Lately, “AI” has become something of a buzzword. Every business has been trying to get in on it, so I wasn’t surprised when our clients started asking about it. Their question, naturally, was, “How will AI affect SEO” and, as the resident Content and SEO Strategist, I felt compelled to ponder it.
This entire post, of course, will revolve around answering that question, but a little context wouldn’t go amiss, don’t you think? For that, let’s delve into the history of artificial intelligence briefly. After all, to understand where we’re going, we need to understand where we’ve been.
A brief history of artificial intelligence
On the surface, it makes sense for AI to be in the limelight but, looking a little deeper, you realize that this recurrent discussion nowadays is taking place only because AI has recently become accessible to the masses.
For instance, did you folks know that the first Chatbot (ELIZA) was developed as far back as 1966? If you think ELIZA was basic, how about Deep Blue, who beat World Chess Champion Gary Kasparov in 1997, or even 2002’s Roomba? Technically, the work on AI started in the 1940s. Through multiple AI winters—a term denoting periods with very little or no AI work—interspersed with quantum leaps in development (think the 2010s), we arrived at OpenAI’s ChatGPT in 2022, which was so successful that it gave birth to multiple variants.
Launched in November 2022, ChatGPT crossed a billion users in March 2023 and is expected to generate $1 billion by the end of next year. More importantly, it has shown the business world the latent potential of generative AI to the point that I don’t expect there to be another AI winter for at least another decade or two.
Microsoft, one of the investors in ChatGPT, has already integrated it into Bing, while Google is scrambling to catch up with its own variant, Bard. ChatGPT has given Bing a marked edge, but Google will not give up its +90% search market share easily.
These developments are at the core of why so many people are trying to project the evolutionary relationship between AI and SEO. However, there are layers to this question.
SEO can be split into three layers, and AI will affect each of these layers differently:
- The algorithms and technology used to rank and deliver search engine results.
- The nature and modalities of interactions between search engine users and the search engine.
- How businesses cope with the changing dynamics of search engine technology and user expectations.
AI-based SEO algorithms: How will the search engines evolve
From the outset, let’s be clear that the arrival of generative AI is not going to result in massive changes—it’ll be business as usual for search engines. After all, AI has been around in the SEO world long before Sam Altman even thought up ChatGPT.
For instance, Google started Google Brain as far back as 2011 and introduced RankBrain in 2015. Google Brain was a Deep Learning + Machine Learning research wing while RankBrain was its application to search algorithms. Deep learning and machine learning, as you may already know, are subsets of artificial intelligence. Further, the fact that Google reacted to Bing AI Chatbot (Bing + ChatGPT) by merging Google Brain with Google DeepMind and soft-launching Google Bard shows that things will be preceeding as normal in the annals of search engines.
This doesn’t mean that AI didn’t impact search engines. What it means, however, is that search engines are now speeding up their evolution in terms of their use of AI in ranking and delivering search results.
So, there will be no exponential growth or sea change in search from the perspective of search engines. However, there may be changes on the user side.
AI-Powered SEO: Users Can Expect Changes
In coding, there’s a clear demarcation between “backend” and “frontend.” Backend is what happens with a website behind the curtain (i.e., databases, widgets, SQL, etc.). Frontend is what happens on the face of the website (i.e., design, UI, and UX).
I’ll apply the same analogy to SEO. What happens with search engine algorithms and the actual result ranking process would be the backend, while what the users see on the results page would be the frontend.
We’ve already explained how generative AI will affect the backend, how the assessment and ranking process will evolve just that little bit faster without breaking any speed records. On the frontend of search engines, I expect to see a bit more change because of generative AI.
Conversational search and zero-click content
Generative multimodal AI is geared towards improving user interaction because its greatest strength is being able to respond to prompts like a real person. Generative means it responds and adjusts to prompts, while multimodal means that it responds to different formats of prompts like videos, images, and text. This means that you can expect to see more conversational search (like improved and possibly more autonomous voice assistants) options and more evolved zero-click content.
Zero-click content, in case you were wondering, are answers to queries and searches being directly delivered to searchers on the search page itself. The best examples of zero-click content are rich text snippets and fact-based answers on Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs).
We’re already seeing signs of this with Bing ChatGPT and Google’s CEO, Sunder Pichai, has promised the same on their search engine.
Now, the increased relevance of zero-click content may be a cause for concern because it takes up the super-crucial above-the-fold SERP real estate, but you have to remember that nothing is set in stone right now. There are even some reports that the higher frequency of zero-click content will only come with associated links to the parent URLs. This will negate at least some of the real estate loss.
Personally, I feel that while the instances of zero-click content will increase due to generative AI being integrated with search engines, the increase will not be significant enough to damage click-throughs. Why? Well, it’s because the entire business model of search engines depends on sending people through to specific URLs.
Personalized search results and ad serving
The biggest strength of generative AI is that it can learn and adjust its responses on the fly. This will have a huge impact on personalized search results and ad serving.
