Generative AI search may lead to a decline in organic traffic. Brands and publishers should respond by creating more targeted content and building additional trust signals.

Everything we understand about search is about to change.

In May this year, Google I/O revealed that generative AI has been introduced to its search engine. The must-know in this regard is that in what is termed Search Generative Experience (SGE), specific search queries trigger AI-generated text to solve the user's query, and this 'snapshot' linking to relevant websites sits above the traditional results.

SGE is designed to improve the user experience by answering all questions through a single user interface. Therefore, navigating multiple websites to find relevant information is unnecessary.

Naturally, as great as this sounds for consumers, there are inherent challenges for publishers and advertisers, who may see decreased traffic. A recent study of 23 websites found that the average organic traffic drop due to SGE was between 18% and 64%. It’s probably clear from the deviation that there was a huge variance in the sample. Some websites gained 219% in traffic. Others lost 95%.

Obviously, no one wants to be that 95%. But did Google steal all your organic traffic by answering user queries on the results page? In a word, no. This is clear from the study, which demonstrates that generative AI in search results can present even more opportunities to increase search visibility and traffic.

That's not to say recovery won't be challenging. It is, however, doable by addressing four key areas:

1. Author more targeted content

While SGE might dampen organic traffic and promote more zero-click searches, don't abandon SEO content creation. User-friendly, comprehensive content continues to be in demand.

Search results tailored to each user's unique context – location, search history, devices used, and more – is the primary goal of AI. This reduces reliance on generic keywords, prioritising resonance with diverse audiences through tailored optimisation.

Brands must continue creating compelling content and experiences that attract clicks to their sites. Brands that provide original, high-quality insights tailored to their audience through trusted experts will win.

Producing derivative, AI-generated content without human creativity will lose SEO traction. The key is to balance efficiency with creating original, user-friendly content.

2. Review existing content depth

As AI facilitates more natural, conversational searching, longer-tail keyword queries like the example Google provided (“What's better for a family with kids under three and a dog, bryce canyon or arches?”) may surpass shorter, broader queries, such as “days out with a family in Utah”.

Comprehensive website content must ultimately extend beyond surface-level information to satisfy user intent. Mastering these longer, more specific queries will become increasingly important for brands to remain relevant. Essentially, answering your customers' queries and fulfilling their needs hasn't changed, but the approach has.

3. Build additional trust signals

Today, search equals trust. To caveat, Google has always been committed to E-E-A-T factors (Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness). With generative AI redefining search, websites must become more trustworthy, providing valuable, useful content and solving customer problems.

This indicates a big change in the value of backlinks, content word count, and internal links. The new era of trust will be marked by additional trust signals such as user-generated content (UGC) and reviews. Essentially, content is used to drive traffic but also to build trust and demonstrate expertise. A successful content strategy and production will be based on these principles.

4. SGE-ready measurement stack

In the wake of SGE, measurement and reporting will likely become more challenging. Related websites may be nested in 'sources' or 'read more'. As far as Google Analytics is concerned, those results are classified as direct traffic, not organic search traffic.

The principles that lift website links into organic search results sound like E-E-A-T principles used for core results. Similarly, rank tracking will no longer be as valuable as it used to be, with SGE assuming much of the above-the-fold space.

All of this culminates in the need to innovate the most common search reporting methods. To borrow an accounting phrase, “traffic is vanity, and conversions are sanity”. More traffic does not always mean more conversions. We may see a refocusing on conversions as a primary measure, with less emphasis on rankings.

The future of SGE

SGE will impact us all. There is no doubt that the direction SEO has been going in recent years has led to this. Quality and targeted content with added value remains a priority.

Moreover, experience and expertise are significant requirements. If you haven’t done so already, it’s time to identify who your experts are and bring them to the fore in your content to capitalise on trustworthiness and authority.

Finally, a rethink of measurement will be necessary moving forward, remembering that SGE will continue to evolve as it is tested.

Most importantly, AI is too substantial to ignore. Google has made SGE a cornerstone of its strategy and will become a long-term feature of search results. So, heed our advice or don’t, but to be honest, at this point, it’s do-or-die.