Search Experience Optimisation vs Search Engine Optimization

Jan 31, 2024


min read

The Search Engine Results Pages (SERPS) are a rapidly changing landscape, changing more rapidly than the British weather and probably talked about just as much. 

The issue lies in the fact that Google's greatest asset can also be its greatest liability. Google's primary objective is to remain the top search engine in the world. They aim to do this by providing users with the information they seek in the shortest time possible. Recently, this has come to the detriment of the websites that originally published the information.

The Evolution of Google's Role

You see, in its early days, Google functioned much like a helpful librarian. It directed users to the specific corners of the web where they could potentially find the answers they were looking for. Over time Google has attempted to become an oracle. We've seen this with the introduction of the Knowledge graph in 2012 and featured snippets in 2013 (initially called "quick answers").

You type in an answer, and they attempt to give you the answer for it right there on the SERP pages 👇

Google SERP results

The Double-Edged Sword for Users and Web Owners

For users, it's absolutely fantastic! Getting answers to our queries in a matter of seconds is simply incredible.

However, for web owners and content creators, it can be a disaster. The content they painstakingly crafted to drive traffic to their websites has largely become obsolete as users are no longer landing on their websites. 

What's even more frustrating is that, as SEOs, we may have unwittingly contributed to this situation. While this isn't the time for conspiracy theories, there's been much speculation about whether Google sold us the schema markup as a means to help their crawlers scrape our content faster, and if the new "rel sponsored" attribute we're urged to add to affiliate links is an attempt by Google to rapidly train their models to better understand affiliate content.

Izzi Smith tweet

I'll always remember the story of - a website whose primary objective is to rank (and get traffic) when you search for queries like: "Tom Hanks net worth". In 2014 the owner of the site, Warner, received an email from Google. The email inquired whether he would be willing to grant Google access to his data, allowing them to scrape it for their Knowledge Graph project.

Here is a snippet from that email:

“We get a good amount of search queries about net worth of celebrities and important people. I am tasked with finding an authoritative source, and Currently am exploring sources for Net Worth of Celebrities datasets. The ultimate goal is to enhance user experience at Google Search [...] I was reviewing your website, and your collection looks comprehensive… if you can share a small sample dataset in a spreadsheet, perhaps 10 celebrities with metadata, that will help me/team evaluate and see how it fits within our schema.”

Consequences of Google's Request

If approved, any Google search for a celebrity's net worth would display the answer in a featured snippet. While Warner was told that he would receive a link to his site, he knew it would significantly reduce his overall traffic. So Warner declined, questioning the benefit to his brand.

In February 2016, Google proceeded to take the data anyway. Featured Snippets appeared for each of the 25,000 celebrities in the CelebrityNetWorth database. This resulted in a drastic 65% decline in website traffic from January 2016 to January 2017. Warner had to lay off half his staff. To make matters worse, many Featured Snippets failed to credit CelebrityNetWorth as the original source.

google Featured Snippets

We see similar stories across many industries; most notably the travel and job sector.

For the past 25 years, SEOs have been engaged in a perpetual salsa dance with Google. Visualize Google as the lead dancer, advancing steadily toward their objectives with every new release. On the other hand, website owners and content creators, resembling the followers, blindly step backward, gradually nearing a perilous cliff edge.

Impact on Website Owners and Content Creators

Each major change implemented by Google gradually reduces reliance on the traditional "10-blue links" that were prevalent a decade ago. Over the years Google has introduced more search ads, and decreased the prominence of these ads, pushing organic results further down the page. It has also introduced a swathe of new features including featured snippets, image carousels, knowledge graphs, video carousels, map packs, and more. The purpose of these features is to encourage user exploration rather than simply clicking a blue link and accessing the associated content. It is, to be fair, largely better for the user. 

It does mean, however, that SEOs and content marketers are increasingly struggling with the following:

  • Truly understanding where their content "ranks". If you ranked organically in position 1 ten years ago, you could guarantee you'd be benefitting from a decent amount of visibility.  Now position 1 might mean you are significantly far down the SERP page, buried under a load of ads and other interactive content (AWR has been using ‘pixel position’ tracking for some time now to help provide a more accurate understanding of rankings). 

  • Understanding what keywords to prioritise. We talk a lot about optimising towards "keyword intent" (at Keyword Insights, we actually have our own metric called Keyword Context) and prioritising keywords with the most volume and the least competition. With all these new features, content creators will also have to prioritise content based on the SERP features. Why spend lots of time creating written content when you know the SERPs will be dominated by video carousels?

  • Website owners face challenges when justifying the creation of content and other assets to key stakeholders, particularly when it comes to written content. Content creation can be a costly endeavour, and if the immediate impact on revenue is not clearly demonstrated, there is a risk that content may be cut or reduced.

Arguably, these challenges are about to get a lot more pronounced with the imminent introduction of Google Search Generation Experience (SGE). 

What Is Search Generative Experience?

