May 23, 2024

Written by Mark Smith

How Will Google’s AI Push in Search Hurt Publishers?

Google is injecting even more AI into search, but not all publishers are celebrating. Why? Shouldn’t businesses in Google’s vast ecosystem applaud the search giant for staying up to date with the times? Well, not if Google’s adoption of AI hurts them. And publishers are sounding the alarm.

What Google Announced

At Google I/O 2024, Google announced a major expansion of its use of AI in search, particularly through its new Gemini model. Here are some of the key announcements:

  • Generative AI in Search: Google introduced generative AI capabilities in search, enabling users to get AI-powered summaries of complex search queries, saving them time and effort.
  • Expanded AI overviews: Google enhanced its AI Overviews feature to provide more comprehensive and informative summaries, helping users quickly grasp the key points of a topic. AI Overviews, formerly known as Search Generative Experience (SGE), is powered by a stronger version of Google’s Gemini generative AI chatbot (and competitor to ChatGPT).
  • Improved planning and research capabilities: Google used AI to assist users in planning trips, researching products, and making informed decisions, by providing personalized recommendations and suggestions based on their search queries.
  • AI-organized search results: Google introduced new AI algorithms to organize search results in a more meaningful and relevant way, making it easier for users to find what they are looking for.

Bottom line: Google’s announcements at I/O 2024 demonstrated a commitment to incorporating AI into search to enhance the user experience, making it faster, easier, and more personalized.

Fallout from AI

On the surface, the idea behind incorporating AI into search is sound for the end user especially for complicated searches. The premise of AI-powered search is that users receive detailed, useful summaries of complex queries in a single result instead of Google providing a basic answer and sending users to weblinks for more data.

Sounds convenient, right? If AI can help Google provide pithy summaries of vacation ideas complete with a discussion of available hotels, flight options, and best times of the year to travel instead of expecting you to do multiple searches, the everyday user should benefit.

But what’s good for the end user may not be good for publishers. Before Google revised SGE as AI Overviews (as noted above), SGE was in market for about one year. During that time, publishers complained that AI-powered search resulted in a drop in site visitors.

Case in point: Jake Boly, a strength coach, operates a website of workout shoe reviews. But he told The Washington Post that after Google injected generative AI into search results, his traffic from Google dropped 96 percent. The problem is that Google draws upon content on his site to provide AI-powered summaries to search queries about footwear. But people read Google’s summaries instead of visiting his website.

As he told The Washington Post, “My content is good enough to scrape and summarize. But it’s not good enough to show in your normal search results, which is how I make money and stay afloat.”

On top of that, users are not necessarily getting a great experience. In April, The Washington Post published a scathing indicting of SGE, calling out inaccurate and confusing results to queriesThis criticism was echoed by organic search professionals.

Lingering Concerns

Concerns about the impact of AI in search have been festering across the digital world. In December 2023, The Wall Street Journal reported that publishers were estimating a loss of between 20 percent and 40 percent of their Google-generated traffic thanks to the infusion of AI into Google Search. Google downplayed the article as purely speculative.

More recently, Raptive, the company handling ad sales for sites like Half Baked Harvest, MacRumors, and Stereogum, conducted two separate analyses to explore the potential impact of SGE on search traffic. These analyses took place in September 2023 and again in February 2024. The researchers compared Google’s current search engine results pages (SERPs) with the new SGE results for the top 1,000 keywords driving traffic to their sites.

The findings revealed that some keywords did not display any SGE results, while others included links to Raptive websites. Using an internal program to estimate expected click-through rates, Raptive determined there was an anticipated average loss in traffic by up to 60 percent.

But perhaps most troubling of all: in February 2024, analyst firm Gartner said it expects search volume to fall by 25 percent by 2026 as a result of AI search changes. Alan Antin, Vice President Analyst at Gartner, said, “Generative AI (GenAI) solutions are becoming substitute answer engines, replacing user queries that previously may have been executed in traditional search engines. This will force companies to rethink their marketing channels strategy as GenAI becomes more embedded across all aspects of the enterprise.”

This is an especially notable point because Gartner is a particularly well respected research firm.

Bad Timing

The negative fall-out could not come at a worse time. Google continues to suffer from an erosion of trust among advertisers amid revelations from the Department of Justice antitrust trial regarding practices that hurt advertisers.

However, Google does have a point: right now, the anxiety about publishers being hurt by Google’s embrace of AI remains largely speculative. But publishers would counter that the time to voice concerns is now, not when the damage has been doing.

What Publishers Should Do

The concerns over AI and search should be a wake-up call for publishers to continuously adapt. Her are some ways to do so:

Enhance Unique Content

Publishers need to focus on creating high-quality, unique content that stands out. This can involve deeper insights, expert opinions, and exclusive information that AI might struggle to replicate accurately. By doing so, they can attract users who are looking for more than just a summary.

As Gartner’s Antin said, “Companies will need to focus on producing unique content that is useful to customers and prospective customers. Content should continue to demonstrate search quality-rater elements such as expertise, experience, authoritativeness and trustworthiness.”

Optimize for AI

Adapt SEO strategies to align with how AI processes and ranks content. This includes structuring content to be easily digestible by AI algorithms, such as using clear headings, concise summaries, and bullet points where appropriate.

Diversify Traffic Sources

Relying solely on Google for traffic can be risky. Publishers should explore and invest in other traffic sources such as social media platforms, email marketing, and partnerships with other websites.

Engage with Audiences Directly

Building a loyal audience base can mitigate the impact of changes in search algorithms. Engaging content, interactive features, and personalized communication can help retain visitors and encourage direct traffic.

Level up with Data and Analytics

Use analytics to monitor changes in traffic patterns and user behavior. This can help identify which areas are most affected by AI updates and allow for timely adjustments to content and SEO strategies.

Explore Advertising

With organic traffic potentially declining, investing in paid search advertising can help maintain visibility. Publishers should balance their approach between organic and paid strategies to optimize reach. Incidentally, we can help you succeed with online advertising.

Advocate and Collaborate

Engage in industry discussions and advocacy to influence how AI is integrated into search. Collaborating with other publishers and industry groups can amplify their voice in negotiations with Google and other tech giants.

Invest in AI and Automation

Consider using AI tools to enhance content creation and marketing efforts. Automation can help streamline operations and make it easier to scale content production and distribution.

Focus on the User Experience

Ensure that websites are user-friendly, fast-loading, and mobile-optimized. A positive user experience can help retain visitors who may otherwise leave due to AI-provided summaries.

Stay Informed and Adaptable

The digital landscape is constantly changing. Stay informed about the latest developments in AI and search technology. Be ready to adapt strategies accordingly.

Contact True Interactive

True Interactive can help you navigate paid and organic search. We know Google inside out and have deep experience in both areas. Learn about our capabilities on our website.