Search Engine Optimization

Search and rescue: New study shows top ranking SEO links tumble, publishers face double digit traffic declines in Google flip from search gatekeeper to AI publisher

Search and rescue: New study shows top ranking SEO links tumble, publishers face double digit traffic declines in Google flip from search gatekeeper to AI publisher

Google has been claiming for months that it is only experimenting with AI results as a replacement for search, as it quietly rolled it out to 150 countries.

It then went all in with its Hail Mary announcement that it would roll out to all America during its I/O conference last month.

This study began while AI Overviews was still in trial mode, during which time we discovered that AI replaced traditional search results 23.7 per cent of the time.

It found significant disparities in which genres were prioritised for AI results.

Again, the content verticals with the highest prevalence of AI results were the genres with the lowest risk, and highest advertising CPMs: Horoscopes 62 per cent, health 55 per cent, and shopping 43 per cent.

High volume and low yield categories like local, national, and international news, movies, TV shows, sport, and relationships were far behind.

Australia remains one of the last countries where AI Overviews has not been deployed.

Since Google formally announced AI Overviews, it’s been constantly tinkering with results pages.

The research has shown buttons moving, and wording changing, revealing that considerable research is going on in Google’s labs, as would be expected.

The most major changes came when AI SERPs began delivering nonsense results, including advising people to put glue on pizza.

Since then, Google has sharply pulled back on using generative AI to respond to searches around factual topics.

It means the design of SERPs is in flux, and Google has made no official announcements to publishers or content creators how long it will be before it settles down.

The actions confirm my prediction that Google is pivoting from a search engine platform into a publisher, to keep traffic on O&O pages where it can deliver ads.

Platformer’s Casey Newton wrote:

“Google’s idea for the future of search is to deliver ever more answers within its walled garden, collapsing projects that would once have required a host of visits to individual web pages into a single answer delivered within Google itself. By the end of 2024, they will appear at the top of results for 1 billion users.

“Google’s move to answer more questions on the search engine results page is simply a continuation of a long-standing practice.

“A quarter-century into its existence, a company that once proudly served as an entry point to a web that it nourished with traffic and advertising revenue has begun to abstract that all away into an input for its large language models.”

Reporting by Press Gazette revealed data from SEO tool Sistrix showing almost half of leading news publishers are suffering double-digit falls in search visibility.

Google said the changes are designed to remove low-quality, AI-generated junk sites that are cluttering search results.

However, BBC News fell 37 per cent and London’s Evening Standard 32 per cent.

Meanwhile, Google’s monopoly on search and search advertising generated $80 billion over the same period, up 15 per cent.

One intriguing finding was video.

Despite Google owning YouTube, and video ads being worth 30x as much as display ads, video appeared in just 0.4 per cent of AI SERPs.

One of the demands of the US Department of Justice’s antitrust case in September is forcing Google’s parent Alphabet to spin-off YouTube.

YouTube earned $8 billion last quarter. I agree with many commentators that Alphabet will proactively sever YouTube to protect its hero search business.

This would pitch the world’s two largest search engines against each other and satisfy some of the regulators’ monopoly concerns.

It might also explain why Alphabet didn’t unleash an army of lawyers when AI arch-rival OpenAI was caught scraping YouTube to train Chat-GPT.

Watch this space, we’ll find out in a few months…

Another finding was the way Google has changed which publishers rank highly in AI Overviews.

This is a major change as Google influences which publishers and content creators have been handpicked to receive the lion’s share of web traffic.

This derails years of work, and billions of dollars in SEO spending, by companies globally to win the top spots in organic search.

These changes have been done without transparency and run the risk of Google self-preferencing results for its commercial benefit.

The UK’s the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) said:

“Google’s strong position at each level of the intermediation value chain creates clear conflicts of interest and a range of concerns about self-preferencing.”

It’s joined calls to break Google up

“Google has the ability and incentive to prefer its own businesses in ad tech intermediation.

“Google’s strong positions in publisher ad serving, SSP and DSP, as well as its unique access to Google’s ad inventory, means that each of these businesses faces a conflict of interest.”

Google asserts that AI Overviews reveals a greater diversity of websites in its results, but as the CMA says, Google’s secretive algos make this impossible to disprove.

*This study was conducted on desktop browsers not mobile, so although we expect the experience and effects to be similar, they may not be.

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