Our industry is changing

Our industry is changing

This was initially written as my first episode of Marie’s Thoughts.

SGE is not going away. SGE in Assistant will one day be the way people get their information and communicate with their technology. 

Google’s mission has always been to organize the world’s information and make it accessible to all. I do not believe search is their end goal. Here’s Larry Page in the year 2000:



Here is the original article I wrote in September 2023.

Our industry is changing

Dear friends,

I’m sitting here, typing in a Google Doc, sharing my thoughts. I am tired. And I know many of you are as well. I am also excited about AI. And I’m worried.

In this letter, I want to share with you my thoughts on how AI will change our industry, and also some news about how my business has and is changing. All of our businesses are changing.

Last fall, a friend sent me a link to OpenAI’s playground. Shortly after, came ChatGPT. It’s hard to believe it has been less than a year since we have had this technology. My husband David and I are always talking about things we learned from Brad and Chad, as he calls them.

I remember marveling over ChatGPT writing a story about Barry Schwartz and John Mueller arguing over whether cheese was a ranking factor.

For some, a tool like ChatGPT is a toy, and perhaps a dangerous one. We’ll get to that.

I can’t stop using these tools. I mostly jump between ChatGPT and Claude. Claude is usually best for summarizing articles and crafting text. Chat is where I ask basic questions, get recipes, and best of all, brainstorm.

I try to use Bard often because Bard is the interface that many people will use in Google’s products as they do more to integrate AI into the search experience. It’s already integrated into Google Lens. Bard is often good when I want to ask questions about things that require a knowledge of current events. It’s also my own personal GA4 manual…not always correct, but correct enough to get me where I need to go. And Bard will be even better when it is powered by #Gemini rather than PaLM.

AI is my personal assistant. Like someone I can message in a Slack channel whenever I want their opinion, or perhaps want them to do some stuff with data. I wouldn’t ask an assistant to write a full article for me, but I would ask for their help in wording something or making what I wrote shorter perhaps.

Now I have been told that I am an anomaly. Most people do not use AI tools as much as I do. I think that will change if what I predict Google is about to do really does happen.

Let me tell you about my incredible husband, David, who is my rock and support. It is our 17th anniversary tomorrow! David is not one to use a lot of tech. He recently discovered a new thing called gifs. He did not get the joke when we leased office #404 and I told him no one would be able to find it.

David uses ChatGPT all day long. It is his gardening assistant. It taught him to make a garden irrigation system and how to best dehydrate the thousands of peppers he grows. They brainstorm together on how to improve things in the garden. Or about getting the most out of the health benefits of capsaicin. It has introduced him to new music artists and so much more.

David and I are always talking about the things that we learned from our friends Brad and Chad, as he calls them.

But wait…the hallucinations! It’s dangerous!

Yup. AI tools hallucinate…they make up information sometimes. The language model is doing its best to predict which words should go together as a response to your words. Sometimes that prediction is close, but not quite right.

I haven’t heard a single AI leader say that hallucinations will go away. They will get better though. They have already. But they are a problem. AI is going to progress regardless.

I find it rare lately that I catch ChatGPT hallucinating. Now, I don’t know whether that’s because it’s improved (it has) or because it’s gotten so good at making things up that I can’t recognize when it’s hallucinating. That is a real concern.

Yet, I find myself getting more and more use out of these tools and realizing that the way technology is progressing, so much is going to change.

The way I see it, we can either choose to ignore AI and share about its faults, or we can learn how it works and what we can do with it.

How will our industry change?

Search has changed dramatically over the last few years. The helpful content and reviews systems are using machine learning to continually improve on presenting the searcher with a result that is likely to be helpful. [Added by Feb 2024 Marie: Since writing this we have learned even more about how AI is used to rank results. The DOJ vs Google trial, and in particular the Pandu Nayak testimony tells us about how RankBrain, RankEmbed BERT and DeepRank work. Many signals of user satisfaction including user engagement signals as well as quality rater ratings train the algorithms today.]

