The landscape of online search is on the brink of a significant transformation, driven by generative artificial intelligence (AI) tools like ChatGPT. Tech giants such as Google and Microsoft are championing these AI-driven solutions, which have the potential to revolutionize how users access information on the internet. This transformation could spell the end for the $68 billion search engine optimization (SEO) industry, which has thrived for the past 25 years.
The role of SEO
For decades, websites, news outlets, and blogs have relied on SEO techniques to enhance their visibility on search engines like Google and Bing. SEO involves optimizing content to appear higher in search results, attracting more visitors to websites. This industry has given rise to a plethora of consultants and marketers who offer expertise in improving SEO strategies.
How online search works
Traditionally, users searching for information would enter keywords into a search engine, which would then present a list of URLs in the search results. To garner user attention, online content providers have employed various strategies, including SEO, paid placements, and banner displays.
The emergence of generative AI
Generative AI is changing the landscape of online search. Major search engines like Google, Microsoft, Baidu, and DuckDuckGo are already adopting or experimenting with generative AI solutions like Google’s Bard and Microsoft’s Bing AI. Unlike traditional search results, generative AI provides users with direct text answers to their queries.
For example, if a user wants a three-day itinerary for a trip to Destin, Florida, they can simply input their request, and generative AI will generate a detailed itinerary. This eliminates the need to click through multiple links and read various web pages.
The impact on SEO
As generative AI improves in quality, users will have less incentive to browse through traditional search result listings. This shift threatens the SEO industry as users bypass paid links and efforts to enhance SEO scores, rendering them ineffective.
The SEO industry generated a substantial $68.1 billion globally in 2022, with projections of reaching $129.6 billion by 2030. However, the rise of generative AI puts this industry at risk of obsolescence.
The financial implications
Search engines, like Google, rely heavily on monetizing online search services. A significant portion of Google’s 2022 revenue, approximately 58%, came from Google Ads and related services within the field of search engine marketing.
While large tech companies may find ways to adapt and monetize generative AI answers, SEO marketers and consultants, primarily small- and medium-sized businesses, may face a bleak future.
Despite the potential disruption, the SEO industry is not likely to fade away immediately. Generative AI search engines are still in their early stages and face challenges, including issues with incorrect, plagiarized, or fabricated answers. Gaining users’ trust remains a hurdle.
However, considering the resources invested in improving generative AI models, it’s safe to assume that these models will continue to advance. As they become more reliable and accurate, the SEO industry’s relevance may diminish over time.
Generative AI is poised to transform online search, making it more user-friendly and efficient. While it may pose challenges for the SEO industry, the transition will likely be gradual, giving businesses time to adapt to this new era of search.
Ravi Sen is an Associate Professor of Information and Operations Management at Texas A&M University.