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Google’s SGE Update Will Change SEO Forever

13 min read2023-05-16

Google’s I/O 2023 event just wrapped. Dozens of bold products were announced at the multi-day tech expo, ranging from AI music generation tools to more immersive Google Maps navigation tools.

Among them, Google announced its pending rollout of Search Generative Experience, a new AI-powered search interface expected to roll out through the remainder of 2023.

Google rolls out lots of search engine changes big and small through each calendar year, but this one is different. The Search Generative Experience (SGE from here on out) is a total product transformation introducing deeply integrated AI chat search, emphasis on social and video content, and significant alteration to the way ads and organic rankings get displayed to users.

SGE has some SEO experts in a panic. When ChatGPT and other LLM tools rolled out last November, it was an obvious game-changer. The power and promise of a broadly applicable text generation tool like ChatGPT guaranteed that content creation, online advertising, and SEO would never be the same. The only question was, what would an AI-powered internet look like?

Google is proposing a complete overhaul of the search interface, featuring prominent AI-generated answers as well as a built-in feature to find user-generated content like reviews and social media/forum discussions.

The impact of these changes? For many B2C businesses, it could signal severe drops in search traffic as AI-generated content undermines the need for blogs and informational articles. For B2B companies, the future of SEO is less clear.

Let’s look at the information we have so far. This article will discuss the pending changes to Google search, the likely marketing implications of those changes for businesses, and predict methods for B2B marketers to mitigate the impact of Google’s Search Generative Experience.

Search Generative Experience (SGE): What We Know So Far

There are three major changes coming to Google Search as SGE comes online. Most visible is the addition of AI-powered search, much like Microsoft’s Bing chat tool. Other major changes include the addition of a Perspectives filter that provides a new experience for exploring social and user-generated content, and the inclusion of various AI-powered productivity tools such as image editors and Google’s Bard chat AI (distinct from the AI search tool).

Google as both journey and destination

For as long as Google has existed, it’s served as the primary gateway to the world wide web. Users search for a term, Google delivers relevant results. Users click results and arrive at their destination.

Google’s SGE update intends to keep users on Google longer. Generated answers will appear at the top of most search pages, with the ability for users to follow up on their questions to refine the provided answer. Their Perspectives feature indexes and organizes user-generated content on social media through a layout reminiscent of Pinterest. The Perspectives feature may become something of its own content platform, aggregating the best results from Reddit, TikTok, YouTube, and elsewhere on the web.

When this new experience rolls out, Google may be involved for a much longer portion of each user’s journey. If their generated answers prove to be accurate and useful, many users will begin and end their journey on Google.

Protected content categories will not get the AI treatment right away

Compared to the cavalier approach taken by Microsoft with their Bing chat, Google is playing it safe. Google’s AI search product will hit the market without the ability to comment on certain risky topics.

For a long time, Google’s had more stringent policies for what they call YMYL content. YMYL stands for “Your Money or Your Life”, and refers to topics including:

  • Emergency notices and urgent breaking news
  • Highly sensitive medical, legal, and financial topics
  • Information about significant life events like buying a home or having a child
  • Potentially sensitive social and political topics such as race, religion, and sexuality

These topics receive added scrutiny from Google. Where less critical topics may be slightly inaccurate without posing a risk to a person’s safety or financial well-being, these topics must be discussed in a factual and transparent manner.

AI-generated answers are fairly accurate, but language models suffer from “hallucinations”, where they occasionally present misleading or false information as correct. Google knows this, and will not allow AI to address these sensitive topics until such hallucinations are eliminated.

General informational content will lose its SEO value

We’ve actually discussed this idea before in our “is ChatGPT bad for SEO?” article. Now we’re going to see that idea tested at scale.

Generated answers will be able to quickly address basic informational queries without requiring the user to leave Google. If the answer is right there in front of them, why would users click through to your blog post on the same topic?

As SGE comes online, we anticipate a drop in traffic for simple Q&A articles, basic how-tos, and explainers. The rule of thumb is this: if ChatGPT or an equivalent technology can provide users with as good or better an answer than your article does, your article will likely lose out to a generated answer.

Address this challenge by being better. Offer more value per article. Dig deeper into the topic and provide the kind of insight and information that a general chat AI cannot. If there’s a silver lining to this search overhaul, it’s that high quality, thoroughly researched content ought to be rewarded—just as cheap, quickly assembled content ought to be punished.

Another algorithm update

In addition to all the new features and layout changes, Google will be rolling out another major algorithm update for their conventional search results. This is an update aimed at further filtering low value content from search, while rewarding thorough, accurate, and user-friendly pages and articles.

Algorithm updates range in level of impact from near imperceptible to totally game-changing. We’ll need to wait and see what happens here.

SEO and user satisfaction: Google wants to offer a better experience

One of Google’s motivations for making these changes seems to be course correction. While spammy SEO tactics of days gone by are dead, there’s a common perception among users that Google results have never been less useful.

Though Google has many fingers in many pies, its core product remains its search engine. Over 50% of Google’s total annual revenue comes from search advertising alone. If users don’t feel that Google offers the best search product on the market, they lose market share, which significantly affects revenue.

To this end, Google’s changes seem targeted at addressing common complaints from its users. Many users feel that the only authentic and truthful reviews and discussions happen on social platforms like Reddit and TikTok, so Google’s integrating social media more deeply into its search. Users feel that top search results are untrustworthy, as widespread SEO practices have resulted in many topics being dominated by marketing pages intended to sell a specific solution. So, Google offers its own generic informational answers as a counter-balance to all the marketing speak.

