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  • Writer's pictureTom Church

Will AI kill SEO? My predictions for SEO over the next 12 months.

I optimised my first site way back in 2005 - a single article and link got it to rank No. 1 on Google for a niche but actually valuable term (and if I had it now it would be worth a fortune!). I remember how tremendously proud of myself I was and how happy and amazed the client was - and how that knowledge lifted the curtain on a world of opportunity.

Since then, SEO has really remained governed by much of the same methodology: you create a site and serve visitors good, useful content that is not designed to be consumed by machines and crawlers but by people. If you keep that in mind from the outset, then many SEO dark arts that can be used will automatically be avoided, and it might well mean you avoid a penalty in any later update.

But has the arrival of AI changed this? I believe it has. And in two key ways.

What does generative AI mean for search engines and SEO?

The first of these two ways is looking at the content that is generated for websites. Generative AI has given us marketeers the chance to dramatically scale our creative output. From writing articles with Chat GPT or Copilot or Bard or Jaspar, to designing imagery with Canva, Midjourney or Leonardo, and to creating video segments. AI exists to change the format of one piece of content to another, creating a video from a blog post in order for us marketeers to repurpose content on different platforms and ask for a pay rise at the end of the month with enough zeros to make James Bond envious!

That’s the dream of course. And it is delightful. As you can no doubt tell through the giddy enjoyment you are experiencing as we journey together on our delightful romp through the English language, I am a master wordsmith. A true genius, if my grandmother is to be believed! But I am not really a graphic designer. That bit, I struggle with. But now all I need to do is turn to Midjourney, or Canva, or GPT 4, to get a suitable image that would have taken a designer many hours to do before 2023.

And I do use it for that. My blogs have nice, colourful illustrations that are designed to appeal to the childlike wonder in all of us; to catch the eye, quicken the breath, dilate the pupil in arousal, and result in that all important click!

But the awful truth is, the ‘Followers of He who must not be named,’ those dark-art practitioners, have used AI to scale their efforts to, in many cases, spam the search engines. Youtube has become a repository of horrid AI-voiced videos that reformat news or have been bulk created. Sites have geared entire pages to appeal to slightly different search terms, offering little to nothing of value to human visitors.

We have computers creating content for other computers to read and then provide that content to a human. Once the human element is gone in the first two instances of that chain however, the search engines will rapidly lose their value.

And they know this well.

Google’s March 2024 Core Update:

Google has very recently (from March 05th this year), rolled out a ‘core update’ that aims to reduce ‘unhelpful’ content by 40%, and also, it seems apparent now, target AI produced content that is deemed excessive and spammy. Frankly, this should not be a surprise to anyone.

So whilst this is a welcome, sensible, and highly predictable move to cleanse its SERPS, I do wonder how this update will continually shield us from cloned AI content aimed at gaming the search engines. It has certainly delisted hundreds, perhaps thousands of sites, and the update is still continuing, and I do think that this will set new expectations by Google of site owners on what is acceptable in the use and deployment of AI content. A simple watchword to live by: if it is still useful for a human, and to be read or consumed by a human, then AI will be permitted. Just don’t tweak the same content to target 20 different very similar keywords. Duplicated content has long been a big 'No!' for Google.

And this brings me to my second way in which AI could kill search engines:

The way we search is about to change. Say hello to your new virtual AI assistant who knows you better than you do!

When Chat GPT came out in late 2022 and early 2023, I tested one of my sites visibility in the AI. I asked it to find a local provider of that particular service . . . and my site wasn’t present at all in the response. Some of my competitors were however.

This irked me. It irked me because I’d done everything right for my client. Since 2014, this site was appearing in position 1 in Google and Bing search terms. It had good social proof, with positive reviews. And it was bringing in over £50k a year plus in turnover.

Surely, such a site should have been included in Chat GPT’s learning model? Even when I asked it to double check, using the exact site name, we were still persona-non-grata! To quote a movie: “It never happened. We were never here. We don’t exist!”

How then, did Chat GPT miss a site that was ranking in No. 1 position and for several years?

I have no idea, to be honest. I even wrote to Sam Altman asking how we could introduce a system whereby valid sites that have built up reputation via good practice could somehow submit themselves to the AI to be indexed. Alas, it went unanswered, which is not entirely unexpected due to his sudden elevation into the public sphere and the huge publicity that accompanied that.

The digital marketing industry has been characterised by such waves of new technology and platforms either replacing the old or eating into their user base in huge chunks: just think back to the days of Netscape (and if you need to look that up on Wiki then you are obviously not one of us old hired guns!), Friends Reunited and even Yahoo. The longevity of platforms like FB and Twitter and Google seem to have come with the advent of mobile search and the habit changes that engendered in internet users: allowing them to create their own content and to consume it ‘on the go’ perhaps being the biggest driver.

Will AI signal a shift in the way people use the internet? People are getting more and more used to voice search. It is not hard to image people having their own AI profile set up on their smart phones that mirrors the preferences, their locations, their price sensitivity, and will thus gear its interrogation of existing data sets into providing them with the services they want that most fit their profile.

Your virtual assistant - which would basically be a digital pocket version of you and your preferences, would use machine learning based on surveying your experiences and collecting your feedback. You went into Worcester or London for a night out at the theatre and liked Show X but not Meal Y? It will remember, and drawing on sites like Trip Advisor, the next time you are in that city it might suggest an alternative based on themes, menus, ambience, and, of course, price.

This would also create a diary of your activities. It could even become an emotional support tool, asking you to document your experiences each evening, probing your thoughts and comments on events you’ve done.

And it will remember all of this. It will interrogate it. Compartmentalise it. Learn from it. And it will provide you with more accurate choices.

You will never need to use a search engine again. Instead, you will just tell your profile that you want a weekend away in Wales or Devon and it will give you the best options, knowing your preferences for travel, entertainment, and essentially everything else.

Is this a good thing though? I have to declare I’m undecided. I like the spontaneous meetings in life made over a comment on a pub dog or the shared joke with a stranger to whom you suddenly find out you have so much in common. Would we not lose that ability to navigate the social mire with such a virtual assistant?

Perhaps I am looking too far ahead, but a key question for us marketing people remains:

How do we get our sites into these data sets? How do even make sure we can appear?

At the moment, the best hope is that AI uses the LLMS to interrogate the internet as part of its learning, and that we get caught up in this data trawl. Therefore, how do we maximise our chances of being included?

We need to make sure our sites work across as many search engines as possible. Bing with Copilot and Google for Bard - we need to make sure we are included in the data pillars upon which these giants will stand. And in such a fast changing world, it is not inconceivable that a stalwart of the tech industry might fall aside: incredible as it sounds, it’s happened before when users move to different types of interfaces: Netscape, Yahoo, Friends Reunited. Could we see Google or Bing suffer next?

We also need to make sure we have the right content: to appeal to voice lookups and snippets, as well as long from content. This is good SEO strategy anyhow - so if you are not doing it now, you should start planning to do so.

A wide reach on social media would also be useful - social proof will likely be involved in any AI algorithm to gauge cost, service, feel, and experience, so it should be a matter of no small urgency to make sure you business listing has these in place.

The next twelve months, I believe, will see a seismic shift in SEO. I do think, on current trends, that there is a 70% likelihood that traditional search engines will start to see significant decline as AI assistants and all-knowing profiles begin to take over.

The key is to make sure we can get our clients indexed into the foundational pillars of these new search databases that will educate AI.


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