What does the future of search look like for brands?

David Castle
By David Castle | 10 July 2024
David Castle, Resolution Digital general manager of SEO.

As generative AI becomes more common in top search engine results, brands need to shift their focus. They must understand how to deliver genuine value to consumers, not just relevant answers, to stay prominent in the changing landscape of AI-driven overviews and chat-style search results.

For decades, traditional Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) have listed the top webpages based on the most relevant search terms, along with a gamut of additional requirements.

Over time, search engines have also become increasingly good at determining the intent of a search to provide the most relevant results. For example, they might assume the intent of a "buy apple" search on Google is to purchase technology, while the intent of "buy fresh apple" is to purchase fruit.

As the understanding of intent has improved, a search engine’s 'Rich Answers' or ‘Position Zero’ often cites the most concise answer to the query, currently drawn from the single most authoritative and relevant website according to the search engine.

However, the rise of generative AI is set to overhaul search, as search engines like Google and Microsoft's Bing begin to offer Chat Experience Results Pages (CHERPs) and AI Overviews.

Like ChatGPT, AI Overviews uses AI to write its own rich answers on the fly, based on information drawn from hundreds or even thousands of sources across the web. This AI-generated answer appears at the top of the page, above the traditional search results.

Similar to speaking with a smart assistant, SGE allows users to ask contextual follow-up questions. For example, they can follow "what is the best smartphone?" with "where can I buy it?" and trust the search engine understands that "it" refers to the answer of the previous question, while providing a rich and continuous experience for the user.

For now, Google's generative AI features are only available to users in certain locales via Google's Search Labs. Meanwhile, Bing's 'Deep Search' generative AI is now available to all users by clicking on the Deep Search button at the top of the search results page.

Certainly, it won't be long before both search engines expand access to AI-generated search results, and they become commonplace in Australia. Google has announced that it will roll out the AI Overviews to more than a billion users by the end of the year.

This means Australian brands need to prepare for this new approach to search.

Just like speaking to a smart assistant, SGE encourages users to pose their searches as natural language questions, rather than taking a simple keyword approach to the constructing the best search phrase.

The ease of natural language engagement reduces friction points and more clearly conveys intent, which will change the way people browse and search the web. Thankfully, this change alone won't have much of an impact on the SEO keyword strategies that brands already employ in order to rank highly in traditional search results.

The much bigger challenge for brands will be gaining prominence in the critical AI Overviews result. Considering SGE takes up roughly the top third of the results page, brands will certainly see click-through rates fall if they are overlooked by the AI and relegated to the traditional SERP results lower down the page.

Currently, in an attempt to be a search engine's Rich Answer of choice, many brands use extensive FAQ-style content on their websites to concisely address common questions. Unfortunately, this approach is no longer a guarantee of success once generative AI starts writing its own rich answers.

Instead of focusing on a single aspect of a topic of interest to a user, brands need to have something valuable to say across a far broader set of terms within the topic if they expect to be cited in AI Overviews results of the future. While it is tempting to fight fire with fire, brands cannot simply leverage generative AI to churn out reams of generic organic content in an attempt to impress AI-powered search engines. Especially not when Google is optimising its algorithms to downrank low-quality (low content score) AI-generated waffle which attempts to pass itself off as quality insights.

While AI tools might offer brands a cost-effective way to scale their content, the key to targeting AI Overviews results is the quality of content; rather than the quantity. As generative AI creates an echo chamber of bland and generic content, smarter brands will instead ensure that their high-quality original content offers true value.

To do this, brands must make the most of their first-party data, research, insights and subject-matter experts in order to produce well-crafted original content which is authoritative across the topic as a whole.

By playing the role of trusted advisor, by providing informative and compelling content containing real insights, brands will better appeal to both people and search algorithms alike.

As part of this, brands need to resist the urge to optimise their content solely for the bottom of the sales funnel in pursuit of conversions. Instead, they must place greater emphasis on all stages of the customer journey.

Rather than just attempting to win over someone who is ready to purchase, brands must focus on getting themselves in front of people as many times as possible while they're trying to figure out what they want.

While the early awareness and consideration phases of the customer journey might be less fruitful in terms of quick conversions, this is where brands can offer valuable insights which make them worthy of mention in an AI-crafted result.

As AI-powered search engines take a more holistic view of every brand's content, the future of search involves aspiring to be not just the most relevant search result but also the most valuable result to potential customers.

David Castle is general manager of SEO at Resolution Digital.

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