The way Google ranks results has changed a lot since the days where PageRank was at its core. Today PageRank is just one of the many signals Google uses when deciding which content is likely to be the best to put in front of searchers. Many of today’s best practices in SEO are geared towards optimizing for a search engine that existed years ago. Few are focused around understanding what Google’s AI systems are trying to reward.

I don’t think any of us in the industry thoroughly understand what these changes mean. And I’m fairly certain the game is about to change again.

A new search engine

We are soon likely to see a whole new search engine from Google.

The NYT said in May of 2023 that Google has a team of engineers working on a project called Magi. They say, “The new search engine would offer users a far more personalized experience than the company’s current service, attempting to anticipate users’ needs.”

This new reimagined search experience will learn what users want to know and would “offer lists of preselected options for objects to buy, information to research and other information.”

It also will be more conversational. They say, “a bit like chatting with a helpful person.”

I expect that the way David and I use Brad and Chad (and their lesser known friend Claude – which you have told me should be pronounced like when a lion attacks someone – Clawed) will soon be the way most people “search”. Except we won’t be searching anymore. We’ll mostly be conversing with our Google powered AI assistant. That assistant will sometimes show us websites, but quite often, we will not need to venture beyond the AI given answer.

What we have seen in Google’s SGE (Search Generative Experience) is likely a preview of what the new product will look like. [Added: Now that we’ve seen the changes in Assistant it seems to me that Assistant is actually using a component of SGE each time it answers. So we likely won’t see the full monstrous SGE results we see in labs. Rather, we’ll see a carousel of websites, or an AI answer, or when appropriate a combo of the two or perhaps a maps listing as we’ve seen them on SGE and so on.]

I am really hoping they keep the name Magi. When I was little, I wrote in one of those books that you fill out about what you want to be when you grow up that I wanted to be two things when I grew up: a mommy (accomplished with two incredible girls 💗) and also, a Magician.

But wait, don’t we hate SGE?

It’s inaccurate. It doesn’t always link to websites. It steals information from websites. It can be prompted to say horrible things.

Here’s the thing. SGE as we see it today is powered by the language model PaLM combined with the knowledge contained in Google’s index. PaLM is an improvement on the previous model, LaMDA.

But we haven’t yet seen a Gemini powered SGE.

Gemini

Gemini is Google’s next language model. I say language model, but really, it’s more than that. A language model like GPT or PaLM is trained on publicly available text on the internet. It sees massive amounts of words and how they are used together, and learns to connect words in a similar way.

Gemini is trained on text, and also images. And also video.

Gemini is reportedly trained on YouTube.

Gemini understands information in videos and images.

Not only does it train on video, it can produce video. It can produce images as well.

The co-founder of Google’s Deep Mind, Demis Hassabis said that Gemini will eclipse ChatGPT.

It will have the reasoning power of DeepMind’s AlphaGo (which beat the world’s leading Go player) and AlphaFold (which is doing wild things involving protein folding.)  If you have not watched this documentary, I highly recommend it.



I expect that Gemini will be less likely to hallucinate as it has much more knowledge and connections in its training than a solely text trained language model.

Gemini will make SGE useful.

I am fairly certain that Gemini will allow Google to transform from a Search Engine which connects you with information published around the web, to an AI answer engine that provides you with most of the answers you need and then, where it makes sense, connects you with a website. 

Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai said that SGE is the future of search. “Over time, this will just be how search works,” he proclaimed in the most recent Google earnings call. He says SGE is the next major evolution of search.

Gemini is expected to launch this fall. This fall! It is currently September 8 as I write this. It is fall.

Perhaps it will not happen all at once. But it is happening.

What does this mean for the SEO Industry?

If my prediction is correct then eventually what we know now as Google Search will be replaced with a Gemini powered AI assistant. We’re seeing the shifts already. Chrome’s latest redesign boasts the Material You design and colours that we see with SGE. Android phones are seeing all sorts of AI changes including an AI-powered Assistant At a Glance.

Google is becoming less of a search engine and more of an AI answer engine.

This is not hard to believe as this was something Larry Page, co-founder of Google said was their goal. In the year 2000, Larry Page said,

Artificial intelligence would be the ultimate version of Google. So we have the ultimate search engine that would understand everything on the Web. It would understand exactly what you wanted, and it would give you the right thing. That’s obviously artificial intelligence, to be able to answer any question, basically, because almost everything is on the Web, right? We’re nowhere near doing that now. However, we can get incrementally closer to that, and that is basically what we work on.”

