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Rethinking Search Marketing in the Age of AI (Thinks Out Loud Episode 397)

Screenshot of Google's Search Generative Experience to illustrate the idea of search marketing in the age of AI

Artificial intelligence is going to dramatically change customer behavior. Businesses like yours beginning to see the effects of this shift because Big Tech gatekeepers are already adapting to the way customers expect the new world to work.

If your business depends on search marketing — and I bet it does, at least to some degree — then you need to rethink search marketing for the new age of artificial intelligence. What does that mean? What do you have to do? How can you make search marketing work for you in a world where consumers carry AI with them everywhere they go? That’s what we’re talking about in this episode of the Thinks Out Loud.

Want to learn more? Here are the show notes for you…

Search Marketing in the Age of AI (Thinks Out Loud Episode 397) Headlines and Show Notes

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You might also enjoy this webinar I recently participated in with Miles Partnership that looked at "The Power of Generative AI and ChatGPT: What It Means for Tourism & Hospitality" here:

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Recorded using a Shure SM7B Vocal Dynamic Microphone and a Focusrite Scarlett 4i4 (3rd Gen) USB Audio Interface into Logic Pro X for the Mac.

Running time: 24m 54s

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Transcript: Search Marketing in the Age of AI

Well hello again and welcome back to Thinks Out Loud, your source for all the digital expertise your business needs. My name is Tim Peter. This is episode 397 of The Big Show. And thank you so much for tuning in. I think we have a really cool show for you today. This is a bit of a follow up to last week’s episode where I talked about why we need to get ready for the way consumer behavior will change as AI becomes more universal, as more people carry an AI in their pocket, much the way they carry a mobile phone in their pocket today. We’re getting closer to that every day. And we’re seeing this in lots of the arenas, lots of the areas where marketers traditionally work.

One of those that’s probably the biggest and it’s the biggest on a lot of levels is search. Search is evolving in some ways dramatically in just huge, huge ways from where we have been or how we think search has worked for a long time. Whether we’re talking about Google’s Search Generative Experience, or Bing’s AI Chat or ChatGPT, or the integration of generative AI assistance like Copilot and Bard into Microsoft 365 and Google Docs, or potentially Google’s new Gemini model.

Search engines have a very different meaning than they once did and are beginning to have a very different meaning than we’ve ever known them to have. For years, I’ve said consumers and customers don’t want a search engine; they want a find engine. And we’re starting to hear people like Google talk about being an answer engine, which is kind of the same thing, right? They’re giving you the answer.

That reality has enormous downstream impacts on your business, especially if you’ve built any of your marketing strategy around content marketing. I have said for a long time that "the modern marketing team is a media company" because of all of the emphasis we put on content, and because of the way you need to think about the emphasis you put on content.

But what’s happening is the search engines, the machines, increasingly know what good content is. So all of the things we’ve always thought, or all of the things you hear the SEO gurus out on the web talk about in terms of how to rank in Google, don’t necessarily matter the way they once did. I’m going to give you some examples of these in just a moment.

The machines though, the algorithms, the AIs, are learning to understand what people want, and they’re much further along than we’re seeing in day to day products. They understand customer intent and what it is people actually are looking for, what they actually care about. And then they’re favoring that content.

You know one of Google’s analysts, a guy by the name of Gary Illyes said at a recent search conference that links are no longer a top three ranking factor. In fact, Google doesn’t need links to know what’s good content or bad content. They also don’t need links to understand whether those links are coming from good sites or bad sites. They already know that, which is a huge shift. If you’re doing lots of like link building, thinking that’s going to help you rank better, it may not. The fact that representatives of Google are saying out that links don’t matter as much as they used to and aren’t a top three ranking factor leads me to believe they’re probably a lot lower on that list than we’ve historically thought.

We’ve also seen that Google has put out some new updates. They have a recent "Helpful Content Update" that has really devalued quite a few sites. A lot of sites have been hit by this. And Google’s focus here is not to hurt your business if you’re one of the folks who got hit here. Instead, they literally said in a blog post authored by Danny Sullivan, that this is about "content for people, by people."

Google is doing a better job at understanding not only your content, but who created it, and whether they’re truly expert in what your content is talking about. What they themselves are talking about.

One of the things that, you know, you may have seen in the past, Google has referred to something called E A T. Expertise, authority, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. Or expert, authority, trust, if you prefer. Well, they’ve recently added another E to that model. Now they’re talking about Double E, A T. And the E they’ve added actually goes at the front. So it’s "Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness."

They don’t just want to know that the person who’s writing this as an expert, they want to know that the person who’s writing your content — or I don’t know, making your podcast or speaking on your video or whatever type of content you’re creating — they want to know that that individual actually has relevant experience in the topic they’re referring to.