On May 10, 2023, Google announced the limited beta release of a new integration known as "Search Generative Experience" (SGE). This integration incorporates generative AI technology, specifically the technology used in ChatGPT, to transform the way users interact with search results.

SGE utilizes generative AI to generate short essay-style answers for search queries, accompanied by suggested sources for additional information. These answers are presented in a chat-style format, offering a conversational and comprehensive search experience. For shopping-related searches, SGE may also include a product carousel.

SGE utilizes generative AI

There's a great review of exactly how SGE works, and what it looks like, here. It's expected to launch in January 2024 and will undoubtedly change the way users interact with search again. 

Google's AI, known as BARD, has the ability to summarize a wide range of written documents available in its index. Whether it's reviews, articles, guides, or any other written content, BARD utilizes its advanced capabilities to extract key information and present users with more balanced and comprehensive summaries. If Google is able to summarise and recommend all the information on which mountain bike would suit you best in some very specific condition, why would a reader need to click and read a whole article and discern for themselves?

The good news here is that early testers have also noticed a greater inclination from Google towards including a greater variety of content types in search results. This expansion may even encompass platforms like TikTok and Instagram, particularly when related to influencers within specific niches. In fact, we're already starting to see signs of this on current search engine results pages.

Carrie Rose, founder of the creative agency Rise at 7 has noticed similar trends as can be seen in this tweet.

Carrie Rose Tweet

Such a move would make sense. In recent years a lot of content has been based on other people's content. Affiliates are writing reviews on products they haven't actually reviewed by using generative AI or by amalgamating and rewriting other people's reviews. Travel guides are recommending places they haven't been to in a similar fashion. 

If Google wants people to keep coming back to its search engine, it'll need to make sure users can trust they are getting authentic and original reviews, and in the format they prefer. We're already seeing a shift in search behavior for certain queries for this very reason. Over the last 5 years, we've seen a declining trend in people searching for "bars London" on Google:

search behavior changes for certain queries

However, on platforms like TikTok, the trend is the opposite...

TikTok search trends

It's not just TikTok that's taking Google's traffic either. Ask any home decor enthusiast where they're searching for "bathroom ideas". Most will tell you it's Pinterest. 

Believe it or not, people don't always want the same 20 bar and restaurant recommendations in London that 10 different articles are recommending. They also don't want to read about them. They want something more visual. Moreover, they want it from a source they can trust. Someone who's well known for reviewing this type of thing or going to that sort of place. It's not that fewer people are searching for a term, they're just searching elsewhere. 

Google knows this. So not only will it provide you with its own AI summarization of a number of articles, but I believe we'll see an increase in direct links to other sources such as influential TikTok, Instagram and Pinterest accounts for a number of specific queries. It needs to do this to ensure people still come back to Google to search so that it can still control the narrative somewhat. 

It may be worth noting at this point, that no one really knows to what extent Google will actually roll out their AI. At the end of the day, they still need to make money from advertising. Very recently it seems they're already testing a "scaled-back" version of their SGE.

Okay cool - so what do we do about all this?

Approach Written Content Differently

Well firstly, don't abandon your written content altogether. It's useful for more than just ranking in its own right. You should be using it to build links to and, in turn, internally link to other pages within your site. It'll also build your site up as an authority on a given topic. Search engines view your website as an entire corpus of documents, so if you want to rank in a given niche or for a given product, you stand a better chance if you create lots of relevant content around it. 

For the written content you do produce, it needs to be done more efficiently to make it worthwhile. There is a lot of debate around using AI for content generation. Personally, we say DO IT. But do it right. You still need to add personal experiences, original thoughts and new insights - none of which will come from AI generation tools. But there are often mundane explanations, introductions, content outlines,  summaries and general content rewording that make you sound smarter that you can push to AI. 

To be honest, I used AI when writing this article on Tangential content. The post got 17k views within a few weeks and took me ages to write. However, the AI helped me to reword some of my sentences that didn't make sense or give examples of a concept when I had run out of ideas. Being able to do that alone must have knocked at least 3-4 hours of writing time. But the examples and ideas are definitely mine. That's why, at Keyword Insights, we've designed our own AI writing generator to help you get the best from both worlds. The workflow is set up in a way which encourages AI - Human collaboration rather than pure AI generation. 

Try to establish 3D intent

Going forward, you may want to view keywords with a "second layer of intent", so to speak. Rather than just saying "this keyword is informational" it may be useful to know "This keyword is informational, AND for THIS audience, it would probably do better on TikTok". 

You'd then want to create content which aligns with this "second level" of intent. I call it "3D intent" because we're effectively trying to add a 3rd dimension of intent to a keyword. 

Build your brand

While Google continues to change the appearance and experience of SERP results it has become evident that relying solely on top-of-the-funnel lead generation content may not bring as many visitors to your website as it once did.

However, branded queries are something that Google cannot take away. Building a strong brand presence helps your website stand out amidst these changes and ensures that your brand retains visibility and remains memorable to users. 

