niche fields, to produce content to reach your audience.
Google’s search engine is on the cusp of some of the biggest changes we’ve ever seen. This generative-AI search experience is the first step in that journey. So it’s a great way to test the waters by adjusting your SEO, content development strategies, and orient your company’s online presence to the changing world of search.