How will Google’s AI Overviews impact your website and SEO?

05.06.2024 113 0

During its yearly event in May 2024, Google showcased a bunch of its latest projects in all areas. One of them was in Search. The company introduced AI Overviews – its new vision for the future of Internet search where we would rarely get to see the actual Internet websites or have a reason to go to them. 

And yes – it does sound like it’s the exact opposite of the entire concept with which the World Wide Web was created… But it does fit quite nicely with the idea of an Internet search engine: you ask a question and get the best answers immediately without the need to browse a bunch of pages ranked by keywords and Search Engine Optimization (SEO) tricks, and then have to sift through the information yourself to get to the answer. 

That’s what Internet search engines have been doing since their conception. Over the past few years, we got a glimpse of these coming changes. Google added interactive modules and text boxes which can often contain the main part of the answer directly on the results page. But for the most part, they were giving a short version of the answer and for more details the user still had to visit the webpage.  

Not anymore. AI Overviews want to change that. It uses Google’s AI platform, Gemini, to analyze the search engine’s results and generate specific answers to the questions users ask. The way it works is a bit controversial being that it takes the information for the answers from webpages as usual, but it gives it directly to the user, thus removing the need for the user to visit the website. As a result, websites are at risk of losing traffic and ad revenue, thus we may end up with fewer quality pages in the long run. But would it actually happen like that? Let’s explore. 

What is Google’s AI Overviews? 

As a start, we should examine the AI Overviews technology. It’s already part of the main Google Search experience for users in the US and a few other countries, and the company said it plans to make it available to more than a billion people globally by the end of the year.  

As mentioned, AI Overviews uses Gemini to analyze the question a user has, then it generates the answer using data from the Internet and its own database. AI Overviews can then offer the user a choice between a short, simplified answer or a more detailed one. It can also add additional modules with maps, videos, or other elements the AI thinks will be helpful and relevant to the answer. Of course, it will eventually also feature links and showcases of relevant products, services and other ads.  

Google says that AI Overviews will be enabled by default, but it only activates when it deems it can contribute sufficiently to answering a question. And it will focus on answering more complex questions – at least initially. This means that the regular search results will continue to show up for most queries. But it’s clear that Google is already looking forward to a day where AI Overviews will be the main way to use its search engine. The online IT-focused media, Ars technica, reported and showed screenshots of a new tab of Google’s search engine with the simple name, Web. It envisions that eventually the classic results with blue links to each web page would be moved there while AI Overviews will take the center stage. 

Of course, the blue links will be available on the main page, too. But that would be way below all of the AI Overviews’ modules, additional relevant questions, etc. So, it will take a lot more scrolling to reach the results or several additional clicks to turn to the other Web tab and sort the results the way you would get them now immediately after typing your query.  

How will AI Overviews impact your website’s traffic? 

The obvious conclusion would be that AI Overviews would have a negative impact on websites’ traffic in general. Speaking to Search Engine Land, Google’s Senior Director of Product, Search Generative Experience, Hema Budaraju, says it’s actually the opposite. Websites featured in the AI Overviews answers have recorded a rise in traffic and click-throughs. That’s because AI Overviews will feature links to each page used for the generation of the answer, and Google says this increases users’ trust and interest to find out more.  

It remains to be seen whether this will continue to be the case when AI Overviews becomes more widespread, and people become more used to it. Also, Google will report the AI Overview impressions and clicks in its Search Console, but it won’t separate them from those generated traditional search. Meaning, website administrators won’t be able to tell if their site was featured in an AI Overviews answer brought them something. They will only know the site was part of an answer. 

What can you do to improve your AI Overviews performance? 

Not much is known yet. In fact, a lot of website admins are quite negative towards this feature. Their first reaction is to explore how they can block AI Overviews from using their website as a form of boycott. Technically Google does but doesn’t allow that. On the one hand, it says it’s possible via Search’s standard preview controls, whereas in reality, this means you would have to block the entire search engine from indexing the site, thus severely impacting your traffic. 

So, if you can’t beat them, join them, right? What can you do to get featured on AI Overviews? Google has a simple answer. Nothing: “Google’s systems automatically determine which links appear. There is nothing special for creators to do to be considered other than to follow our regular guidance for appearing in search, as covered in Google Search Essentials.” 

Google also says ads won’t disappear and they will continue to be featured in their separate zones. “Innovation and improvements to the user experience on Search have historically opened up new opportunities for advertisers. We saw this when we successfully navigated from desktop to mobile. As we use generative AI to expand the types of questions we can help people with and serve new intents in Search, we see this also opening up new opportunities for ads to be helpful and businesses to connect with customers,” a Google spokesperson told Search Engine Land. 

Of course, the company will also explore new ad formats, so rest assured, ads aren’t going anywhere. And it seems Google has specifically made AI Overviews in a way that it will rely on quality content more than anything else. 

So, is SEO dead? 

Not at all. Website admins should carefully review and follow the developments around AI Overviews and adapt their SEO strategy accordingly. For the most part it seems the idea is that the feature would require little change to current SEO, but that can always change, and it probably will. The main key remains creating quality content that will be good enough for the AI to deem appropriate for inclusion in an answer. Since Google hasn’t revealed what criteria the AI uses to decide this, the basics will have to do for now: creating content that makes users return.  

Some SEO advisors already say it’s time to start topic optimizing. This means focusing pages for a specific topic and making sure it’s covered well. Impression Digital, for example, says that initial tests with SGE (Search Generative Experience, the foundation of AI Overviews) shows content that exactly matches the phrasing of a query is often selected. Overviews often combine short and easy to read paragraphs written in a simple language. Classic ranking requirements that build and sustain page authority and trust are also used. 

Basically, a well-optimized, well-written, SEO-ed webpage with easy to read and understand text would have a good chance to be included in AI Overviews. But that’s not a guarantee. AI is not like any other technology before. It constantly improves, changes and adapts. So, what worked today might not work tomorrow or even in two hours’ time. It will become very difficult to stay on top of all of the changes, so focusing on the basics and producing quality content will be key. 

What’s the future of the Web? 

So, make great content, and you will be featured on AI Overviews often, thus increasing traffic, making more revenue and life is great, right? Well, that’s the ideal case. But in the real world where there’s no guarantee you will be featured on AI Overviews and with the massive competition from other websites, the battle for those elusive few spots will be fierce. 

With regular search, people usually visited the first ten links or so. AI Overviews can feature an unknown number of links, which will probably depend on each answer and query. And there’s no way to know if it will choose a site which has a better-quality answer, but lower traffic and thus lower trust rating, or if it will simply choose a massive content farm with medium quality content, but a high webpage reputation. This is something that happens even with the current “Featured” snippets that Google has, and they aren’t going away either. 

So, there’s a risk that smaller websites may suffer in the long run. Producing good content is not cheap as it requires a lot of time and effort. Sure, AI Overviews might increase traffic, but that’s for the sites that get featured. If sites have a lesser chance to get featured due to unknown requirements, that means they won’t have the resources to produce said quality content. It’s definitely a massive change to the Web as we know it with many unknowns. And who knows, maybe users won’t like AI Overviews and its novelty will wane and they will prefer a regular search? That certainly is also a possibility, but it’s safe to say that in the long run, AI search is here to stay. 

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