Google, and indeed other search engines, have always viewed personalization—whether through SERPs or ads—as the Holy Grail. This is understandable because these elements impact the business side of things directly. In fact, search engines have tried to implement this multiple times before. The latest was Google’s efforts in 2009, which they backed off from quietly over the next decade.
Personalization of search results is not possible without real-time data collection and analysis. It’s a precursor to ad serving, too. Better personalization-focused data means better ads and, as a result, more clicks on said ads. If search engines can improve conversion, they’ll get more ads from businesses. Thus, the money side of things depends entirely on personalized data collection.
Generative AI should definitely instigate another attempt from all stakeholders to deliver personalized results and ads. Whether it succeeds or not depends on how current the generative AI models are with their data. As of now, there’s a year’s gap, a result of the need to train the AI.
AI-based SEO tools: Navigating the evolutionary challenges
We really have no control over how AI affects the backend or even the frontend of search engine results. Search engines will do what they will do; like always, we’ll react to the steps they take. For many, how we deal with those changes is where AI comes in. But does it really?
There’s a slew of startups out there right now promising automated SEO in one form or another based on “new AI technology.” These include apps and SaaS for everything ranging from SEO keyword research based on AI and SEO audits to AI SEO content generators and optimizers. However, if you look under the hood of these services and apps, you’ll find that they’re little more than OpenAI’s ChatGPT with unique user interfaces. Essentially, these startups are trying to piggyback on ChatGPT’s success. They license ChatGPT, develop swanky new UIs, and then sell the package at about 10x the price you would pay to get ChatGPT.
Even if you’re willing to absorb the price markups as the cost of convenience, you need to realize that the AI behind the curtain is based on outdated data. ChatGPT, the yardstick against which all new AIs are measured, was trained on data older than September 2021. Debatably, older data is possibly the reason why ChatGPT “hallucinates” and Google Bard is a “pathological liar.”
In contrast, the search engine gold standard, Google, updates its algorithms at least 500 times and up to 5,000 times per year! For instance, it conducted 3,000+ updates in 2018 and 4,500+ updates in 2020.
Granted that the majority of these updates are minor, but would you really like your SEO strategy, intelligence, and write-ups to be based on years-old data when faced with such frequent updates? Your SEO campaigns are bound to take a hit sooner or later if you rely solely on AI to devise and implement them.
AI has not reached a stage where you can do away with human expertise and ingenuity. On the other hand, it is true that using AI can quicken SEO tasks like analyzing keywords or writing content. The solution, therefore, is to use AI while also having human supervision at regular junctures in the pipeline.
At Ranq, we’ve directly worked with ChatGPT to analyze its capabilities. I’ve personally been both impressed and disappointed. Naturally, I was impressed because such capabilities—especially if you consider the ease-of-use factor—are completely unprecedented, but I was disappointed because it doesn’t come anywhere close to the kind of deep-level analysis and output that our experts at Ranq are capable of.
Since our USP is to personally ensure significant ROIs to our clients, AI-based SEO isn’t something that I feel is up to the job yet. It can be a great assistant, though.
Using AI for SEO content production
Even though I’ve already spoken about AI-based SEO tools in the previous section, I felt that we needed to address the elephant in the room. I’m talking about all the hullabaloo around how AI-generated SEO content is nudging the content writer out of the picture.
There are many AI-based SEO content tools available in the market right now. A lot of one-man, small-scale, medium-sized businesses are switching over to them because word-for-word or piece-for-piece, they’re more cost-effective than full-time or freelance content writers.
The problem here is that these businesses haven’t considered how Google views AI-generated content. While Google’s blog post on the subject is open to interpretation, Google categorically mentions “quality” content more than 12 times in that post—this is what we need to pay attention to. Google doesn’t care if the SEO content is written by AI or by people so long as the quality is there.
Unfortunately, if you interview any accomplished journalist, author, editor, or even English teacher out there, you’ll be told that the quality of content an AI tool puts out without expert supervision will always be below average.
AI-generated content will be fine when it’s basic or factual: posts revolving around dates, numbers, locations, mainstream media, definitions, etc. The moment you demand nuance or sophistication, AI-generated content suffers.
To rank on Google, you need unique, fresh, and detailed content, which is impossible to get from AI, especially since it’s trained on old data. More importantly, fact-based content can also be defined as zero-click content, which means producing pages of this type is not beneficial for SEO anyway.
AI and SEO: Nothing to worry about, but something to plan for
Is AI going to kill SEO? Is AI going to take over SEO content? Is AI going to make search redundant?
One word: nope!
There’s nothing to worry about, but there’s definitely something to plan for. AI can help make your workflow more efficient, reduce the workload on your editors and writers, and make crunching huge quantum of data easier for your SEO analysts and researchers.
If you use it wisely—or hire someone who uses it wisely—you can end up with massive ROIs. On the flip side, if you try to use AI to cut corners and costs, be prepared to fall flat on your face and write off your investment.
The trick, of course, is what it’s always been: you want someone who can deliver results with or without AI.
Want to unlock the latent potential of your business? Let Ranq show you everything that’s possible!