As an SEO of nearly a decade, I’ve written plenty of pieces about Google algorithm updates, emerging SEO techniques and tactics and why SEO is still as strong as ever despite some people saying it isn’t.
However, despite the hype around Bing, Bard and others, there is a serious question about what happens next, and the answer to ‘what’s the future of SEO’ feels somewhat different this time around.
What Has Threatened SEO In Previous Years?
There are plenty of examples of people in the digital marketing world claiming SEO is ‘dead’.
In truth, it’s not that SEO is ‘dead’; more like the techniques and tactics used to succeed have changed and will continue to change as search evolves.
Search Engine Algorithm Updates
In recent years, Google has introduced a number of new search engine algorithms, such as Panda and Penguin, which target sites with weak quality content or suspect link-building practices.
More recent changes, such as Google’s ‘Helpful content Update‘ in August 2022, further focused on the quality of content being produced by sites, rewarding those that provided more useful and informative material.
These updates are important to be aware of, but if you’re creating quality content and getting links the right way anyway, algorithm updates shouldn’t overly affect you.
Some sites might experience small changes in Google search engine rankings as the sites around them are re-crawled and indexed.
Ads In the SERPs
Another significant perceived threat to SEO has been the increasing presence of ads in search engine results pages (SERPs).
Ads have taken up more and more space over the years, pushing organic listings further and further down the page. This means that users may be much less likely to click through to an organic result if they can quickly find what they need from an ad.
However, research shows users click on the organic results most of the time and depending on the keyword, quality of ads and many other factors, this can be up to and above 70% of the time.
Remember when voice was the next big thing in SEO? So do I.
Voice search did become more popular in recent years, but this isn’t necessarily an existential threat to SEO. In fact, voice searches can actually benefit your organic traffic if your content is optimised for it.
By targeting longer-tail keywords and featured snippets, you can tap into the potential of these searches and be in a better position to rank.
I’d argue most homes now have a smart device in at least one room (I have three), and despite the hype, there hasn’t been much impact from what we’ve seen, and if anything, the excitement around voice searches has died down… for now.
What’s Threatening SEO Now?
In many ways, the future of SEO and search has been brought into question again by the latest developments in Google and Bing’s chatbots Bard and Bing. Chat GPT also gave AI awareness a huge boost, with many questioning would people ever turn to the search results again?
ChatGPT & GPT-4
We recently hosted a discussion at Direct Commerce Association event about AI and ChatGPT and found that around 85% of the audience had used ChatGPT since its launch in November 2022.
The latest update to GPT-4 means the AI has become more sophisticated at understanding and answering questions. This means that if someone types in ‘where can I buy a new laptop’, they may be served back with an answer such as ‘You can find great deals on laptops at Amazon’.
Let’s give it a go.
Obviously, this could mean people bypassing search results completely and using ChatGPT to answer their questions and get recommendations.
However, a significant drawback is that ChatGPT and GPT-3 and 4 are limited in their knowledge of data and events beyond 2021, and so may not be suitable for up-to-date information such as the latest trends, news or a company’s reputation!
AI can also ‘hallucinate’, meaning it will generate false data or produce incomplete answers, which can lead to confusion and misinformation.
Bing vs Bard & The Ongoing AI Chatbot Wars
Most people in the digital marketing world have been watching the unfolding AI chatbot wars between Bing and Bard. You can get access to both right now, and there’s been plenty of debate about which one is better.
The impact for SEO is similar to ChatGPT in that users can now get instant answers directly in the SERP, which is why these developments are causing concern in the SEO community, and I can understand why.
If artificial intelligence and chatbots can understand a user’s search intent and reply with concise responses, then is there a need to scroll down into the paid results and then the organic results to get an answer?
Add to this the increase in other search engines utilising AI as part of their interfaces like You and the search market is starting to become fragmented.
Will AI Chatbots Impact SEO?
The short answer is yes, there is going to be an impact. But it’s not as simple as a yes and no answer, like with most SEO questions! As a specialist in eCommerce SEO, I was interested to see what the results would be of searching for a high buying intent keyword like ‘men’s black slim fit t-shirt’. This is what Bing returned.
It’s a really interesting result because it’s returned a list of retailers and a recommendation from an online publication (Men’s Journal).
