An international study of nearly 4,000 digital marketing professionals has revealed that AI, harnessing data, and Google’s constant tinkering with its algorithms present both the biggest challenges and opportunities to future search engine optimization (SEO) campaigns.
Top industry publication Search Engine Journal compiled the survey results from 3,890 professionals from across the SEO industry, from multiple different countries, and this is what they found.
AI is the biggest disruptive force
AI is one of the hottest topics in the world at large in 2023, and it is no surprise that it’s also one of the most talked-about issues within the digital marketing industry.
According to the survey, AI was listed as the most disruptive development in search engine marketing at the moment, ranked in first place by more than 21 percent of respondents.
One of the most publicized advancements in AI has been human-like responses to search engine queries. When a user asks a question, rather than receiving a list of links to click, AI will respond in a conversational tone, with a paragraph or more of useful information.
While this is exciting and potentially useful for users, for businesses that rely on search engines for traffic, this presents a problem. If search results move away from lists of links and into blocks of text that contain the answers, how do brands achieve visibility and, in turn, clicks through to their website?
The answer is, as yet, unknown, especially as AI-generated search query results are still in the earliest days, and it’s not yet known what form they may take in the future.
But one way in which marketers are hoping to build their customer base is by focusing on data analysis (a top priority for 9.6 percent of respondents) and better understanding their audience (8.8 percent).
The thinking goes that if individuals are loyal to the brand, subscribed to the mailing list, and happy to bypass a search engine to visit websites directly, then businesses can maintain contact, visibility, and ultimately sales.
Google gets harder to please
Google has earned its spot as the undisputed king of search engines by delivering a quality service for users, built upon its superior search results. It has maintained this by constantly tweaking the algorithm it uses to decide where a particular site ranks in any given set of search results. It makes minor updates on an almost weekly basis, and major changes every couple of years.
That’s why understanding and working within the search engine’s parameters ranked as the biggest shift in the overall SEO industry for 16.5 percent of respondents. For example, before including a site’s content in its search results, it will first analyze the quality of the expertise, the authoritativeness, and trustworthiness of the authors. The more of each, the higher a website ranks.
In December 2022, Google added another metric: experience. That has put content strategy and production as the number one focus for industry professionals (13.5 percent) in the coming months, with almost two-thirds (62 percent) saying that it is either a little bit more difficult or a lot more difficult to rank in search results than last year.
To remain relevant, businesses must undertake in-depth keyword research to find not only the search terms that are most relevant but also those which they have the ability to influence. From there, it’s a case of optimizing an SEO campaign, monitoring the results, making tweaks, and repeating.
Google offers less in return
Not only have Google’s algorithms become harder to please, but at the same time, Google is encouraging fewer and fewer users to actually click through to business websites. An estimated 57 percent of mobile searches and 43 percent of desktop searches are defined as “zero-click searches” – instances in which the user gets the answer they need without ever clicking away from Google. This may mean they find their answer on Google Maps, images, news, or Google may reproduce a relevant paragraph of text within its results.
There are two ways to confront this: the first is to embrace everything Google offers – for example, making sure your business is listed within Google’s directory so that it shows up on maps or making your content easier for Google to analyze to ensure you’re the chosen source for its answers.
The second is to ensure traffic flows in from other sources, which makes your site less susceptible to Google’s whims. To do this, analyze your data to understand your audience as best as you can. Appear in all the places they look, whether that’s social media, print publications, outdoor advertising, or somewhere else. Build loyalty through social media follows and email subscriber lists. Encourage people to share their information by offering something useful in return, such as discounts or tips and advice.
While we can’t yet know how AI will shape the future of search engine marketing, 72.4 percent of respondents felt positive about its overall impact. AI’s ability to tackle complex or time-consuming tasks means marketers can achieve more with fewer resources.
AI has the ability to write quality articles that can be used to populate a website. It can analyze data to find trends among customers and potential customers that may be hidden to the human eye. It will have uses not yet dreamt of that will be commonplace within a few years. In fact, more than 10 percent of respondents cited AI’s ability to automate tasks as the third biggest disruptor in the industry.
So while the digital marketing industry is in a period of momentous change, a significant majority of respondents feel more positive about the opportunities presented than the challenges that must be overcome. The key is to understand that the goalposts always have and always will move, but ever-more powerful tools are becoming available to help build more powerful and effective campaigns.
What are you most excited – or concerned about – for future months and years? We’d love to hear your thoughts. You can find the full results of Search Engine Journal’s survey here.