The integration of artificial intelligence into Google’s search engine results pages (SERPs) is not brand new. In fact, Google began using an AI system, RankBrain, back in 2015 to assist with the processing of search results. A couple of years later, the company announced it was applying machine learning in the never-ending fight against spam. In short, AI is already affecting SEO.

However, now that AI is truly in its heyday, it’s expected that AI will change SEO in ever-more significant ways. Marketers have always had to continually adapt their approaches and techniques to suit changing technologies. This is true now more than ever, as AI continues to make inroads into search results.

The good news is that there will be time to evaluate the changes, adapt to them, and make the necessary adjustments. You won’t wake up tomorrow morning to suddenly discover that you need to completely change the way you work on client projects, but you should start taking steps to become more familiar with AI’s current impact and potential effects on SEO.

Let’s take a look at some specific ways that AI is affecting SEO.

To Penalize or Not to Penalize: How Google Views ChatGPT

ChatGPT and its competitors created quite a bit of excitement when they were unveiled. ChatGPT provides a laissez-faire approach to content generation. Simply click a button, and kick back and relax while the machine does the work. Sounds great, right? The problem is that ChatGPT is prone to hallucinations; it presents factually incorrect information as if it were true. The writing is also not all that great. It looks robotic—probably because, well, it is.

Initially, Google stated that AI-generated content, such as a ChatGPT blog, went against its guidelines. The search engine would treat AI content as spam and the website would be penalized accordingly, causing a drop in the rankings. At the time, Google didn’t make any claims about its ability—or inability—to reliably identify AI-generated content vs. human-generated content. (AI detection tools are notoriously hit-or-miss.) However, it was clear that if AI-generated content was indeed identified, the website would pay the price.

Since Google is working feverishly to integrate generative AI into its search engine and other products, it sounds a bit counterintuitive for the company to penalize AI in one instance and reward it in another. And indeed, the company recently backtracked. Now, Google’s position is that “Appropriate use of AI or automation is not against our guidelines.”

This means that Google will not automatically drop a website in its rankings if it’s found to have AI-generated content. However, if that AI content is spammy, the website will indeed suffer the consequences. The same is true of human-generated content.

The main indicator of whether content is considered spam by Google is if it passes the E-E-A-T test. This refers to Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness. E-E-A-T factors heavily into Google’s Search Quality Rater Guidelines. Google’s current position is that it’s possible for AI-generated content to meet the guidelines and not be flagged as spam, just as it’s possible for human-generated content to be so terrible that it’s flagged as spam.

Does this mean you should rely on ChatGPT to fulfill your clients’ editorial calendars? Not necessarily. Remember that AI content generators still produce content that is prone to factual errors, irrelevancies, and robotic-sounding language. A machine will never have human perception, judgment, or reasoning. It’s best to proceed with caution.

The Impact of Google SGE

ChatGPT and its competitors are certainly major players on the AI scene, but they aren’t the only ones marketers need to be aware of. Google Search Generative Experience (Google SGE) is a new search interface that is currently in beta testing. Although it’s expected that Google SGE will undergo quite a lot of tweaking before it replaces the standard Google search engine, when it is released to the general public, SGE will completely transform the search experience.

SGE will look and perform differently and allow users to interact with it differently compared to the standard Google search engine. SGE integrates generative AI directly into all that it does. The intent behind the overhaul is to provide users with more relevant, useful information right on the search page, regardless of how complex the search query is.

For example, if you were to ask Google SGE, “What’s better for a family with kids under 3 and a dog, Bryce Canyon or Arches National Park?” you wouldn’t get a straight “Yes” or “No” answer, of course. But you would receive a comprehensive comparison of the two national parks right on the SERP that includes details of which trails allow dogs and which features at the parks would be appealing to young children.

In contrast, if you typed the same answer into the current Google search engine, the SERP would direct you to a blog that compares the two parks (but doesn’t necessarily focus on either park being kid-friendly or dog-friendly), along with “People Also Ask” questions like, “Is Bryce Canyon dog-friendly?” and “Which one is better Arches or Bryce?” None of these results provides the same level of search query-specific information.

In short, Google SGE is more like a concierge experience. What does this mean for SEO? Time will tell, but it’s possible that if Google becomes more of a one-stop-shop for users, website traffic could fall. This means that posting informative, trustworthy, authoritative, and appealing content on your clients’ websites is more important than ever.

Do note, however, that website traffic isn’t likely to take a death plunge over a cliff. Users will still have to visit company websites to make purchases and book appointments, after all. However, marketers will almost certainly need to make a few adjustments. Let’s take a look at some of the specific ways that Google SGE may affect SEO.

Industry and Niche-Specific Effects

In many industries, such as tourism and hospitality, users might indeed find some of the answers to their questions on the Google SERP itself, thereby eliminating the need to click through to a website. If they want to find a hotel with a very late checkout time in Las Vegas, for example, Google SGE can give them a list of hotels to choose from.

However, there are certain fields and niches that are expected to resist the SERP-As-One-Stop-Shop approach. These are the YMYL niches. YMYL refers to “Your Money or Your Life.” These are the topics that are especially sensitive, as they could have real-world ramifications on users. Examples of YMYL niches include finance, medicine, health, personal safety, current events, and information for specific groups (e.g. religious affiliation and ethnicity).

YMYL content has long been held to a higher standard than other niches because if you don’t tread carefully here, you could create a significant, potentially unfavorable effect on someone’s financial stability, health, or safety. It’s expected that Google SGE will similarly tread carefully, just as standard Google does.

