By Dave Colgate, Head of Enterprise SEO at Vertical Leap
Last year, a story broke in the New York Times about an American 15-year-old who, instead of doing a Google search to find out how to get a letter of recommendation for her high school application, turned to TikTok for information instead.
That’s not how most people expect TikTok to be used – its reputation is more for mindless scrolling through dance videos and funny clips. But as the quantity and range of content on platforms like TikTok continues to grow, younger generations are increasingly looking towards them to deliver their search needs.
TikTok can offer users answers to their questions from people they know, trust, like and follow, as opposed to anonymous text-based search results. The video- and voice-driven experience is conversational and quick; looking at the way social platforms have homogenised towards the same 6-10 second video format, we know how short Gen Z’s window of interest is.
Now we have the explosion of generative AI to contend with, with chatbots like ChatGPT and Google Bard again offering users a very conversational experience. Meanwhile, traditional search engines like Google and Bing risk losing ground, and that’s going to have major implications for marketers.
Searching for a response
The search engines are clearly concerned about this trend, as they respond with new features which reimagine the search experience as an AI-powered environment.
In May, Google launched an experimental project called the ‘Search Generative Experience’ (SGE). It uses generative AI to condense information from its millions of search results into a single, concise answer to a user’s question, saving them from surfing through web pages.
While it’s not technically a chatbot like ChatGPT or Google Bard, it’s clear SGE is meant to mimic that feeling of conversation which other platforms can deliver. There’s now even a ‘Converse’ button, which takes users through to a chat-style interface where they can ask follow-up questions.
To a degree, SGE tries to emulate that same experience of sourcing answers from a trusted community that users get from TikTok. In fact, SGE has just added images and video to its capabilities.
I suspect that once SGE comes out of beta testing, it’ll quickly become the new normal. Liked or loathed, we won’t have much choice but to embrace it.
And it will be loathed by some. There are drawbacks with these developments, particularly from a marketing perspective. The AI may ultimately reduce traffic to websites, as Google gathers the information and presents it within its own interface.
On the plus side, these features will really bring quality content to light and elevate those brands which are correctly optimising their SEO strategy.
How can brands adapt to this new world of search?
The good news is, there’s not a huge amount marketers need to do differently to adapt their SEO to this new way of searching. However, you do need to be doing the basics really well. Everything needs to be in the correct place from a foundational perspective; otherwise, that house you’re building won’t stay standing for long.
Of course, that includes the technical side of things. Taking advantage of structured data as much as possible and staying on top of any changes in how it works is particularly important, as some of the technologies these search engines are releasing will also rely on it to find the correct information.
But it also means making sure the website is working as well as it can be, from a seamless user experience right through to the content being as thorough and in depth as it should be. Marketers have to think about the user first; what are consumers trying to find and what do they need in order to make that buying decision?
If you’re doing all of those things really well, then it doesn’t matter what new platforms and tools come out. You’ll still have good opportunities to gain visibility in any of them and to connect with consumers in this new era of conversational search.