Here is what I think will happen assuming this goes live.

  • Businesses who make money from producing content will see a drastic decline in visits from Google as most informational queries will be satisfied by the SGE answer.

  • Local businesses will be recommended to searchers in a variety of ways that we will need to figure out. I can picture having a conversation with my AI assistant about cleaning up my garden. The assistant would perhaps recommend products I could use for the particular task I’m working on and then show me which businesses near me sell them. This type of recommendation will open up new ways of learning to optimize to be recommended via AI.

  • Getting reviews and mentions online will be even more important, as AI tries to connect the dots in predicting which businesses and products the public tends to enjoy the most. If you haven’t read it yet, read this Google blog post on the shopping graph.

  • Online news sites will see a significant decrease in traffic from search engines as SGE will be able to not only answer any question about current events, but also allow you to converse about it.

  • We will see incredible animosity between publishers and the makers and users of AI.

I’m concerned not only for content producers, but also for SEO agencies.

Many will lose clients. It’s already happening. The pandemic, the economic changes, the explosion of mental and physical health issues that ensued, and now this shift to a new way of getting our information is causing businesses to struggle. These businesses have less income and more challenges. They have less budget for SEO. And in many cases, SEO is not going to help. Especially not SEO strategy that is based on understanding Google’s algorithms as they existed before AI.

If the shift to a Gemini powered, SGE-first search engine happens, then the way websites are ranked and recommended to people is going to change. The industry will need to learn what the new engine rewards and how to optimize for it.

Businesses will be confused as to what is happening. Which means more will turn to SEO agencies perhaps…but those agencies will be scrambling to understand what it takes to rank…or perhaps “be recommended” is a better phrase. SEO services and tools will all need to be reimagined.

Processes will need to be rewritten so that teams are on the same page about what they are doing for their clients. It will take some time before the industry comes to consensus about how to optimize, how to monitor (have you got GA4 figured out yet? I don’t think many have), and even how to report.

And where are we going to arrive at this consensus? Twitter was once an incredible public forum for SEO’s to share ideas with each other, but it is becoming more and more toxic and critical. I rarely see SEOs who are in the trenches sharing anymore. There are private groups that exist, and people are sharing ideas at conferences…but even this is going to change. I have already rewritten my Pubcon presentation twice because our understanding of what is happening in Search is changing so quickly.

This may be an exciting time for some agencies. I imagine it will be chaotic for most.

What I worry about

If Google’s new search engine provides an AI generated answer to most queries, what happens to millions of people whose jobs are tied to creating informational content? I do believe there will be websites that will still thrive. But many will not.

Most questions about travel can be answered by an AI answer engine that can draw from all of the knowledge on the web. Perhaps some people will seek out websites or video sharing personal experiences, but if you want to know, “things to do in New Jersey” or even complex queries like “which restaurants are known for making food in front of you that would be good for a date night”, there will be little need to go to a website to read a piece of content.

If your content teaches people how to do something, AI can do it more concisely and answer the specific questions that person has.

Now imagine this with a model that can create images and video. [Added. Or if you really want to get messed up, think about what happens when we are able to use our thoughts to communicate with our AI assistants.]

Yes, it will be wrong sometimes. I expect though that more and more people will discover it is worth putting up with some inaccuracies to have your own personal assistant next to you to help you with any task and answer questions you have about it.

Recently I consulted with several businesses that likely will not do well in a transition to Google being an AI answer engine.

  • A site that has existed for two decades by providing encyclopedia-like information that many students have turned to for years.

  • A site that provides comprehensive medical information. Every one of their pages could be essentially replaced with an SGE answer as it exists now. Imagine when Gemini is live.

  • A site that reviews WordPress themes. They’re mostly rewording what others say about online reviews. But they did well, because they are good SEO’s. AI can do what they do. And will be up to date with recent trends and thoughts.  And people can converse with AI.