If it seems like Google’s at war with SEO, there’s some truth to that. SEO is ultimately about gaming the system, finding ways to edge out competitors while driving business results. At its extreme, this is at odds with providing a good search experience to users. This feels like Google punching back, re-establishing themselves as the premium information service on the internet.

Anticipated impact on search advertising

These significant layout and functionality changes will result in changes to advertising placements, as well.

Currently, search ads appear in one of two packs on the results page. There are several possible paid placements above the organic results, then several placements at the bottom of the page. E-commerce products may also appear as visual shopping ads. Advertisers compete amongst themselves to receive top billing.

The new SGE layout will incorporate search ads in prominent placements as always, though exactly how they will appear is not yet clear. Shopping ads will be seamlessly integrated into generated responses in a new comparison-style layout, but conventional search ad placements have not yet been revealed by Google.

Google has stated that ads will continue to include indicators that they are paid placements rather than organic listings. In general, what we may see is a shift toward requiring visual elements for all search ad types rather than just shopping ads. Google’s new layout appears to more visually oriented. It’s possible that search ads will appear much the same as shopping ads, which may require rethinking how ads get planned and composed.

It’s also possible that businesses will be able to pay to be included as highlighted citations in AI-generated responses. Google says that ads will display in the new interface as soon as it launches. However, advertisers will have to wait to see how the new layout affects performance. During the initial rollout of SGE, Google Ads will not differentiate clicks on the new experience with clicks on the old one.

As search ads remain Google’s number one source of revenue, expect them to focus on advertising performance in order to retain their existing customers. Search ads should continue to be strong lead-generating tools for the foreseeable future.

B2B SEO considerations for SGE

Carefully monitor performance (starting now!)

If you aren’t already monitoring organic search performance, now’s the time to start. The honest truth is we don’t know precisely what will happen to organic traffic until we have users interacting with the new layout at scale. Algorithm changes will be more immediately measurable.

Watch for which of your pages and articles fall and which ones rise. Test the new experience as soon as you’re able to understand the way users find (or don’t find) you. Collecting, organizing, and understanding search data is vital to plotting a safe way forward through this massive change.

Consider alternative channels for content generation

It will be interesting to see how users engage with the Perspectives filter, and what impact it may have on the role of social media in B2B interactions.

If Perspectives becomes the go-to for product research, it will make it much more important for brands to exist organically on platforms like Reddit and TikTok to maintain some control over the conversation. This is, of course, anathema to the idea that user-generated content provides a less biased perspective than content straight from corporate websites. Heavy-handed tactics will be met with hostility from consumers, but subtler engagements may be possible.

It is likely that brands will need to become more comfortable representing themselves authentically in less controlled, corporate spaces. Social media savvy may become one of the most important skills for tomorrow’s marketers and SEO pros.

Be an early adopter

A natural reaction to disruptive change is to reject it. It’s easiest if we can do the things we’re comfortable with, the things we’re good at.

This attitude won’t cut it for SEO going forward. It’s known in the search advertising world that jumping on new features and technologies provides a competitive edge. Google wants their new features to be adopted, which may (in some cases) result in marketers that embrace new trends being rewarded for their efforts with better search rankings and more visibility.

Try stuff out. If you see a new feature rolling out and it’s not too expensive to implement, give it a shot. The future of internet search is unclear, so explore every feasible avenue. After all, it’s better to lead the charge than to follow your competitors.

Adjust your content calendar and campaigns

We know that some kinds of content are, at minimum, going to experience new competition in the form of AI-generated answers. If you have this kind of content scheduled for development this year, pause that project and re-allocate those resources. Focus on unique, high-quality pillar content. Anything that an AI will struggle to understand or summarize for a user is fair game. Anything else should be considered very carefully before proceeding.

YMYL content will remain less impacted… for now

If you produce content related to medicine and healthcare, law and finance, or anything impacting health, safety, and financial security, or if your content discusses sensitive topics like war, social issues, or politics, you’re less likely to experience immediate disruption to your organic traffic.

Such topics fall under YMYL rules (”Your Money or Your Life”) and will not immediately receive the AI answer treatment. While both algorithm and search page layout changes will certainly affect many online businesses in YMYL niches, the impact will be less profound for now.

Eventually, Google will likely change their YMYL policies to allow for AI-generated answers like other topics. That would require another leap forward in the LLM tech powering their chat AI, so it’s unlikely (but not impossible) to happen within the coming weeks or months.

Our prediction: B2B companies don’t need to worry, but they DO need to prepare!

As the new features discussed in this article are yet to launch to a broad audience, our suggested approach for now is to monitor, learn, and prepare for change.

But that’s a bit boring, no? We pride ourselves on making bold predictions based on our expertise in B2B digital marketing. In fact, our marketing trends for 2023 article, originally written and published in late 2022, instructs readers to “embrace the weirdness” of AI marketing. Well, here comes the weird.

B2B companies should be aware of changes coming to search as it will inform marketing strategies for all industries. However, B2B companies have an advantage over B2C companies and online publications: no amount of AI features or social sharing can replace a quote form.

B2B customers need to engage in conventional search and continue visiting websites directly in order to express interest, access documentation and resources, and complete more thorough research. A B2B purchase can run millions of dollars. At that level of investment, Reddit comments and AI-generated answers will not suffice.

We predict that B2B manufacturers that keep an open mind, follow the data, and make smart, targeted adjustments will ride out this SEO storm better than many other sectors.

Change is coming. Marketers can roll with it, or let it roll over them.

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