How Will Generative AI in Search Change SEO?


So when Google Search results go full AI, what then? What does the arrival of AI generated topic summaries in Search, or “AI Overviews” as Google calls them, mean for SEO, referral traffic, and brand discovery more broadly?

These are the questions that many are asking after Google showcased its new, Gemini-powered, generative search experience, which will bring ChatGPT like responses into Search.

Google generative AI search

As you can see in these examples, the new Search experience, which is already in the process of being rolled out, will provide generated answers to some queries, ahead of actual website links.

In the first example above, it provides tips on how to clean a sofa, in the second, a listing of yoga studios in a certain region, and the last is an example of how the system can provide explainers based on an image input.

And the responses provided, in every example, are going to take traffic away from websites.

Now, in some cases that may not be so bad. Over time, the web has become so optimized for long-tail search queries, that we now have an abundance of pages which provide answers to common questions, in an attempt to suck in more traffic. Some of them are good, some less so, but with the arrival of generative AI for text, more and more of these responses are going to be AI-generated, linking, potentially, to spammy sites.

So maybe, having centralized summaries of answers from trusted sources is better, in some cases at least.

But it could also derail the traffic strategies of websites that have followed common best practices, and provided in-depth answers to these types of questions on their site. Catering to all related queries is a good way to get more website traffic, and then, potentially, more business as a result, but providing the same info direct in the SERP is going to kill that, making this a less viable SEO approach.

Presumably, there’ll be other SEO processes that emerge as a result, and it is worth noting that these AI generated summaries will not be shown for all queries, just those that Google detects as a good candidate for these replies.

But regardless of the scale, there will be impacts, and it will change the SEO game, at least in some respects.

It’ll also be problematic for websites like Wikipedia, who glean a heap of traffic by matching informational queries. 80% of Google Search traffic is informational, as opposed transactional (products) or navigational (“near me” searches), and if a lot of those queries are now going to be answered in detail, in-stream, that’ll make it less necessary for users to click through to learn more, further limiting referrals.

But at the same time, Google is aware of the value of Search to its core business, and the need to maintain direct links in SERPs.

In its announcement, Google has even tried to play down these concerns, by noting that:

With AI Overviews, people are visiting a greater diversity of websites for help with more complex questions. And we see that the links included in AI Overviews get more clicks than if the page had appeared as a traditional web listing for that query.”

See, you’ll get more traffic not less.

I mean, I wouldn’t bet on it, but maybe, in theory, if Google uses its regular ranking algorithm to decide where the generated answers come from, then includes links to those sources in the summaries, that could still see people tapping through to learn more.

If they want to. I would guess that a lot of queries are also fairly shallow, and that users don’t need to read too deep into them to understand. But Google’s essentially saying that there will still be ways to generate traffic, and that the impacts will likely be less than we expect.

But it seems impossible that there won’t be some impacts, and depending on the scale of these new AI Overviews, the reductions in referrals could be big.

But then again, if the top matches are still highlighted in the overview, maybe there won’t be as big a shift as some have anticipated.

We’ll find out soon.