After all, machine learning might not be able to tell the difference between a healthy, responsible diet for weight loss and one that would place someone’s health in jeopardy. If it recommends the latter in its SERP, there could be serious consequences. As a result, it’s entirely possible that reputable YMYL pages will enjoy a boost in web traffic, rather than a decline when Google SGE kicks into full effect.

Google SGE’s Effect on Search Ads

Google has already been using artificial intelligence to transform its search ads. Back in June 2022, Google discontinued expanded text ads (ETAs) in favor of responsive search ads (RSAs). RSAs are intended to improve the effectiveness of advertisers’ campaigns thanks to the machine learning that powers them.

With RSAs, advertisers are able to enter multiple headlines and descriptions for the same ad. Then, Google’s machine learning algorithm chooses the optimal headline and description for each search in real time based on several factors, including the user’s past search behavior and demographics.

This means that if Jenny types “foldable treadmill” into Google with the aim of doing some comparison shopping, she may be shown different RSAs than Mark, who types the same search term into Google. The aim here is to increase click-through rates by improving the relevancy of search ads for each individual user. That’s good news for marketers, as it can boost performance while reducing the amount of time invested.

Google SGE is preserving search ads, although it remains to be seen exactly how ads will change with the new search interface. Right now, you could already have some ads present on SGE. Google is displaying the same search ads on its standard interface as it is on the beta version of SGE. Currently, advertisers don’t have an option to opt-out if they wish. And unfortunately, there also isn’t currently a way for advertisers to track and compare the performance of standard ads vs. SGE ads. (Tracking capabilities may become available later on.)

Google has said that it plans on integrating search ads directly into the SGE SERPs in much the same way that search ads are integrated into standard SERPs. SGE search ads will carry the “sponsored” label and will be inserted into dedicated ad space. The company plans to monitor search ad performance carefully and make adjustments to improve effectiveness and usefulness for marketers.

That said, it does appear possible that SGE search ads will be more tightly interwoven with SERP content. Right now, there is some space between search ads and search results with the standard Google search engine. It’s easy to tell the difference between sponsored ads and organic content.

In May 2023, Google made available a few snapshots of how search ads might look with Google SGE on a mobile device. One example uses the search query “hiking backpacks for kids.” The search results first offer some useful, informative content for the user, such as what features to look for when shopping for a hiking backpack for a child. Immediately beneath this, you’ll see ads for hiking backpacks that are ideally designed for children, making it easy for users to click directly to the search ad after reviewing the content. In fact, the ad placement practically nudges users along the buyer’s journey.

Google SGE’s Effect on the Local Pack

Local SEO is a major part of many marketing agencies’ business. SMBs are a significant contributor to the economy, and they all need advertising and marketing solutions that connect their brand to local eyes. Marketers have relied on the Google Local Pack to elevate their clients’ brands above their competitors’.

The Google Local Pack is what appears at the top of a SERP when a user enters a search query that has a local intent, such as, “hair salons Las Vegas.” Also known as the Local 3 Pack or the Google Map Pack, the Local Pack is a small collection of the top three results for the search query in the local area. For example, if you search for restaurants in your area, you’ll see just three restaurants in the Local Pack. You’ll see their names, star rating, address, operating hours, and a few other attributes, along with an accompanying map. Needless to say, it’s to a business’ advantage to win a much-coveted spot in the Local Pack.

This begs the question: How will Google SGE’s AI influence change the Local Pack? Will the Local Pack even still be available?

No need to be alarmed; the Local Pack will indeed still be available. However, it may look a bit different and local results in SGE may follow a different logic than non-SGE Google. One SEO specialist at Moz did a test run of 50 local searches in non-SGE Google and Google SGE. All of them generated Local Packs in non-SGE Google. The search pool included branded and generic terms (e.g. Safeway and grocery store), and modified and non-modified terms (without and with geographic keywords).

Although SGE did indeed provide Local Packs, there were some key differences. A small percentage did not return the SGE display, and only about 77% of the search terms generated Local Packs in SGE. For example, one search provided information about different shoe styles, rather than local shoe stores. Another offered EV charging stations available for purchase, rather than a list of local EV charging stations.

Even when both SGE and non-SGE Google offer a Local Pack for the same search term, the brands that make the cut may be different. One search for pizza places in a specific town yielded largely different results. In addition, the number of results in the Local Pack varies. The Moz reviewer found that nearly half of her searches that yielded a Local Pack in SGE gave her a five-pack. About 22% yielded a four-pack. There were also a few three-packs and two-packs.

What does all this mean? Right now, it likely means that Google is still trying to figure out what its new Local Pack will look like in SGE. Clearly, SGE needs some improvements to better discern searches with local intent. However, one thing that we do know is that it’s entirely possible businesses will be ranked differently; different criteria may be considered when choosing which brands will make it into a Local Pack.

It also appears that SGE Local Packs will allow for easier side-by-side comparison of establishments like restaurants. You can see not only the main information, but also top reviews and “People Talk About” snippets (e.g. atmosphere, cocktails, or gumbo).

This suggests that review management will become increasingly important when SGE is available to the general public. Consider performing proactive audits of your clients’ reviews and talking to them about strategies for improvement. And of course, it’s also good practice to ensure that all of the brands in your portfolio have appealing images and descriptions, and up to date information (e.g. operating hours) available for users to find.

At Pennington Creative, we pride ourselves on providing a human touch to meet SEO objectives. All of our marketing content is 100% human-generated because we believe our clients deserve reliability and exceptional customer engagement. We’re pleased to provide white label marketing agency solutions, as well as fully optimized content packages for all types of businesses—from medical to law to higher education and beyond. Connect with us today and find out how partnering with Pennington can elevate your marketing approach.