Over the weekend, the SEO community was abuzz with the latest changes Google has been rolling out....
I wondered if I was drinking too much coffee.
Is that why I was dehydrated and couldn't get on top of this dry skin outbreak? Was three espressos by 11 am that bad for me?
I didn't bother to trawl through the many, many blogs awaiting me behind a Google search as I'd either be on death's door and need immediate help, or I'd need to persevere and up my caffeine intake further to increase my tolerance.
And I knew what the official health advice would be: generic, non-committal and suggest I see a doctor as I might have an underlying illness.
My subconscious evaluated all of this and I instead head to ChatGPT 4 for some expert medical advice.
I gave it its persona, told it how to consult me as an expert dietician and ended up getting deep into a conversation about my wider dietary habits and symptoms.
"Who are you messaging so busily at this time? Not that ChatGPT again?" asked my wife. "You're such a geek!" she added.
"It's better than Googling it," I told her. "Plus, this is basically what Google's gonna be like soon anyway."
I've thought about it since and been left wondering, well, is it? Is Google SGE going to replace what we know as a typical Google SERP?
Plenty of people have been talking about it at the start of 2024. Let's look...
Wait, stop: What is Google SGE?
It's Google but instead of presenting you with the kind of results page you're used to seeing, it instead creates an answer to your query which is an amalgamation of all the trustworthy content it's got access to.
It works by using all that thinking, sorting and searching the internet that it's doing on your behalf anyway, but presents a condensed answer instead of a list of options or a rich snippet.
If you've ever seen those rich snippets that pull from a couple of different sources (image from one site, text from another), it's like that but amplified.
Google says it allows people to:
• Ask new kinds of questions that are more complex and more descriptive
• Get the gist of a topic faster, with links to relevant results to explore further
• Get started on something you need to do quickly, like writing drafts or generating imagery right from where you’re searching
• Make progress easily, by asking conversational follow-ups or trying suggested next steps
Source: this very handy PDF from Google.
The story so far
2023: Generative AI's breakthrough year
Despite AI companies growing at hyperspeed rates over the past decade, 2023 was Generative AI's big bang moment and it exploded into the mainstream.
ChatGPT, Midjourney, Bard and AI tools for anything and everything you can think of were absolutely everywhere. And, if you follow that kind of thing, the numbers related to AI unicorn companies were beyond eye-watering.
It was easy to tune out to the developments because there were so many or just get sucked back into the day to day of life and not make the most of the tools you know could help you.
But, if you want a good sensecheck on just how fast Gen AI progressed in 2023, just look at what people were producing using Midjourney V6 in January 2024:
Source: Reddit. This was first referenced in our newsletter
Meanwhile, Google released Google SGE (Search Generative Experience) "thoughtfully as an experiment and in line with the AI principles."
If tools like ChatGPT and Midjourney were only being used by early adopters in terms of the widest possible users, then staying abreast of what Google Labs are doing and getting hands-on with SGE was very much in the hands of the innovators only.
And, in fact, only those who are lucky enough to live in a country with access to Labs experiments/with a strong enough VPN game.
The first half of January 2024: Google SGE content is a hot topic
Did you notice it too? It felt like pretty much any SEO or content marketing thought leader was talking about Google SGE in the first half of January. My inbox, community spaces and social feeds were filled with,
- How to be ready for SGE
- What SEO looks like with SGE
- SEO is dead, long live Google SGE
Even my grandma phoned me to ask how to switch to Google SGE (/s).
At the same time, as is the case with the AI-space, plenty of other big developments were happening. For example, Samsung launched the new Galaxy S-hundred-and-something-I-think with Google's "circle to search" functionality.
Cue: What does "circle to search" mean for search engine optimisation in the future and how do we create content for it? Is there even going to be a content marketing need when Google SGE can generate images and content itself anyway?
Please, won't somebody think of the children?!
What's more, Google also effectively fired thousands of Quality Testers when they ended the contract with Appen.
Welcome to the 4th Industrial Revolution, I guess.
The second half of January: Google says SGE is for the Lab environment
Then Google did a good old rug pull by, well, pulling SGE back firmly into the testing Labs.
