In the world of SEO, artificial intelligence is coming at us from both sides.
On one side, we have Google’s Search Generative Experience (SGE) and the new AI-powered Bing, both of which can generate answers to user queries that often don’t require a click: People can get the information they want without ever leaving Google or Bing.
On the other side, we have ChatGPT and all of its generative AI cousins. These tools have made it easier than ever to create content, and so we’ve seen a growing deluge of AI-generated pages being posted online in the hopes of scoring easy SEO wins. This approach is rather like throwing fistfuls of spaghetti at the wall: Sure, a few pieces might stick, but you’ve also gotten pieces of half-cooked spaghetti all over the floor, making a big mess.
The problem with leaning on AI to solve the problem of AI-powered search is that AI can synthesize information, but it can’t create it. People are creating a flood of content with AI tools, but these tools aren’t built to write good content. They’re word-prediction engines, sentence-rearrangers, fact-compilers, and grammar bots — as Rand Fishkin succinctly puts it, they’re basically “spicy auto-complete.” You can make a lot of content fast by having AI write it for you, but you can’t make a lot of good content that way. You can’t make the helpful, people-first content that search engines reward with good rankings.
Then again, maybe rankings aren’t quite what they used to be.
RIP, Ten Blue Links
The goal has always been to get our websites into the coveted “ten blue links,” the first page of Google’s search results. But the whole idea of ranking on the first page has been fading away in the past few years. The links have been getting pushed farther and farther down the page, replaced by featured snippets, “people also ask” dropdowns, image carousels, videos, maps, and just about anything else that Google thinks the reader might find useful. And that’s all below the ads, which haven’t gone anywhere, of course. If you scroll down below all of that to the traditional organic results, they’re still there, but there’s no real “first page” anymore; the results just keep on going as long as you keep scrolling.
Google SGE and the new Bing take this to a whole new level. Depending on your query, you might only find a handful of links in the results that are returned, buried below the AI-generated answer to the query. The only external links that are easy to spot in these results are the ones that the AI cites as its sources.
Ranking in the traditional organic results is still important right now, but it’s starting to look like it could be less important in the future. Someday soon, the best place to appear in the SERPs might not be in position 1; instead, it might be within the AI-generated answer, as a cited source.
So how do we get those positions?
Using ChatGPT to regurgitate the same information that everyone else has probably isn’t going to cut it.
Don’t Just Transmit Knowledge: Add It
In 2022, Google was granted a patent on a technique to measure information gain, the amount of new information in a document relative to what the user has previously seen. This then became part of the 2023 Helpful Content Update, which makes sense — after all, repeating the same things that everyone else has said doesn’t make your content any more helpful than theirs. But beyond thinking of information gain as a ranking factor, we should also think of it as a citation factor. When Google SGE and Bing generate results using information that’s present on a million different pages all over the Internet, the odds that they’ll cite your page as the source for that information are pretty low. But if you add knowledge that nobody else has or that you’re the authority on, you’re much more likely to get that coveted citation.
Adding new knowledge to the Internet is easier said than done, but there are a few different ways that you can go about it.
Give Them the Scoop
We may not all be journalists, but we may still have news to publish on our websites. This could be as simple as a press release or blog post announcing a new product, but it could also mean publishing regular updates about what’s going on in your field and your insights on those developments. For a clothing retailer, that might mean keeping your readers informed about the latest fashion trends or having contests or giveaways that you’ll need to announce and promote. For a lawyer, it might mean posting about your victories on behalf of clients or newsworthy legal decisions relevant to your practice.
Share Firsthand Experience
Nothing is more uniquely yours than your own firsthand knowledge, and nobody’s more of an authority on your experiences than you. Firsthand experience can provide valuable information that other people are looking for: You need look no further than the growing popularity of Reddit (and its increasing prominence in the SERPs) for evidence of that. Posting about personal experiences with your products and encouraging your customers to do the same, either in blog posts or on Reddit, can help to spread brand awareness as well as add unique information to the Internet that Google might find valuable and citation-worthy.
Reddit in particular can be useful in more indirect ways, too. Becoming a part of the Reddit community and then mentioning the value of your products when it’s appropriate can help to build brand visibility and drive traffic to your site. Note the most important words in that sentence: when it’s appropriate. That means jumping into threads about your products to answer questions, or maybe even hosting an AMA if your product is one that a lot of people might have questions about, or commenting on posts seeking product recommendations to suggest your products like any other person might do. Be a regular person: Don’t be a salesperson. People on Reddit want honest answers and advice, not a sales pitch.
While you’re building up your brand on Reddit, you might actually earn some of those coveted Google citations, too, in a way. You might be surprised how often online journalists turn to Reddit for story ideas, including roundups of product reviews. If a website writes an article about the best products for frizzy hair, or the best Valentine’s Day gifts, or the best herbal supplements to help with insomnia, they just might see a review of your product on Reddit and decide to include it. That article might then be cited as a source when someone asks Google SGE or Bing for product recommendations.
Be a Thought Leader
This is the most challenging way to add knowledge to the Internet, but the knowledge you add is more likely to earn citations. Simply put, you need to make original and insightful contributions online that draw on your expertise. Certainly, you know a lot about the industry you’re in; now, examine what you know and glean something new. Can you predict an industry trend based on the customer behaviors your business is seeing? Or can you think of a new approach to solving a problem that your customers might have? Maybe you have a good idea that contradicts common knowledge. Think about what unique insights you might have to contribute based on your expertise. Then, create a blog post or white paper and share it online. If you’re the first person or the only person to have come up with an idea, you may very well end up as a cited source if that idea is relevant to a Google or Bing user’s query.
The Future Is Now
So should we throw out everything we know about earning better rankings? Of course not. After all, a lot of what helps a website to rank better is just good practice in general, like publishing original and well-written content, making sure that it’s crawlable and understandable by search engines, and providing a good overall user experience. But giving more thought to whether the content we create is adding value or just adding words can only benefit both our rankings and our potential for earning citations in AI-generated search results.