How To Survive 3 New Threats to Your SEO Strategy

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Three trending SEO shockwaves could shake marketers to their core vitals.

But don’t panic. You can still use search to drive engagement and traffic. You just need to revisit your SEO strategy to prevent your valuable content from getting buried where your audience won’t find it.

We asked industry leaders to explain the new threats to search as you know it, specifically Google’s Search Generative Experience, AI content impact, and the social search effect.

Read what they think about those complications and what you can do to fortify content for your information-hungry audiences here. Then, watch this conversation with two of the experts in the most recent Live With CMI episode:

Threat 1: Google’s Search Generative Experience

In May 2023, Google launched Search Generative Experience. SGE uses AI technology to provide detailed informational snapshots at the top of most search engine results pages (SERPs).

Here is a snapshot for the query, “What is content marketing.” The first image shows an SGE format Google is testing.

It reads, “Generative AI is experimental. Learn more,” followed by its SGE answer: Content marketing is a marketing strategy that involves creating and sharing relevant content to attract, engage, and retain an audience. The goal is to increase brand awareness, sales, engagement, and loyalty.”

It appears in “collapsed state” and invites users to have it “show more” to explore the SGE answer more deeply.

Clicking the show-more button or arrow presents a more detailed response, including lists of content types, distribution channels, and steps for building a content marketing strategy.

Clicking the show-more button or arrow presents a more detailed response, including lists of content types, distribution channels, and steps for building a content marketing strategy.

What are the problems with SGE?

First, SGE takes over the most coveted search engine real estate. Organically well-ranked content and paid search placements get pushed down — and off — the first page.

Search referral traffic will suffer

Second, SGE snapshots are designed to deliver a zero-click experience, where searchers don’t need to leave the results page to get the information they sought.

SGE has just expanded its beta program for registered users and now appears in some searches for general users. Mike King, founder of iPullRank, says once it’s the default experience for everybody, publishers’ search-driven traffic will take a big hit.

“You’re going to lose a lot of visibility on SERPs, and you’re going to lose a lot of referral traffic,” he says. “Why would searchers click on your content links if the specific answers they came for are placed right in front of them?”

Yet BrightEdge founder and executive chair Jim Yu believes what you might lose in referral traffic volume could balance out with richer search-driven traffic. More top-of-the-funnel interactions will happen inside the SGE, so searchers who click on your site are ready to convert. “The traffic you receive would be higher quality and more monetizable,” Jim says.

SGE may use a single source or curate the answer

How SGE compiles the information displayed in its snapshots raises another concern for brands. Mike explains that SGE analyzes the keywords and intent of the user’s query. Then, it uses a process called retrieval-augmented generation to aggregate relevant source materials in its large language model and serve an answer that its calculations determine to be the most contextually relevant.

If Google’s search engine ranks your content as the most authoritative, accurate, and satisfying response, it may appear as the SGE answer. But with only one of these spots available, earning that honor is a long shot.

Alternatively, Google might aggregate the SGE answer from several sources. While it credits each source, the curated approach doesn’t motivate searchers to explore the source articles.

The image below shows the SGE response for the “what is content marketing” search. At the bottom, it includes thumbnails and excerpts of the title and meta from Semrush and HubSpot articles.

The screenshot shows the SGE response for the “what is content marketing” search.

What should you do?

SGE’s full impact will arrive soon as its use expands into the open market. Use the time now to adapt your SEO approach to get your content featured in SGE if that’s a goal worth pursuing for your business.

Optimize for intent and contextual relevance

To demonstrate your content offers an immersive, satisfying experience, you must understand your audience’s search intentions and the signals used by the SGE’s engine to gauge relevance against their queries.

Many SEO best practices and research processes still apply, but some are more critical. Persona-driven keyword research is among them. “Mapping keywords to your user journey stages will give you a clearer understanding of who’s searching, what they’re trying to accomplish, and what’s motivating them to search,” Mike says. “Ultimately, that should inform your strategy.”

SGE doesn’t take a user’s query at face value. It gathers contextual information from their previous queries to get highly specific in pinpointing the user’s intent and deliver the best content to satisfy it.

To find clues about the information Google factors into those calculations, look at another SGE format in the beta test — the carousel of resources.

In this example, based on the query “what is content marketing,” the titles and cover images for articles from Content Marketing Institute (What is Content Marketing), Mailchimp (What is Content Marketing), and HubSpot (The Ultimate Guide to Content Marketing) appear. Their inclusion suggests the importance of optimizing headline and image copy to include the query’s terms.

What is content marketing search query results from CMI, Mailchimp, and HubSpot.

Jim also recommends optimizing image alt-text, meta descriptions, and other metadata to help SGE determine if searchers are likely to explore your content in more detail or keep scrolling through the carousel. “As we learned several times in the past, the future of SEO is not about fighting against the tide but learning how to ride the waves,” Jim says.

Search SGE’s gaps for viable opportunities

You must decide if your brand has the right content to pursue those coveted SGE spots. According to Jim, that may depend on which SGE formats are available and which keywords and queries are left out of Google’s coverage.

He points out there’s been a lot of speculation on those possibilities, though little concrete data exists. The team at BrightEdge parsed the data in the beta environment and found that 84% of all search queries have some AI format.

That leaves a gap for brands to explore alternative approaches to succeeding in search. “Newer, less established brands and those in niche markets might fare better by focusing on long-tail keywords that don’t show SGE results,” Mike says.

Put audience value over appeasing AI engines

No matter how SGE changes the face of SEO, you should prioritize delivering a quality content experience over appeasing an AI algorithm.