Following the 2023 product rollouts and even reports of sightings of SGE in the wild in the second half of 2023, on 17th January 2024 Google then said this:
Depsite coming with a subheading of "Continuing to boldly experiment with generative AI in Search", Google says after "lots of useful feedback... [they]'ll continue to offer SGE in Labs as a testbed for bold new ideas."
So, SGE is getting pulled back into the experimentation area of Google. Rather than changing the SEO and content marketing landscape as we know it.
Cue plenty of people breathing public sighs of relief.
Why is this even relevant?
Well, people are breathing sighs of relief because Google SGE is yet another body blow to SEO and content marketing professionals.
If you thought doing a bunch of long-tail keyword blog titles which all point to an ebook and email nurturing stream was a dying game, imagine a SERP that doesn't even need users to click off the page and will actively encourage a follow-up conversation there on Google.
Like what I was doing with ChatGPT to work out if my diet and dry skin were linked.
That's where a fully mature GenAI SERP (Google SGE) would take us.
We reached peak content production in the late 2010s, no doubt. So where would that leave the world's bloggers and content writers? (It's the people selling those "become a millionaire, become a copywriter" courses I feel sorry for in all of this).
What are people saying now?
I mentioned there was lots of chatter floating around pre-17th January about the impending challenge that Google SGE would bring.
Some people are still preparing for it in earnest. Some people are saying SGE won't happen. Some people are somewhere in between.
For example, the fantastic Marie Haynes dived deep into this in her late-January newsletter and her view can be summarised as; Google will likely pull elements out of test-SGE into the real-world Search environment, a la the aforementioned "circle to search" function.
I spoke to Annka Mikalsen (Marketing Director for our clients at Avidly HubSpot Solutions and a true AI pioneer who attended her first generative AI conference in 2018) and Josh Quarrie (one of our most adept strategic minds, fellow AI pioneer to Annka and our Head of North America). They raised the following in regards to Google SGE affecting content, SEO and analytics,
- Content in Search is likely to become more personalised, so our content will need to target personas more narrowly and image content seems to be growing in importance (which is a new frontier in the SEO context)
- However, SEO is certainly not dead but will just need to evolve (like it always has) to this more personalised content landscape: optimise for that based on the metrics that emerge as important
- And analytics are likely to become chaotic and we might need to embrace this: AI brings chaos but it will develop over time and settle accordingly; in terms of KPIs, where as we once tracked rank and CTR, more reliance will likely be placed on brand awareness metrics instead
They both also made a good point that new tools to help navigate this will emerge too.
In short, don't panic.
What do we know for certain?
We can never know where Generative AI itself is heading, the cat is very much out of the bag on that one. We also don't know for sure where Search is heading until Google tell us what's launched/launching.
So let's look at what's happening and what's actually being said and work out what's certain:
- Ads will stay part of the SERP, no matter what:
Google themselves said in the original SGE literature, "Search ads will still be a big part of the search experience." But, to me, that translates as Google still being ever more pay to win.
- Features seen in Labs will switch to live environment when they're ready:
Take the "circle to search" technology. That got a good showcasing in the 17th January announcement about what to expect from Search in 2024 (where SGE was mentioned as being a Labs-only thing).
- Producing rafts of SEO content is/has become less effective regardless of SGE:
The inbound playbook of old has been worn out anyway, regardless of whether Google SGE ends up shutting off organic search traffic from Google. I spoke about being past "peak content" back in 2018. Dark social as a preference, short-form video, even shorter attention spans and the reliance on personal connections for trust... They all point to inbound/SEO content being a thing of the past anyway.
So, is Google SGE happening and is there any advice?
- Put your user's experience first and trust Google's algorithms to do their thing. Google's advice has always boiled down to the fact they want to put the correct content in front of their searcher; so we should chase adding value rather than chasing clicks and trust the system.
- To do this, you must understand what your audience is interested in knowing, how they want the information presented and where... and then give it to them. Meet them where they're at.
- Remember that NOBODY ACTUALLY KNOWS at this point. What we're living through is being called a 4th industrial revolution for a reason; this is a huge shift in how the world communicates and the speed of development is beyond breakneck. Keep fighting today's challenges whilst keeping one eye on the longer picture.
As for if SGE is happening? Look at it this way:
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