  • An eCommerce business that has historically ranked well by building links via getting placements in articles, and investing in technical SEO. SGE is recommending businesses over them that have a plethora of online reviews and truly are known as the place to go for this product. Their whole strategy needs to change. With no solid guidebook on how.

  • A site that informs people about their options for solar energy. AI can give me a better answer than addressed on any of their pages. Pages which have taken years of hard work to produce.

I don’t see how Google can go ahead with this new search engine without millions of people who work on creating content losing their jobs. But Google has said that SGE is the future of search. I’m fairly certain it is going ahead.

How would Google make money if they greatly reduce visits to websites?

There will still be ads in SGE. And those ads will be even more targeted and effective as Google allows businesses to use AI tools and innovations. This is an exciting time to learn more about ads. A lot is changing here.

But what about those millions of websites that will no longer get visits and give Google display ad revenue?

How much does Google make from those ads? I asked Bard:

In 2022 Google made $162.45 billion in ad revenue. $32.78 billion was from display ads and almost as much was from YouTube.

I’m fairly certain that what Google will make from Google Cloud – which brings their AI tools to businesses, will soon be much more than that.

I have not verified if those numbers are correct. All I know is that I made my own app that searches my website and provides an SGE answer plus an internal site search with Google’s Vertex AI in under two minutes, played with it for an hour and my Cloud Bill was $0.48. It’s something that, despite the cost, I’ll eventually put on my website and perhaps even be able to charge for if I wanted to. If I did, this would make Google much more money than if I were to display Google ads on my site.

I expect that very soon businesses will start to figure out wild things they can do with AI using Google’s tools, and they’ll use those to make money in ways we cannot yet imagine. If I’m right, this will greatly increase Google’s Cloud revenue.

I’m also worried about how AI will spread disinformation, how hallucinations can cause harm, how AI can perpetuate biases and more. I think some in our industry have elected not to use AI tools for these very reasons. I respect that. My way of looking at things is that AI will move forward whether I am a critic or an avid learner. I am more the latter than the former.

What I’m excited about

In the immediate future, I’m excited for myself because my career revolves around learning about change in Google’s systems. And this is certainly a big change. I’ll share at the end of this document how my own life and business are changing.

I think there will be loads of opportunities for many of you who learn to help businesses get recommended by AI answer engines.

I’m excited for much more than that.

I have already found that I can do much more to focus on my craft – understanding Google’s search systems and communicating that information – because AI has helped me do things faster. Now, instead of spending an hour summarizing an article for newsletter, I can ask a few questions of Claude and not only get the gist of it, but explain the parts that are important. [Added: I now use Gemini in AI studio. I made structured prompts and taught it how to summarize things like I do.] Instead of playing with spreadsheet formulas to understand how a website has been impacted by an update, I can upload a CSV and get insights in seconds from my AI assistant, Advanced Data Analysis (formerly Code Interpreter) in ChatGPT.

I’ve been playing with analyzing exported data from GSC. I’m quite impressed with what ChatGPT gives me.

I can make all sorts of helpful charts and then ask Chat questions about commonalities with pages affected, or theories on why certain content was more impacted. It’s not always right in its suggestions, but our discussions help me solve problems better.

And this has freed up more of my time to focus on what’s important, to learn, to write more, to create and to help inform the community of the changes we are experiencing.

If this type of change is happening to me, I expect we will see more and more professionals learning to drastically improve how they work with the help of AI.

A doctor can soon (possibly even now?) use Google’s PaLM Med 2 – a language model trained on medical information and converse about any medical issue they want. Like having an incredibly smart assistant beside them. An assistant that knows the latest research on any topic. They can brainstorm about patient issues and even dream up new treatment protocols with ideas provided by their AI assistant. AI will likely bring medical treatments to all sorts of places that do not have access to a doctor. It will help us heal in so many ways.

I expect soon, a Google Watch will be able to take our biometric data and turn it into incredibly actionable advice thanks to AI. It will be able to detect our stressors, the things that make us healthier and guide us towards spending more time with the latter than the former.

AI will allow us to create new medications, new treatments. It will allow the smartest people in the world to work with the help of an assistant who knows an awful lot about any subject you ask it. And will likely greatly expand the amount of good that we can do.