Here are some key reasons why focusing on brand building is crucial for successful SEO:

  1. Brand Trust and Credibility - Establishing a strong brand creates trust and credibility among users. When people recognize and trust your brand, they are more likely to click on your search results and visit your website.

  2. Increased Click-through Rate (CTR) - A well-known brand enhances your website's organic click through rate (CTR). Users are more inclined to click on search results that display your brand, as it gives them a sense of familiarity and trust.

  3. Protection Against Algorithm Changes - Algorithm updates can significantly impact organic search visibility. However, a strong brand presence can mitigate the effects of these changes. People who search specifically for your brand are likely to find your website prominently displayed, regardless of any alterations in the SERPs.

  4. User Engagement and Loyalty - Building a brand encourages user engagement and loyalty. When users have positive experiences with your brand, they are more likely to revisit your website, engage with your content, and become loyal customers.

Investing in brand-building initiatives, such as working in collaboration with influencers, providing exceptional customer experiences, and consistently delivering valuable content (across various channels), can contribute to long-term SEO success. By focusing on building your brand, you can create a solid foundation that withstands the ever-changing SEO landscape and ensures sustained visibility and growth for your website.

Simon Cox Tweet

Source: Twitter (Simon Cox)

Carrie Rose Tweet

Source: Twitter (Carrie Rose)

Embrace Search Experience Optimisation

I used this term at the very beginning of the article. To be transparent, I have not coined the term "optimising for search experience". I can't remember exactly where I heard it but it is likely that it was from key proponents of multi-channelled approaches to SEO like Lily Ray or Carrie Rose

In any case, it's the crux of this article and I hope the narrative has become clear. To succeed as "SEOs", we'll need to adapt and think of ourselves more as "Search Experience Optimisers" (SXO) rather than "Search Engine Optimisers". If our audience is on TikTok for a certain query, we need to ensure we're there. If it's Pinterest, we'll need to be there. 

Understanding Audience Behaviour Across Platforms

In most niches, the audience's search journey is diversified across various platforms. Let's consider a scenario where someone is looking to renovate their bathroom. The search process might unfold as follows:

1. Exploring Ideas on Pinterest

The audience begins their search by seeking bathroom inspiration on platforms like Pinterest. They may look for keywords such as "bathroom ideas" and browse through the visually appealing images for design inspiration.

2. Discovering Gadgets on TikTok

During their exploration on Pinterest, they come across a bathroom gadget that catches their attention, like a convenient electric toothbrush holder. Curious to explore more gadgets, they turn to TikTok and search for "cool Amazon gadgets for the bathroom" to find engaging and entertaining video content.

3. Learning Techniques on YouTube

Once the audience has gathered ideas and gadgets, they take their interest to YouTube. They search for videos that demonstrate bathroom renovation techniques, specifically focusing on topics like tiling, to gain practical knowledge and insights.

4. Purchasing and Comparing on Google

Equipped with knowledge and inspiration, the audience is ready to make informed buying decisions. They turn to Google to search for specific bathroom parts, compare prices, and read reviews from various bathroom suppliers, ensuring they make the right purchase.

Understanding the diverse platforms and stages of the audience's search journey allows businesses to tailor their content accordingly. This is the "3D intent" I was referring to earlier. 

As I said, Google will want to keep people using Google, even if they end up on TikTok. So expect more TikTok videos, Instagram reels and many other media types to start becoming more prolific in the search results. Your job as an SEO will be to optimise the experience of potential customers meaning gaining a deeper understanding of where they will be and the type of content they will want to consume. 

Instead of just tracking where you are within 10 blue links, you'll need to start thinking about tracking your entire share of voice across various platforms. Depending on your industry, the importance of these platforms will be weighted differently too. 

To sum up

In conclusion, the ever-evolving landscape of search engine results pages (SERPs) is challenging traditional SEO practices. Google's focus on enhancing user experience through features like featured snippets and AI-driven search experiences is reshaping the digital marketing landscape. 

To adapt and thrive in this new era, SEO professionals must shift their mindset from Search Engine Optimization (SEO) to Search Experience Optimization (SXO). This entails understanding audience behaviour across diverse platforms, embracing AI tools for a content generation while preserving originality, and building a strong brand presence to maintain visibility in the face of ongoing SERP changes. 

As the search journey becomes more multi-dimensional, SEOs must evolve to optimize the entire user experience, ensuring businesses stay relevant and accessible to their target audiences across various media platforms.

Happy optimising!

Article by

Andy Chadwick

Andy Chadwick is co-founder of Keyword Insights, the go-to SaaS tool for SEOs to supercharge their keyword research. 

Like many of the best tools, Keyword Insights was borne of SEO hardship and necessity: Andy served his time as a hands-on SEO and boasts a solid career of industry experience and success. 

Not content with only shaking up the SEO SaaS world, Andy is also co-founder of Snippet Consulting, a Boutique SEO consulting firm.

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