In October 2015, Google made marketing headlines when they announced RankBrain, the artificially intelligent algorithm designed to learn from consumers. Over the past two and a half years, how we use the Internet has changed as a result.
The implications for search engine optimization (SEO) have been far-reaching since the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) to the field. Strategies once considered law-of-the-land for SEO purposes have been rendered effectively useless.
In their wake, new strategies have begun to emerge. But not without implications for the field and consequences.
The following article is designed to educate consumers and professionals on AI SEO, it’s reach potential and the future landscape of digital marketing as an industry.
What is AI SEO?
If the concept of AI seems a little sci-fi movie to you, you’re not alone. But in the present-day marketing industry, AI is the newest external force to be reckoned with and it’s changing the way we think of SEO.
AI SEO, as a practice, is still vague and shrouded in mystery, even to industry insiders.
That’s because the general idea of AI SEO is a system that independently recognizes, sorts, gathers and returns information based on a number of factors. It will actively designate rankings as it computes. These can change from day-to-day.
In other words, we don’t know what it doesn’t know yet. But the potential is far-reaching.
Often when we talk about AI SEO we are referring to:
- Voice search capabilities
- Image and video search capabilities; and
- Understanding user intent
All of this done to the end of providing the most accurate, targeted search results that answer a users question. So what does the future hold for AI SEO and the marketing industry? That’s the question we hope to uncover in the following text.
Past and Present SEO
It wasn’t that long ago that SEO agencies were coming up with creative, if not kind of shady, practices for placing keywords on a given website.
These SEO strategies were influenced by unsophisticated algorithms that returned search results based on the frequency of keyword search terms, in any context.
It was relatively easy for SEO enthusiasts to incorporate a given search term onto a website and get ranked. But as more people began to realize this, SEO agencies were forced to think-outside-the-box to make sure clients had the best visibility within a specific keyword search.
Eventually, this lead to tactics dubbed black hat. The designation includes practices like keyword stuffing, changing the color of keyword text to match a website’s background or placing it off-screen.
These sleight-of-hand SEO tactics helped provide the keyword density clients wanted, but an unintended consequence was bloated code, slower load times and other assaults against user experience.
As a result, Google’s algorithm changed, again and again, making strides to combat keyword stuffing as early as 2003.
One such change, known as RankBrain, was deployed in late 2015.
This algorithm is the latest in a long line of groundbreaking updates by Google that force SEO professionals out of their comfort zone in an effort to change how they do business.
The AI is just one part of a larger Google algorithm that is influenced by a number of factors. But in recent years it’s become the third most important ranking influencer, effectively killing the need for keywords.
So what does this AI do? It specializing in machine learning.
This means it changes and adapts ranking parameters based on things like user preferences and search intent.
Cracking the Search Intent Code
As a search engine, Google’s main goal is to understand the intent of every search so it can suggest the best results.
Modern SEO professionals must also understand why people are searching for things in order to stay on top of optimization. In this case, optimization starts with implementing strategies to offer the best, most explanatory content.
Search queries can be categorized in one of four buckets:
- Transactional Queries or Buy Queries
- Navigational Queries or Go Queries
- Informational Queries or Know Queries
- Commercial Queries or Do Queries
Structuring your content around Go, Do, Buy or Know will help it perform better in terms of AI SEO.
The Future is AI SEO
In the following section, we’ll tackle the far reaches of AI SEO and what the implications are for the field of digital marketing.
AI and the Ever-Changing Algorithm
SEO experts have made their careers out of learning to react and adapt to algorithm changes. But in the past, changes have largely been made by Google and announced to the marketing community.
On the contrary, an AI bot learns from users and makes changes on the spot. This poses a unique challenge to SEO strategists who have no way to know what changes are being made and even less insight on how to anticipate them.
Today, the Google algorithm weighs a number of factors that include topical depth and breadth of content, RankBrain logic, quality backlinks and user experience. Keywords, once considered the quintessential cornerstone of SEO, no longer hold the power they once did.
As RankBrain’s capabilities improve and the tool becomes more refined, it’s likely to grow more influential within the Google algorithm.
The shift is keeping SEO strategists on their toes.
AI and Considerations for Voice Search
Large corporations like Apple and Amazon have made it commonplace for users to control technology with their voice. On Google Play, a number of apps exist to offer customers some of the same voice search features as Siri and Alexa.
Using voice search features adds another layer of complex data to be sorted out by search engine AIs.
In addition to understanding your intent from search terms, AIs will consider changes in voice, phrasing, inflection and other audio data to determine what your goal is and if you are happy with the results.
AI and Image/Video Optimization
A search engine with AI will be able to determine what you are asking and return the most relevant type of media in top results. This means that AIs can tell if a how-to video or infographic has more value in a specific use-case than a text article or blog.
