A Guide to Google’s Search Generative Experience

  • Categories:

    Industry Trends, Search

  • Date:

    May 7, 2024

A Guide to Google’s Search Generative Experience

Industry Trends Search

Since the publication of this article, Google has announced as of May 14, 2024 that AI Overviews (formerly known as Search Generative Experience) will begin rolling out to everyone in the U.S., with more countries coming soon. Be sure to check back as we follow these changes and their impact on organic search.

You’ve likely been searching and getting your answers from artificial intelligence for years (think: featured snippets). It’s also likely that because you’re reading this article, you’ve heard of Google’s Search Generative Experience. These AI-generated overviews are just the beginning of a huge shift in the organic search landscape.

What is Google Search Generative Experience?

In short, Search Generative Experience is an initiative from Google to make search results more efficient and to encourage user interaction using AI-powered snapshots that can answer descriptive queries.

Googe’s introduction of AI-powered search is intended to be a positive tool to help users explore the web with more ease and efficiency. But these changes to the search results as we’ve known them pose a challenge to marketers who want their brand to remain competitive on search engine results pages.

How Google SGE Works

While SGE is making huge waves in the search community, it isn’t the first example of AI powering search results. Machine-learning algorithms have been part of Google Search since the mid-2000s. In 2014, the featured snippet took Search a step further, giving users who phrase their search as a question a webpage excerpt that succinctly answers that question. The featured snippet is usually at the top of the search results in what SEO professionals call position zero.

In 2024, consider SGE an extension of Google’s featured snippets. While you may not think of featured snippets as an output of AI, they are similar to SGE in that certain search queries produce an excerpt of text taken from a source that the algorithm deems best at answering a specific query.

One main difference here, however, is that rather than pulling a result from a single source, the SGE output synthesizes a range of results. Google SGE uses AI to serve up a response that gives users a succinct answer based on multiple sources. These AI-generated snapshots connect to the user’s search intent and can pull together cohesive responses with key information and jumping-off points with links for users who want to learn more.

How to Access Google SGE

As of April 2024, SGE is still in the experimental phase. That said, users can sign up to join the waitlist by going to Google Search Labs.

(If you’ve already seen and used SGE but do not work predominantly in SEO, you may be scratching your head. In early 2024, Google started testing AI-generated overviews for a small percentage of users in the United States who had not opted into the SGE labs feature — part of an effort to get feedback from users who had not previously signed up for SGE in Search Labs.)

Benefits and Drawbacks of Google SGE

I’ve been using SGE since I got access in June 2023. In almost a year of real-world testing, I’ve noticed pros and cons, as with most new technology. But more often than not, SGE has benefited me as a user.

In my experience, the helpfulness of SGE depends on the query type:

  • I like the synopsis of different sources with links for informational queries.

  • The AI-generated snapshots are easy to digest.

  • I appreciate the opt-in feature (“show more”) in place of a massive interface that takes ages to scroll.

With that being said, SGE is not without its faults. Google’s experiment has faced a few criticisms including:

  • Redundancy

  • References to low-quality sources

  • Factual inaccuracies

  • Biases

SGE is promising but faces a long road considering that different types of queries bring such varying results today.

What does Google SGE mean for search engine optimization?

The launch of SGE in May 2023 caused panic in the SEO community. Ranking on the first page of SERPs is already a highly competitive aim, and with a giant, AI-generated box taking up so much precious organic real estate, the uphill battle appeared steeper than ever.

But maybe the current state of SEO is not so different after all. Links to sources that Google uses to generate answers are still present. It’s likely true that AI-generated answers will result in lower click-through rates, but how different is this from the zero-click content that SEO pros have dealt with since the launch of the featured snippet a decade ago?

Example: This blog article earned a featured snippet for “stc rating wall assembly” in a normal Google search.

Example: The same query in SGE resulted in a different synopsized answer. However, the same blog article is linked first as a source.

