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Age of SGE: How Will AI Affect Search Traffic in the Next Decade?

Posted on Jul 8th, 2024
Written by Harry Mackin
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    Google’s bold new foray into generative AI – dubbed AI Overviews or Google Search Generative Experience (SGE) – has elicited big reactions, and not many of them positive. A few high-profile slip-ups aren’t helping boost confidence in AI to provide useful, accurate results.

    Despite these hiccups, AI in search is likely here to stay. With search engines and SEO being such a core aspect of digital marketing, there’s understandably a lot of attention being paid to the ripple effects of this evolution in search. 

    As a marketer, here’s what you need to know about Google SGE and the broader impact of AI on search.

    What is Google SGE?

    Google Search Generative Experience is Google’s new approach to incorporating generative AI into their search algorithm. When in use, SGE will provide an “AI-powered snapshot” of information requested in a query at the top of the resulting search engine results page (SERP). These snapshots will provide a quick overview of the topic, with information collected, composited, and arranged from top results by the generative AI.

    The screenshot below from Google’s overview of SGE provides an example of what one of these AI-powered snapshots looks like:

    Reactions to Google SGE

    Google SGE has received significant attention and criticism, primarily focused on how the tool will disincentivize users from actually clicking through to the websites surfaced in search results. The Atlantic, which says it gets up to 40% of its current traffic from Google, published an analysis on the subject and concluded: “75% of the time, the AI-powered search would likely provide a full answer to a user’s query.” As a result, Wall Street Journal reported that publishers expect to lose “between 20% and 40% of their Google-generated traffic” in a post-SGE landscape. 

    Other publishers and SEO experts are less concerned. While Forrester Research Senior Analyst Nikhil Lai was quoted by Reuters saying SGE is “definitely going to decrease publishers’ organic traffic, and they’re going to have to think about a different way to measure the value of that content if not click-through rate,” he also said he believes appearing in the new SGE-provided summaries will help protect and enhance publisher reputation. 

    Some SEO experts even believe that Google SGE could represent a new opportunity to rank for brands and publishers that may have previously lacked the authority to appear in the top 10.

    How generative AI will affect search traffic in the next decade

    There are still a lot of unknowns when it comes to Google SGE. As one publisher interviewed by Reuters shared: “The new AI section is a black box for us. We don’t know how to make sure we’re a part of it or the algorithm behind it.”  

    The overarching reality is that in the coming years, brands will likely see a collective decrease in traffic sourced to search engines. This owes in part to AI and changes to the makeup of SERPs, but it also relates to evolving habits of users (e.g. using TikTok for search, or running video searches on YouTube). 

    Even if overall search volume decreases to some degree in the coming years, however, that doesn’t mean SEO’s strategic role in digital marketing will be diminished. Google will remain a powerhouse driver and director of web traffic. Staying aligned with its guidelines and priorities will help you continue to grow your authority and attract high-quality visitors.

    By referencing the history of Google algorithm updates, along with the ultimate goals and purpose of the search engine, we can start to chart a path forward for SEO in the age of AI. 

    Ranking highly in SERPs will become even more important

    As the screenshot above indicates, SGE summaries take top billing on SERPs, above even sponsored content. With less space to list organic rankings after sponsored content, some results that would have previously been on page one will slip to page two.

    Given how few people navigate to page two of any SERP result, this means Google SGE will likely have a somewhat counterintuitive effect: it will make SEO even more important.

    While SERP organic results may be receiving fewer clicks overall, the pages that are getting clicks will be on page one… and competition to appear there will be fiercer than ever. 

    Meanwhile, Google SGE summary results are primarily useful for informational queries: users just looking to have a question answered may be able to get what they need from the AI-generated summary. For users with commercial intent, however — such as individuals searching for complex information about B2B challenges and solutions — organic results will still be the place to look.  

    “With AI Overviews, people are visiting a greater diversity of websites for help with more complex questions. And we see that the links included in AI Overviews get more clicks than if the page had appeared as a traditional web listing for that query. As we expand this experience, we’ll continue to focus on sending valuable traffic to publishers and creators. As always, ads will continue to appear in dedicated slots throughout the page, with clear labeling to distinguish between organic and sponsored results.” – Liz Reid, VP, Head of Google Search (Source)

    Authoritative, in-depth content will gain demand

    Google became the search engine juggernaut it is today precisely because it was able to provide the most relevant content for users. Each of its updates over the years has focused on refining the search engine’s algorithm to serve results in accordance with Google’s “E-E-A-T” rating guidelines: Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness. 

    As Google assured in their overview of SGE, the search engine remains committed to these guidelines when providing all information on their SERPs — including and especially the information their generative AI model produces. However Google updates Google SGE in the future, you can bet they’ll be focused on making sure it provides authoritative best answer information; their reputation hinges on it.

    Embodying E-E-A-T principles in your content will become all the more important as AI-driven search ramps up. SEO techniques like link-building and utilizing semantically related keywords will be key to demonstrating authority and winning placements within AI summaries. 

    Helpful, expert-sourced content will rise above the rest

    Google SGE presents a unique opportunity for B2B creators. Compared to most B2C content, B2B content is more complex, niche, and difficult to summarize. AI will have a limited ability to offer adequate information to informed B2B audiences, especially if those audiences include buyers looking to make critical purchasing decisions.

    As a result, there is reason to expect substantial, renewed demand for content that explores B2B topics in-depth from an expert point of view. As Google’s SGE provides only top-level summaries, audiences will crave deeper insights and guidance on topics that matter to them. They’ll likely spend more time using SGE’s new features to refine their searches while they look for information curated for them specifically. 

    If you can provide this information, you can form stronger relationships with your audience faster, establishing yourself as a go-to source for reliable information in your business category. At TopRank Marketing, we often say that increased direct traffic is a great long-term outcome from successful SEO, because it can mean your audience starts bypassing searches (and AI results) to visit your website directly.

    Know your audience and what they need

    As the search landscape evolves with the rapid expansion of generative AI, we continue to believe that understanding and harnessing search intent holds the key to driving valuable organic traffic going forward. While Google SGE may be able to synthesize and summarize results on higher-level topics, your organization can differentiate with expert, in-depth content that speaks to your audience and their unique needs.

    Additionally, make sure you’re continually exploring alternative channels as part of your marketing strategy. As search habits evolve, staying innovative will ensure your audience can continue to discover your content, whether that’s through Google, social media, email, trade publications, or paid media.

    Download our guide, Marketing with Intent, to learn more about creating a future-proof SEO strategy within this framework.