At the Google I/O conference on the 14th of May 2024, the long-awaited announcement of their Search Generative Experience rollout was finally delivered. 

While mostly what we expected, there are still plenty of kinks to iron out for Google and site owners need to be prepared for the impact this could have on their site traffic.

What is SGE?

Google’s Search Generative Experience (SGE) has been an ongoing test of introducing AI-generated results into their Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). It’s a controversial topic in the digital marketing industry as it represents one of the biggest shifts in the layout of the world’s biggest search engine in many years. 

While there have been plenty of updates and additions to the way search looks, such as Featured Snippets and Knowledge Graph panels, the introduction of what Google now calls AI Overviews could have a greater impact than either of these.


What are AI Overviews?

AI Overviews are what Google has named the official rollout of SGE. They are summaries of content or answers to questions placed at the top of search results in a way that aims to solve a user query in the SERP itself, rather than directing them to another website.

During development, SGE underwent lots of variations in how it looked, but with AI Overviews we now know what to expect.

Image credit: Google

As we can see in one of the examples from Google’s announcement at the I/O conference, AI Overviews can generate an answer to a user question using the collective knowledge of all of the websites that might rank for that search.

Image Credit: Google
It includes links to some of those websites within the generated result - including a heading, short extract and the site name and favicon. 

It’s worth noting that while the announcement has been made and these results are going live - it is a very limited rollout so far. Plagued by the usual issues around LLMs (Large Language Models that use AI to create natural-sounding responses to prompts) including factual inaccuracies, as well as potential legal questions around plagiarism, the likelihood of AI overviews appearing on all of our searches any time soon is slim. It’s also likely that we’ll start to see Google incorporating sponsored content and ads within the AI Overviews in some form in the near future, which might be indicative of where they see the biggest benefit from this new feature.

This appears to be reflected in the data so far, as data from Semrush Sensor indicates that AI Overviews only appear on 0.22% of queries in the US mobile SERPs and don’t appear at all in their UK database. These appearances vary in terms of the type of query they are appearing for, with simple and question-based searches seeing the most.


What does it mean for users today?

The goal of the introduction of AI-generated answers in search engines is for Google to be able to provide a fast and concise solution to a user’s request, without them needing to leave the results page.

In a lot of cases, this isn’t happening in a way that benefits users currently. Not only does the surfacing of incorrect information harm the user’s ability to solve their problem in the short-term, it erodes long-term trust in Google’s ability to provide the information they need. For searches that don’t have a strong body of truth to support them, users could find the answers AI Overviews provides today to be less than stellar.


What does it mean for users in the future?

While it may not live up to its potential today - as AI technology improves and Google can put up safeguards and guidelines for the generated answers, this could be the start of a new age of information access.

The possibility of receiving an effective and comprehensive answer to your query that is able to summarise and eliminate bias is exciting - especially in a world where each potential source of truth has its own take. The synthesis of multiple sources to generate a more balanced result could have huge benefits.

Not only that but for users who have struggled with the output delivered by voice assistant searches so far, a more conversational and generative response could be the shot in the arm that voice search needs to become truly mainstream. Google’s experiments with SGE and the rollout of AI Overviews are no doubt already being explored for other potential applications like this.


What does this mean for site owners?

It’s important to stress that as it stands it’s unlikely businesses will see much impact on their site traffic from the rollout of AI Overviews - purely due to the limited number of searches being affected.

However, as Google irons out issues and no doubt looks to expand its inclusion over time - it’s important to talk about some of the potential issues it may cause for site owners.


Your content is pushed down the results page

Firstly and arguably most importantly, the introduction of a large, content-heavy section above the traditional organic link results is likely to have a detrimental impact on clickthrough rate. We see in non-AI Overview SERPs that the higher a site ranks, the significantly higher the likely clickthrough rate. This accelerates up to the first position, meaning the drop off in users further down the page gets increasingly large with scroll depth.

When considering the difference between position 1 and 2 as potentially a big influence on clickthrough - adding a section as large as the AI Overview result, is likely to decrease the number of users that scroll far enough to see sites ranking further down the first page.


There’s less reason to click through to your site

Not only do users have to scroll further to reach organic site links, but for some queries, they may no longer need to click on a link at all. If the AI Overviews answer is sufficient to answer a user’s problem, then there’s less of a reason for them to click into any of the ranking websites that traditionally might have received a click.