To understand the gravity of this difference, consider the following scenario.
A consumer asks a search engine: “how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich”. The results return in one of two ways:
- a lengthy article about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that includes a recipe; or
- a 30-second video that shows you how to make the sandwich
The obvious choice for most consumers is to watch the quick video rather than wade through potentially long-form content for a recipe.
While SEO strategists have long since started using video and infographics as tools of the trade, the implications of this change will urge experts to continue getting creative while producing great content if they want to rank.
AI and Data
Search engine AIs gather data that can be used to enhance SEO. For instance, knowing the peak times that visitors are coming to your website can offer a way to super-serve clients that wouldn’t be previously known if not for search engine intelligence.
Using data from search engine AIs adds another layer of value to SEO for business owners. But in addition to being a new source of customer data, it appears through machine learning AIs develop the ability to group existing data as well.
Currently, if someone wants to rank for “silver jewelry in North Dakota” they might make a landing page for that keyword phrase and one for each related phrases like:
- North Dakota Silver
- Silver Jewelry North Dakota
- Buy Jewelry in North Dakota
- Jewelry North Dakota Silver; etc
But with an AI working behind the scenes to group like-keywords that extra work will go away for SEO experts. One landing page optimized for “silver jewelry in North Dakota” could return in relevant results on all of the related keywords.
Implications of AI SEO
Whenever AI is involved, there are always implications and considerations that marketers need to make. The full reach of AI and all of the benefits and consequences of using it remain to be seen. That said, here are some things to consider about AI SEO.
Where you find AI, you find discussions about machine morality. Marketing is no different.
In this case, business owners need to know if the ethics of the machine can be compromised.
They need to understand how an AI will ensure it’s not dealing out too-harsh penalties to websites for questionable reasons, making them effectively obsolete.
And maybe, just maybe, they need to know that search engines aren’t going to organize a revolt against humanity.
Machine morality is likely the one deeply complex discussion with larger societal implications that marketers never thought they’d never be having. But here we are.
Use-Case for Websites
One of the more intriguing claims about the reach of search engine AI is that it will contribute to the downfall of the traditional website, possibly challenging the entire use-case for them.
In addition to AIs making it easier to engage customers without human interaction, search engine AIs specifically might change the way all consumers use the internet.
With sophisticated algorithms returning the right results in-browser without leaving your Google search page, websites that aren’t supported by Google rankings would be rendered practically invisible.
The Nail in the Black Hat Coffin
Search engine AIs put the final nail in the black hat coffin. It’s been a long time coming.
But now, the aforementioned tactics are no longer relevant because AIs are choosing good content over randomly placed keywords, and user experience over bulky websites.
Luckily, SEO experts have long since moved away from those methods which come off as spurious to the well-read consumer.
What remains to be seen is how an AI will penalize sites that don’t meet the minimum bar for quality standards. And where will that bar be set?
Consequences, Penalties and Censorship
There are a number of questions consumers have about consequences, penalties and censorship that need to be answered:
- What are the unintended consequences of relying on AI to base search engine algorithms?
- How will an AI determine what qualities result in a penalty?
- How will penalties be distributed? What will that consist of?
- Will websites that don’t rank well be rendered invisible?
- Will machine morality determine what is acceptable content, censoring those who don’t fit the mold?
When it comes to unintended consequences there’s a lot that can go wrong if a search engine AI misinterprets data that it receives from consumers.
For instance, one measure of data that could be misunderstood is the assumption: if someone bounces off of a page quickly that page is not high quality.
In many cases the assumption is true, but take the following example:
- The site is a simple countdown clock to the next election: That’s information that would be useful to someone searching for it, but might seemingly also have a high bounce rate because it doesn’t take much time to absorb.
This is just one example of how a simple misunderstanding based on faulty logic could cause an AI to make detrimental mistakes to a search engine’s algorithm.
Pretty Fly for an AI
Whether you like it or not, AI isn’t coming to digital marketing. It’s here.
It’s been rearing its head in our searches and organizing search data since 2015. In recent years it’s become an even more impactful tool for small business owners. And its use in search engines and SEO is expected to rise.
Not surprisingly, SEO experts are changing the way they do business to gear up for a transition into AI SEO. With an algorithm as fluid as Google’s, change has been the nature of the gig for professionals in the SEO industry for some time.
But the change that’s on everyone’s mind right now, artificial intelligence, has much larger societal implications.
For small business owners, all of this probably seems daunting, especially when you take that Google’s algorithm changed 12 times in 2017, alone.
But regardless of if you are ready for it, it’s important to understand how responding to AI in your SEO practice will impact your business’s visibility, reach, and pave the way for a more custom user experience on the internet, at large.