SEO in the AI Era: Controlling the Controllables

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Photo of a man with sunglasses looking through a magnifying glass as a metaphore for Search Engine Optimisation by Marten Newhall on Unsplash

Google, AI and SEO

Speaking of revolutions, Google has undoubtedly revolutionised ‘search’ since it first came to market in the late 1990s. In fact, it’s now the dominant player in most global markets and indeed enjoys a 90%+ market share in the UK. Therefore, although ‘other good search engines are available’, for the purposes of this article we’ll refer to Google. In any event, many other search engines work on very similar principles.

Several years ago now, Sundar Pichai (CEO of Alphabet Incorporated and its subsidiary Google) identified two developments which will contribute to revolutionising our world over the next quarter of a century: artificial intelligence and quantum computing. Quantum computing will undoubtedly help fuel AI’s growth and, in turn, AI will fuel a revolution in search engine optimisation (SEO) – or will it?

The reality is that AI is incredibly new and constantly evolving and therefore nobody can be entirely sure of what the future holds. As the old saying goes, “the only constant is change” and this will be applicable to AI and, likewise, applicable to Google and its use of AI technology.

Google’s recent release of AI Overviews in the US wasn’t without its hitches but it does offer a glimpse into the next phase of evolution within search engines, featuring an increasing degree of AI integration. ‘Evolution’ is the operative word here and we should therefore be planning for an evolution in our SEO strategy, rather than a revolution.

Don’t ‘chase the algorithm’

For many years artificial intelligence (AI) has been mooted as ‘the next big thing’, without many of us truly understanding the possibilities or implications of this new technology. Indeed, it’s incredibly difficult to take in the full scope of what lies ahead – after all, the AI era has the potential to revolutionise our society in all manner of ways. It’s the Industrial Revolution of our time.

How do you ensure that your website keeps pace with the changes? Potentially that’s the wrong question to ask. For many years now within the SEO community it’s been considered best practice to not ‘chase the algorithm’. In other words, Google is constantly updating its algorithm and trying to keep pace with this, or even ‘stay ahead’ of it, isn’t sustainable. Crucially, you also risk losing sight of the bigger picture.

So, what is the ‘bigger picture’? Ultimately, Google is consistently striving for the very best search experience it can provide. If your website is likely to contribute positively to that experience – by adhering to some long-standing principles – then you are much more likely to be successful in attracting more organic traffic, with all the benefits that brings.

Controlling the controllables

Which brings us to ‘controlling the controllables’.

As discussed above, rather than trying to play to win in the impossible game of endless anticipation, it’s far better to focus on what you can control and to deliver well on the fundamentals of SEO.

Virtually every site in the world could benefit from at least some improvements to these fundamental elements and indeed most sites typically have many issues which undermine both the user experience (UX) and SEO.

Focus on the ‘three pillars’ of SEO

SEO is the sum of many small parts but there are generally considered to be three overarching pillars – ‘technical’, ‘on-page’ and ‘off-page’. Some sites still perform well with deficiencies in one or more of these areas but to stand the best chance of consistently performing you should aim to ensure:

  • Your site is as technically sound as possible;
  • Your ‘on-page’ content is optimised as well as it can be and;
  • Your ‘off-page’ presence is maximised.

In some respects, SEO has changed a great deal over the past twenty years. However, although there have been many changes, there have also been many constants, particularly when it comes to these three pillars.

Is your site technically sound?

The most typical responses from site owners to this question are “hopefully” and “we think so”. However, perception and reality can often differ and it’s unknown, unseen technical issues which have the potential to cause the biggest problems.

Indeed, much like an iceberg, the most significant issues can lie below the surface. Site owners or their users won’t typically be aware of these problems but they can significantly, negatively affect performance in Google.

The following is far from an exhaustive list – there are a great many technical aspects to consider overall – but here are some illustrative examples:

  • Is your site suffering from ‘index bloat’? A high number of low-quality pages indexed by Google can hamper SEO efforts.
  • Is your site slow? If so, this will have negative effects on UX, conversion rates and SEO.
  • Are there broken links? A common issue with sites and one which again is detrimental to UX and SEO.
  • Can Google crawl all of the content? Sometimes, unbeknown to the site owner, pages or entire sections of the site aren’t easily accessible to Google.

A technically sound website is a fundamental building block – providing solid foundations on which to build upon and ensuring that your on-page efforts aren’t needlessly undermined. Speaking of on-page efforts…

Is your content good enough?

Again, many site owners will respond with “hopefully” or “we think so” but to what extent is the content being fully evaluated against the criteria which Google takes into consideration before choosing where to rank your pages?

The following provides a flavour of considerations:

  • Is your content sufficiently thorough? A common issue is that content doesn’t fully satisfy the search need and/or doesn’t address all of the subtopics and keywords that it should do. Sometimes, by contrast, content is too thorough, diluting focus and Google’s ability to understand the objective of the page.
  • Is the content formatted correctly? Appropriate use of H2 and H3 subheadings is just one of many ways that formatting can aid SEO.
  • Are the meta tags present and optimised? Two questions in one here but ensuring that all of the page titles, H1s etc are functioning correctly and using the correct keywords is important.
  • Is there duplicate or near-duplicate content on your site? This problem is more common than most site owners would imagine and can cause significant SEO issues.
  • Is there an optimal amount of internal linking? Internal links are a key component of successful SEO and yet are often under-utilised.

Is your off-page game up to scratch?

As well as ensuring your site is on a sound technical footing and that the variety of ‘on-page’ aspects are considered, it’s vital to consistently keep an eye on what’s happening ‘off-page’ – in other words, away from the site itself.

Backlinks – links from other sites to your own – continue to play a highly influential role in SEO but other aspects should also be considered. Some examples of the many points to be mindful of are:

  • Have you got enough backlinks? Having a low overall quantity and/or having these from a small number of third-party sites can limit the ability of your website to rank, particularly if you’re in a competitive field.
  • Are some of your backlinks ‘broken’? A fairly common problem and one that creates missed opportunities. Links from other sites pointing to ‘404 error’ pages on your site presents a bad experience for users and negates the effectiveness of the backlink itself. A ‘lose-lose’ situation.
  • How many searches are there for your brand? Brand recognition is of course important for your audience but also for Google. Benchmarking and monitoring brand searches can often become a marketing KPI.

Summary

AI’s role in SEO will constantly evolve in the same way that Google and its algorithm has been evolving for the past two decades.

No doubt the pace of change will hasten, but the smart approach is to avoid trying to hit an ever-moving target and instead ‘control the controllables’ by focusing on widely recognised, long-standing SEO best practices.

As previously mentioned, SEO is the sum of many small parts and therefore look more closely at this wide array of elements and, in turn, consistently deliver the very best website experience you can – particularly from a content and technical perspective. After all, ultimately this is what users and search engines have always, and will always, be looking for.

Need an SEO audit?

We can perform a comprehensive SEO audit of your website, analysing every aspect of your site’s technical, on-page and off-page performance. Over 200 elements are checked, giving you the complete picture in terms of where you currently stand, plus an actionable roadmap towards future improvement.

If you’d like further details, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us today.