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Beyond the Answer Box: How AI Overviews Impact Search and Contentby@viceasytiger
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Beyond the Answer Box: How AI Overviews Impact Search and Content

by Vik BogdanovMay 31st, 2024
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AI Overviews in Google Search might hurt small content creators, but could also be a goldmine for fact-checking startups. TLDR; Unclear yet, but focus on great and unique content.
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Google's AI Overviews shake up the search landscape, sparking debate on content quality and SEO impact. While some hail them as a boon, others worry AI Overviews might steal content and reduce website traffic. The article explores these concerns and the potential impact on creators, consumers, and the future of search.


It's been over two weeks since Google launched AI Overviews for its US-based users (with plans to roll out globally by the end of this year), and they have already become a hot topic in the media. While some experts consider them a boon for ethical website owners and white-hat marketers, believing they will dramatically change the search industry in the coming months, others are less optimistic, accusing Google of stealing their content and violating its own spam policies. On social media, thousands of users are dunking on the inaccuracies and bizarre responses from AI Overviews, such as the claim that a dog played in the NHL (confused by a charity event for rescue pups) or that several US Presidents graduated from UW-Madison (confused by a webpage referencing students with the same names as US Presidents), and even the suggestion that running with scissors is good for health.


But jokes aside, some people’s firsthand experiences with how AI Overviews have already impacted their unique content and website traffic raise more questions than answers.


According to travel writer David Leiter, whenever someone searched for "Best Slot Canyons Near Las Vegas," his article in the travel blog was always at the top of the search results page. However, after the launch of AI Overviews, the same search brought up an AI-generated response at the top of the page instead. The answer was completely wrong, as AI couldn't differentiate a slot canyon from a regular canyon. Although the AI Overview did include a link to Leiter's article, it was pushed to the very bottom of the results and took time to see. As a result, David believes the potential consequences are especially problematic because he feels "Google's AI is outright stealing content" from creators like himself. He doesn't think "he'll get more traffic than he used to as the top search result."


This and other stories I encountered in the media motivated me to research the topic more deeply and seek answers to the questions: How will AI Overviews and other AI-powered enhancements eventually affect search, and who will benefit the most from them?


Impact on the SEO Ecosystem


Google's AI Overviews are poised to transform the search landscape significantly. One of their most notable capabilities is multi-step reasoning, allowing users to ask complex questions in a single query and receive comprehensive, customized results. For instance, a query about finding the best barbershop or Yoga studio in NYC now yields a detailed results page that previously would have required multiple searches and visits to different websites.


These advancements reduce the need for multiple search queries and directly impact how users interact with search engines. Users who find the information they need directly in the AI overview are less likely to visit your website. This can lead to a decrease in your website's traffic and harm your search engine optimization efforts. Lower traffic means fewer opportunities for user engagement, ad impressions, and conversions, directly affecting your site's revenue and growth. Furthermore, reduced traffic can negatively impact your website's search engine rankings over time, creating a vicious cycle where decreased visibility leads to even lower traffic.


Moreover, only a few link cards are shown in AI Overviews, making it a "winner takes all" scenario where smaller publishers might struggle if sites with greater authority dominate these spots.


This could threaten the web traffic of "millions of marketers, creators, and publishers" who rely on Google's search traffic. Rather than a diverse, user-created internet, the result could be a system where just a handful of large companies provide information. Centralizing information within Google's ecosystem could reduce content diversity and the number of voices available online. This monopolization of information flow is a significant concern for the web. As Google becomes more adept at providing comprehensive answers, user reliance on its services will likely increase. This growing dependence could stifle competition and innovation. The extensive data collection required for personalized AI features raises significant privacy issues. Ensuring user consent and data security will be paramount as AI evolves.


However, according to BrightEdge, Google significantly reduced the number of search results showing the SGE in April by 40%, from 65% at the start of the month to around 25% by the end. Additionally, the height of the SGE element was reduced by about 15%, from an average of 1200 pixels to 1050 pixels. As such, Google may be attempting to optimize the user interface and search experience while ensuring that traditional ads still have prominence and visibility. This indicates a nuanced approach to integrating AI overviews rather than prioritizing them over other elements.


Impact on Content Creators and Consumers


If users increasingly consume AI-generated content in search results, the demand for "human" content decreases. The shift to AI-generated summaries can undermine the value of unique, high-quality content produced by humans, making it harder for content creators to monetize their work through ad revenue, subscriptions, or sponsorships. Additionally,


human authors' creative and nuanced perspectives may be undervalued, leading to a homogenized content landscape dominated by AI outputs.


As mentioned above, AI can't yet boast of providing truly high-quality information. It still regularly "hallucinates" and provides unreliable information that needs to be verified manually. This poses a significant risk to content consumers who rely on AI overviews for accurate and trustworthy information. Misinformation can have severe consequences in critical areas such as health, finance, and legal advice. For instance, erroneous AI Overviews have been found for some YMYL (Your Money, Your Life) queries, including searches related to health, mental health, finances, and well-being—crucial information that can significantly impact users' lives.


Consumers may need to develop new habits of cross-checking AI-provided information with reliable sources, which could be time-consuming and counterproductive. Moreover, over-reliance on AI-generated content could diminish critical thinking skills as consumers might start accepting AI responses at face value without questioning their accuracy.


This shift in behavior presents a significant opportunity for innovation.


Startups can capitalize on this demand by creating AI-based products that specialize in verifying AI-generated information.


Such tools could be invaluable across various sectors, particularly in media, academia, scientific research, R&D, and other domains that rely heavily on accurate information. By developing applications that ensure the reliability of AI content, these startups could address a crucial need in both B2C and B2B markets, fostering greater trust and dependability in AI-driven insights.


For marketers, this shift raises questions about traffic impact. However, there is a silver lining: according to Hema Bhuttaraju, the senior director of the AI Overviews project, link cards within AI Overviews generate a higher click-through rate than traditional web search results. Moreover, Google has announced that impressions and clicks from AI overviews will be tracked in the Search Console, providing marketers with data on their performance in this new search paradigm.


Mark Traphagen, VP of Product Marketing and Training for seoClarity, states, "Most AI responses target long-tail, low search volume queries, which are generally unlikely to significantly impact most sites." He also found that AI Overviews primarily appear for informational queries—when users want to do something, learn steps, or complete a task. However, the number of queries that deserve summaries (QDS) for AI Overviews has significantly decreased compared to the SGE for informational queries. This suggests that while AI overviews are used for specific types of queries, their overall presence and relevance have diminished compared to other informational tools like SGE.


Conclusion


In conclusion, while AI Overviews present both challenges and opportunities, their overall impact on high-traffic websites and critical SEO strategies may be limited. The immediate threat is more significant for smaller publishers and content creators, who may see their visibility and traffic decrease. However, businesses and content creators can continue to thrive by focusing on high-quality, unique content that addresses more complex and high-volume queries. As AI technology evolves, all stakeholders must adapt and find ways to coexist with AI-generated content, ensuring a balanced and diverse digital landscape.


BTW, Hackernoon’s poll on AI Overviews is still open. You’re welcome to share your input and see the interim results!