And here we are, almost 25 years later, and SEO has still got vital signs, despite regular reports that search engine optimization is, in fact, dead and gone.
And now, AI has come along to upend both sides of search. On one side, generative AI is spitting out content and flooding the internet. On the other, AI search tools are generating responses that may replace the traditional SERP.
I can promise you, once again, that SEO is not dead. But still, AI has rocked the foundation of search engines as we know them, and businesses would be foolish to ignore what’s happening.
It was hard enough getting found when Google Search ruled the world. But with the advent of generative search, the rules of the game have changed.
Generative search: What we know — and what we don’t know
When Chat-GPT launched in late 2022, it sent ripples through nearly every industry.
Within a few months, OpenAI announced a partnership with Microsoft, which operates Bing, the second-biggest search engine in the world. Soon, we had a generative search tool. Instead of displaying links to other websites, Bing would generate an answer to a question based on huge amounts of data ChatGPT had ingested.
So whether you were asking about refrigerator maintenance or loan refinancing, you’d get an answer, not a link to an answer.
Since then, Google has introduced Bard, an LLM-powered chat tool to compete with ChatGPT, and a generative search experience, that looks like this.
And while generative search is new, it’s not that different.
We’ve long been moving toward fewer clicks in search results. Featured snippets and “people also ask” sections already give users information without taking them off the SERP. So a generative search experience feels more like the next step than a total departure.
Still, there’s a lot we don’t know.
We know very little about how AI selects information, evaluates it, and synthesizes it into an answer.
When you do that without trying to game an algorithm, you’re building a brand that AI will love.
Early indications from generative search show that it’s boosting trusted institutions (government websites, nonprofits, media outlets) to provide credible answers.
But it’s not just them. Marcus reports that he’s been receiving a small but steady list of leads who have found him through ChatGPT, not Google or LinkedIn. That’s because he’s steadily created quality content and built a trustworthy brand.
Putting generative search in context
At this point, generative search provides surface-level answers that satisfy very top-of-the-funnel buyers, Marcus says. Think “What is…” type questions. As they become more serious, they’ll want more detail, whether from a video, a guidebook, an article, or a podcast.
Then they’ll move off the search results page and onto a site where they can find what they’re looking for.
This doesn’t mean you should ignore TOFU content, but that’s usually the type of content that brings in a lot of junky traffic that doesn’t turn into dollars.
Focus on your website experience
AI should prompt you to think more creatively about the way visitors get to your site. Will many still come through Google? Of course. Will some come through generative search results? Probably.
Additional discovery platforms will become even more important as traditional channels get choked with AI-generated drivel. That means social media, YouTube, podcasts, events, and word of mouth.
When they get to your website, how’s the experience?
Marcus reminds us that we need to answer their questions and make it easy to buy from us. That means producing great content, organizing it on your site, and creating self-selection tools that invite the customer into a pleasant, personalized experience.
AIO to replace SEO
Over the past few decades, companies have spent billions to have SEO specialists help them get found. Some experts were trustworthy and scrupulous, some were not.
Be on the lookout for shady AIO (Artificial Intelligence Optimization) experts who promise to go behind a curtain and perform some magic that gets you included in generative search results. They’ll be eager to take your money, but the results may not materialize.
When in doubt, hold true to your principles: Put the buyer first. Provide value. Build trust. The best search tools will find and recognize that.