Honestly though, it doesn’t matter whether you are excited about AI or worried. It is moving forward with or without your support.

My business is changing

I have been on quite the ride with my professional career. Little did I know that when I started a newsletter to tell people whether the Google algorithm filters Penguin and Panda had updated, that over a decade later, I would be writing my thoughts weekly and covering everything I could find about the search industry.

I went from veterinarian to a website owner curious about how Google works to somehow being seen as an industry leader. I hired a team of folks to work with me. We made a great agency. Then the pandemic changed so much, removing the joy I had in running a business. It made everything so hard. The latter half of 2022 was like the part of a movie where everything seems to be going wrong.

I see now that all of this had to happen in order for me to change. We are all going to go through a lot of change.

I returned to solo consulting, but realized that I didn’t know how to confidently explain the changes I was seeing when analyzing traffic drops. AI in Google’s systems was changing so much and there is no framework to help an SEO know how to adapt. I have loads of theories, and many share with me how they’ve had good success by applying them to their work. But there’s so much we don’t know.

I took time off of consulting so that I could learn more about AI. How it works. How it has transformed the way Google ranks results. What concerns I should have. But mostly, how I can use it and help others who are affected by the changes it brings.

The one thing that remained constant in my business through all of this turmoil was my newsletter.

By mid 2022 my newsletter was a beast. It took our entire team of 12 to research, write and produce it. When I let my team go, I took that all over myself, alongside client work, podcast, being active on Twitter and more. And despite the ridiculous amount of work it takes, I still love doing it. It keeps me up to date with all that is happening. There is so much happening.

But here’s the thing.

I’m consulting, writing, selling products, running a membership group, and writing content for newsletter. And I’m not exactly sure how to do less. But I know I need to do less in order to have a healthy balance of work and life outside of work.

I’m traveling shortly to give a masterclass talk at Pubcon in Austin. It has been over three years since I spoke in a live talk. If you subscribe to the meme that says Google runs big updates while I travel, hold on to your hats.

Here’s what I’m going to do for now. At least I think this is it. My plans are changing daily it seems.

1) I’m closing my consulting calendar. I am honoured that so many of you have paid for time to brainstorm with me on the coming changes. I’m going to focus on understanding more and more about how Gemini and the potentially new search engine work. I may start up consulting again in a future season.

2) There will be two newsletters. 

Search News You Can Use will continue to be free. I’ll send out a version likely on Tuesday next week. However, instead of me covering everything I can find that is happening in our industry, I’ll be focusing on the things that I found most interesting and important.

For my paid subscribers, instead of getting “extra subscriber content” you’ll get a weekly bulletin with my thoughts on whatever it is I’m focusing on that week. We’ve already started this, by discussing main content as described in the QRG, information gain, understanding user intent and more. As I learn more about the AI related changes in search I’ll be sharing on that too.

If you’re already a paid subscriber, you don’t need to do anything. You’ll get both the free and the paid newsletter.

If you’re already a paid Search Bar member, you’ll see a new space, Marie’s thoughts in which I publish this document each week.

If you are not already a subscriber, there are two ways you can get it:

Subscribe here for $18/m

or

Become a member of the Search Bar for $42 / month  as I’ll be sharing this newsletter in the Search Bar Pro Community. I’ve raised the price, but I’ve also added a 2 week free trial for those of you who want to learn more before joining. This community is shaping up to be a good, safe and private place for us to discuss the changes that are happening in our businesses.

3) I’m not taking more speaking gigs for a bit. I’m booked to speak at the Pubcon Austin Masterclass in September, LocalU outside of Toronto in October, and virtually at SMX in November. As much as I love gabbing about SEO, that’s all I’m taking on for now.

Thanks for putting up with all of my changes over the last few months.

I hope this email finds you well. It was a lot to process I’m sure. I may eventually publish this episode, the first of the Marie’s thoughts episodes publicly.

There’s no 75 page document this week! But don’t worry, early next week I will send out an email with the most recent news stories. You’ll find this format will be different as well…shorter, but more helpful hopefully.

Looking forward to walking with you as we navigate these changes!

Marie


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