This will impact site traffic for any of those sites that are competing on SERPs that can have their queries answered effectively within the bounds of an AI Overviews answer.


There’s a new snippet to rank in

It might not all be negative though, as the inclusion of site links and references within the AI Overviews feature means there’s a new way to appear high up in the SERPs, potentially above all organic results in the same way that Featured Snippets have offered before.

If your content is deemed strong enough or useful enough to users it might then include a link back to your content in its AI-generated result. It’s too early to say how many users are actually clicking through to these links. However, so it would be a risky move to aim for this as a new SEO strategy just yet.


The customer journey is changing

With both of the largest search engines now incorporating generative AI into their search results, the trajectory is fairly clear. The tantalising benefit of being able to answer user queries and solve their problems without needing to leave the SERP is too compelling for ad-revenue-driven business models.

Combine this with the fact that a simpler and faster way for users to find what they’re looking for is going to convince plenty of audiences to shift their search behaviour and it might be time for a rethink of the customer journey.

As site owners and marketing strategists, we need to consider how these changes will affect our approach. It might be that we’re consistently able to get our content linked from the AI Overview but if not are there other avenues that we can consider? Can we see patterns in the types of queries that Google can’t easily answer - would our content be able to fill that niche?

It’s likely that brand recognition, direct search and value-driven searches such as for tools or downloads, will become even more valuable as the steps to moving a customer into the funnel become more difficult. Where sites can offer experiences or value that can’t be replicated by generative AI they are likely to see less of an impact.


What’s next for AI in Search?

While Google has been determined to press on with the inclusion of AI-generated results in its search engine, there are numerous challenges facing it now the rollout has begun.

The Google Forums have been flooded with confused and angry users looking to remove the feature as it is no longer limited to an opt-in experiment in Search Labs. While it’s unlikely that this alone will convince Google to change tack, the reduction in occurrences of AI Overviews in the Semrush Sensor database since the announcement indicates they have seen a potentially negative reaction.

There also remains the inherent risk around providing AI-generated answers to users in a search engine, especially on important topics. If AI Overviews responds with factually incorrect information on a topic such as health or finance it could have disastrous results. 

Another challenge might even be the nature of the generation itself. With site owners potentially seeing their content being used to power an AI result without receiving any clicks to their website - pressure might grow on Google to provide more in the way of recompense or credit to the sources it pulls from. There are plenty of examples being shared online of AI Overviews even copying text word-for-word from websites in a similar fashion to Featured Snippets, but on a much larger scale.

Google is treading a thin line when it comes to introducing AI into their results thanks to all these issues, so while in the long-term it’s likely we’ll see AI Overviews remain - one can imagine they’ll press forward more delicately than they otherwise might want to.


What should site owners do?

There’s nothing to indicate that AI Overviews represent anything like an existential threat to websites looking to gain traffic from SEO. With a proportionally tiny level of appearance across all searches so far, the impact on traffic will be minor.

Even where the results do appear, it’s likely that the search terms they appear on are more top-level queries looking to answer a simple question. This means that while the traffic loss to sites that are affected might be present, the quality of that traffic and commercial intent is likely lower - leading to a lesser impact on revenue generated from non-advertising sources.

All of this means that a strong SEO strategy to identify not just where to find high quantities of traffic, but high-quality traffic, is still essential to most businesses. Ensuring that your site offers users an experience and level of information that is helpful to users remains one of the best ways to shield revenues from the impact of AI.


Key Takeaways

  • Google has introduced AI Overviews to live search engine results, an official rollout of what was previously known in testing as SGE (Search Generative Experience).
  • These AI-generated results summarise and explain an answer to the users’ searched query. This includes headings, images and some links to relevant pages.
  • So far the number of these results appearing automatically is very limited, so represents a minimal impact on site traffic.
  • The big increase in the pixel depth (how far down a results page something appears) of organic content will likely lead to a reduction in clickthrough rates and therefore traffic.
  • Site owners who gain significant organic traffic from simple terms or queries that could be easily answered by AI are likely to be the worst affected.
  • It’s possible to rank for these AI Overviews by appearing as one of the links included in the result.
  • As the results improve, users are likely to shift their behaviour to spend more time in the search engine rather than on-site pages, so marketing strategies will likely need to adjust in the future.

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Matt is a search aficionado and verified spreadsheet nerd. Helping brands get great content in front of the right people - driving traffic and leads through organic search, he’s always on-hand with a Google Sheets tip or an important nugget of data. 

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