If I click through on the link to Next, I’m actually taken to their category for men’s black shirts, not t-shirts. So, on this occasion, that’s a poor user experience, and I’d rather go to the traditional SERP for better results.
Having said that, a broader search like ‘what trousers can I pair with a men’s black slim fit t-shirt’ shows the answer is more useful but still not quite there.
In both searches, the lack of visuals is also a barrier to me clicking through to these results, and typically, I might click on a Google Shopping link or an organic link with an image of the product I want.
This is just one example, and I’m keen to hear and see more as the year progresses.
Will All Keyword Types & Searches Be Impacted?
Based on what we’ve seen, there will be a big shift for certain keywords. Informational keywords and questions like those used in Bing and Bard’s promo material are the best way for users to make use of chatbots at the moment.
The biggest impact here is potentially on blog posts and content creation. If an AI assistant can provide an answer and help with follow-up questions, then there’s less of a need to visit your site for ‘how to’ type content or ideas and inspiration, as long as the user doesn’t want images.
On the eCommerce side, there’s likely to be a shift to focusing on how you can get your brand into the answer given by the AI chatbot and what the criteria are for being in there.
In this example, I wanted to discover some brands I could research for vegan men’s skate shoes. Again, the results are very interesting.
The first three results are blog posts on websites with topics about being vegan and sustainability. Result four is a well-known streetwear and skateboarding retailer, Route One.
So, more weight seems to have been put on the vegan part of my search vs skateboarding.
What’s also happened is the AI has taken vegan skate shoes from the first result and put it into a bullet list, like the regular SERP does.
I might have expected to see more skateboarding retailers or brands in the links. In fact, if I look at the search results for the same keyword, I see two skate-related links in positions one and two.
Two of the results in the regular SERP appear in the chatbot answer, and there’s also a bullet list feature in the regular SERP result. Also, notice how much more visual the SERP is vs the chatbot.
What Does An Effective SEO Strategy Look Like In 2023?
If you’re an SEO wondering what all this means for your strategy, then you’re not alone. There’s plenty of talk in the SEO industry about how we’ll need to adjust and refine our strategies to continue reaching our target audience.
These are some tips I’ve put together for how to make subtle changes to your strategy that fit with the 2023 search marketing landscape.
Content Marketing Tips
Blog post creation will still be essential, although a clearer focus on user intent is a must. Long-winded posts created to answer simple questions simply to rank will be a thing of the past, although many of these will have dropped away with various Google updates.
Focus on building topical authority and being the go-to website for everything about your product or service. Write content about what you think your audience is searching for and align it with keyword research using ahrefs or SEMrush and trends from Pinterest and TikTok.
Likewise, landing page and category page copy that’s short and to the point will give context to users and crawlers about page content. Using FAQs is a great way to get into featured snippets and could also be a key way of getting into the AI chatbot results.
Link Building Tips
We know that when you build links, you increase the authority of your website. It also appears that chatbots are including links to and creating lists from listicles and review websites.
Getting featured on sites like these, as well as generating links through digital PR and blogger outreach on high-DA websites, will signal to Google and chatbots crawling the web that your site is an authority.
Technical SEO Tips
My best tip for technical SEO is to use structured data to mark up elements of your web page so that when a chatbot crawls it, it’ll recognise FAQs, images, videos and elements too.
As well as this, standard SEO practice still stands. Don’t forget that although you want your site to appear in both the regular SERPs and chatbot responses, there will be a human looking for an answer or product on the other end!
Overly optimising your web pages might make it harder for the user to find what they’re looking for on your site and lead to a poor experience.
Final Thoughts & Takeaways
Clearly, there are plenty of changes happening in the SERPs right now, and the changes are becoming more complex with the introduction of AI-driven chatbots.
However, the question still remains on how ready users are to fully adopt features like Bard in the Google Search Results, given most ignore Google Ads and go straight to organic search queries.
Innovators and early adopters will already be working out how to get featured in the chatbot results, and there’s plenty still to explore when it comes to using AI as an SEO tool to research and create strategies and content.
So, is the introduction of AI into the SERPs going to kill off SEO? Let’s leave that to Chat GPT to answer.