One thing is certain: Generic keywords will become even harder to rank for, and zero-click searches will rise. As we already see with content appearing in featured snippets, fewer users will click links when the AI-generated answer already gives the searcher what they need. Why would the user progress beyond the SERP for a quick answer if that answer already appears on the SERP? This will lead to less organic traffic for websites, but declining organic search volume isn’t new to seasoned SEO professionals.

Additionally, the way we search is changing rapidly. Gen Zers increasingly use TikTok as a search engine, and answer engines such as Perplexity prioritize giving direct answers using contextual cues.

This means that the organic traffic a website receives is likely to be more qualified. In other words, people who visit your brand’s website to get more information or simply browse are far more likely to convert than users looking for a basic answer.

What does Google SGE mean for content marketing?

Google’s 2024 core updates already showed the importance of original content for success.

AI-powered search aims to get to the gist of a topic more quickly than ever. Yes, Google still serves up links to support that AI-powered answer so users can learn more, but the advent of SGE signals a quick death for content that focuses on answering easy questions — without a lot of unique or particularly useful information.

There is (and will continue to be) a massive demand for content addressing questions that can’t be answered easily or quickly. Let’s go back to the featured snippet example: If you want to write about a specific topic for your website and that topic search currently triggers a featured snippet, AI (in this case, SGE) will likely replace that snippet.

We know people are changing their search patterns, using more natural language and long-tail queries. To rank well in future search results, websites must have high-quality, informative content that addresses user needs and intent.

Generative AI excels at providing answers for high-consensus topics (think “what,” “how” and “best” queries). As a result, ranking for these types of generic searches that can easily be answered by AI will become even more challenging. If your content can be summarized in a YouTube tutorial or a simplified answer, it’s probably not going to survive in a post-SGE world.

Example: Basic “how to” queries, such as “how to use a fire extinguisher,” that can be answered by AI alone are becoming more competitive.

However, humans still enjoy exploring and engaging with content, such as recipes and tutorials. This may explain why TikTok, Instagram and other platforms that provide a one-to-one experience with influencers do not significantly disrupt traditional search. While upper-funnel traffic to brands’ websites may decrease, the human desire to browse such websites is likely to persist.

At the end of the day, SGE is still an experiment. We simply don’t know how users will interact with this new approach to search. The bottom line right now? Content that closely resembles the majority of existing information on a given topic is most susceptible to being replaced by search engine–generated results.

And that’s why marketers should continue to create quality content that helps their audience.

What does Google SGE mean for ads in SERPs?

Almost 80% of Google’s revenue is from ads, with over half of that from paid search. Not surprisingly, Google will continue to find a way to advertise in search environments, even within SGE.

For as long as ads have existed within Google, the company has experimented with blending paid and organic listings in SERPs. That won’t change anytime soon. But Google is beginning to integrate ads into SGE in a way that feels natural to the flow of the SERP. I’ve seen a range of examples, both above and below the SGE result. “You May Also Like” text -– similar to the “People Also Ask” label in current SERPs — encourages users to keep engaging with content.

Example: Similar to normal Google search results, “what are” queries typically do not result in sponsored content in SGE.

Example: Queries with commercial intent will result in different types of displays of sponsored content (e.g., “Here are some sunglasses to consider”).

Much like with organic search, brands should keep trying to reach users with the best, most natural result. Google will likely continue to test ad placements for different query types, at least in the near future. This, in turn, may lead to Google making more decisions on when to show a brand’s ad, leaning into machine learning and AI on the Google Ads platform to do so. This would reduce advertisers’ autonomy but, on a positive note, would also help keep SGE from becoming a jarring experience for users.

How Marketers Can Prepare for Google SGE

Above all, lean into what makes your brand unique and the types of content you can publish that AI cannot match.

Here are just a handful of ways to differentiate your website:

  • Use original photography instead of stock photos or AI-generated images.

  • Attribute long-form content to a specific author.

  • Demonstrate firsthand experience through content that is unique to your brand and valuable to your audience.

Despite the recent skepticism, hand-wringing and even doomsday outlooks within the global search community, I’m optimistic that Google’s SGE and other AI-powered technologies will ultimately improve how we search for information.

Want to learn more about how AI technology is transforming the way people search for information online? Read our other SEO articles.

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