Moz senior content marketing manager Chima Mmeje says building brand authority and audience trust is part and parcel of both goals. “Ensure everything you post positions you as the source of truth on a specific topic until you become the user’s first choice when looking for a solution,” she says.

Threat 2: AI content farms flooding the search space

SEO has always been about playing the odds. You scour search guidelines, looking for any discoverability advantages to drive more traffic to your owned media platforms.

But AI content farms are attempting to game search by churning out keyword-rich content at such a high volume that it overtakes the rankings of higher-quality content produced manually. That includes the painstaking efforts of authoritative brands and subject matter experts.

In late 2023, Jake Ward — a little-known SEO agency founder — took to X to brag about using AI to pull off an “SEO heist” that stole 3.6 million in total traffic from a competitor.

When Ahref CMO Tim Soulo shared Jake’s highly detailed explanation of the techniques and steps, it sparked a firestorm of comments and coverage from industry media. Reactions ranged from outrage to kudos. (CMI’s request for a comment from Jake went unanswered.)

What are the problems?

You have legitimate ways to use AI tools to speed up content production and optimize search value. But shady efforts like Jake’s heist sidestep Google’s quality guidelines for experience, expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (EEAT).

They also dilute the domain authority brands have worked to build through trustworthy content. Human content teams can’t hope to compete with the sheer volume of content generated by AI for the purpose of keyword ranking.

More content may diminish ranking for quality and authority

The techniques used in the heist aren’t necessarily new — or inherently nefarious. The problem, as Tim sees it, is that AI lowers the barrier to entry for others to do this. “The more people jump onto that bandwagon, the worse Google search results will become for everyone,” he says.

Google seems unconcerned with unfair advantages

The heist suggests Google’s search bots struggle to detect AI-generated spam. Though Google penalized the content that put Jake’s client on the top of target SERPs, the company didn’t publicly condemn the practices behind it.

Addressing shady practices that don’t violate its terms of service may be low on Google’s agenda, Tim says. The company has bigger fish to fry, including its focus on replacing third-party cookies and the looming specter of an antitrust trial.

Still, he believes it wouldn’t be hard to algorithmically identify sites that scale with poor AI-generated content. In a follow-up post on X, Tim suggests Google could monitor publishing velocity along a bunch of verticals and red flag a site if it crosses a threshold.

What should you do?

Regardless of how content farms game the search space, it shouldn’t change how your brand plays to win. “What separates great content marketers from average ones is their first-hand experience with the topics they’re writing about,” Tim says.

Your audience can tell if the content was generated for the sole purpose of ranking or created by humans who understand their challenges and what it takes to solve them. Use that distinction by providing uniquely resonant conversations that AI can’t replicate.

Moz’s Chima Mmeje offered some approaches to consider:

  • Focus on your core expertise. Creating content around niche topics where you are an authority helps your content stand out in a crowded marketplace.
  • Diversify your distribution. Explore channels beyond social media and email to extend your reach, such as influencer partnerships, co-marketing with vertical brands, and communities. 
  • Incorporate more user feedback. Rather than merely targeting high-volume keywords, incorporate relevant consumer comments and experiences into your content. Adding that real-world perspective helps searchers see your stories as more relatable and authentic.
  • Build trust in your content. Display author credentials, cite reputable sources, and make contact information accessible. Trust is a cornerstone of Google’s EEAT guidelines and is essential for establishing and maintaining a strong connection with your audience.

Threat 3: Social steals search engines’ thunder

Audiences increasingly seek advice and information by swiping, scrolling, and engaging with their social communities instead of typing queries and clicking links in search engines. HubSpot research finds 15% of consumers prefer to search on social media instead of search engines.

That may represent a small component of your audience. But the percentage doubles for younger audience demographics like millennials (28%) and Gen Z (31%). That portends a fundamental shift in how content will get discovered, shared, and acted upon online.

What’s the problem?

Long-established principles of good SEO may fall apart if your target audience isn’t bellying up to the search bar. Instead of Google’s assessment of trust and quality, flash mob rules apply, where share-worthy community content, niche relevance, and upvoted influencers hold more algorithmic sway than what experienced experts might have to say.

While your brand can undoubtedly contribute to those conversations, your content’s voice of authority can easily get drowned by community members who have amassed a large following.

What should you do?

Think about the search experience holistically

Adapting a social-centric SEO involves more than sharing content on social and dialing up the volume with paid promotions.

Motivity Marketing Inc. CEO Kevin Ryan suggests thinking of content in a broader context with a more refined execution strategy. “Stop trying to hit home runs and worry about getting on base,” he says. “Look at the entirety of what your audience may be seeking to learn. Then you can make informed decisions about the best method of interaction.”

Join social media’s influence since you can’t beat it

Kevin also recommends considering how your target audience interprets your presence in their social communities. The right approach can grow your reputation as a trustworthy information source. But don’t force your way in tooting your brand’s horn.

To build organic trust, ask community members to share personal accounts of their interactions with your business. “People want to hear about actual experiences others like them have had with brands,” iPullRank’s Mike King says.

You can also take this a step further by building a community around your brand’s areas of expertise. Chima Mmeje offers this advice: “Talk with them, not just at them. Use online groups and emails to chat, share news, and listen to what they say.”

It creates a virtuous circle — one that stretches search benefits beyond the social sphere. “When people feel part of your brand’s family, they’ll stick around — and tell others about you,” Chima says.

It’s one more way to amplify your brand’s value—no matter where or how consumers search for it.

Want to dive deeper on SEO? Join us for our free MasterTHIS: SEO webinar, where you’ll learn from experts Andy Crestodina and Zack Kadish on how to diagnose and reverse traffic downturns, demystify SEO complexities, and effectively track outcomes in GA4. Register today to watch on demand. 

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute



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