So if it’s travel, have they gone to the place? If it’s a recipe, have they actually cooked that before and other things like it? If it’s money advice, do they have experience managing people’s money? If it’s medical information, do they have experience treating disease or illness or various conditions?

They want to know you have experience. One of the reasons they want to know this is because they know better than anybody that there is a lot of AI generated crap out there. I have said many times that content is not expensive, content is cheap. And that content that doesn’t attract customers, content that doesn’t convert, content that doesn’t work for your business is expensive content.

Well, the thing that I never really thought about or never really talked about is content is expensive… for Google. They have to go and crawl it. They have to archive it. You know, they have to store it in their index. And they don’t want to store garbage content. Because it doesn’t help anyone. It floods the zone with crap.

So Google, rightly, increasingly ignores it. They’re saying we don’t want that in the search results. It’s bad for our customers. It’s bad for the overall experience. And let’s be fair: They make their money on search ads, a lot of their money on search ads. It’s bad for their business if they’re highlighting information that nobody wants or needs.

Now, of course, it’s easy to hear this and say, well, maybe search doesn’t matter as much. Maybe search isn’t as big a deal. I myself have asked the question a lot lately about what happens if Google changes dramatically or Google goes away. And I want to start by saying at least right now for most businesses, search is still a big deal.

The idea that search is going away today or tomorrow probably is bullshit. I mean, frankly — and I’ve asked the question because I think you need to be prepared for it when and if it does happen. I also think we have to acknowledge that search is pretty big for most people. I looked at a whole range of clients and companies that I know well, and organic search is no less than 26 percent share for most of the folks I looked at. And it’s the largest share, I would add, for most of the folks I looked at.

If you add paid search, it frequently brings the total up to 45 percent or more for companies I see and work with. And again, it’s the plurality if not the outright majority of their traffic. I will tell you, for my site, 52 percent of my website traffic in the last year — and climbing — came from organic search.

The people where I see search traffic declining are the folks who are trying to game the system. They were creating lots of content for things that they themselves, they, the company, they, the individuals, weren’t expert at. They didn’t have the experience. They didn’t have the expertise. They gamed the system and figured out how to rank well for it.

But Google has recently, you know, has increasingly been saying, "That’s not useful. It doesn’t help anybody." To use the title of my friend Mark Schaefer’s book from some years back, the people creating that content weren’t "Known" for it. They were trying to ride a wave of interest in a topic that wasn’t their core area of expertise, and now they’re getting hurt because Google has said we don’t value that content any longer.

If you’re not the expert, if you don’t have the experience, we don’t want to show it to anyone. The other place I see folks and companies having a problem are those who aren’t getting a decent share of branded traffic. They’re hurting because they were top of funnel for things that again, not their core area of expertise, and no one’s looking for them for their own name. So they kind of get hurt a bit there.

Customers don’t seek them out by name, so they aren’t able or haven’t been able to build a community. They haven’t been able to build an email list. They’re not building a social following or taking advantage of a hub and spoke strategy to reach customers where they are and then bring them back to a hub like their website or like an email list that allows them to build a direct relationship with those customers.

There is, of course, a huge downside to getting, you know, a major share of traffic from one source like Google or like search, you know. And I’ll just use my own business for this. If something happens to Google, as I’ve suggested could happen, I’m kind of screwed, right? I could be in real big trouble from that perspective.

Google could go away. Lots of ways.

They could lose in the marketplace. Amazon is absolutely trying to beat them in the ecommerce space, every day. ChatGPT and personal AI assistants could absolutely usurp Google’s role, especially at the top of the funnel. We know for sure that some young consumers are using tools like TikTok more regularly. So Google could lose in the marketplace, that could happen.

They also could lose in court. I don’t want to go too deep down this rabbit hole, because this is an episode or 12 unto itself, but the U. S. Department of Justice is going after them hard in a current court battle that’s supposed to last another, oh, eight weeks or so. That could end up with Google potentially being broken into pieces. Obviously they’re going to fight that. And it’s going to take a long time for this to work itself out because if they lose this case, they’re undoubtedly going to fight this all the way to the Supreme Court. It’s existential for them.

At the same time, they’ve also had a number of fines and judgments against them in the European Union. So Google’s… facing some headwinds. I won’t say they’re "in trouble" in the sense of they’re screwed or they’re doomed. I’m saying they’re in trouble in the sense of they’re swimming upstream at the moment in the courts and that could have long term implications on them.

That’s why you want to attract a community of users who care about your brand — and more accurately the benefits you offer them. It’s why I keep building my email list. It’s why I keep growing my LinkedIn network. It’s why I keep growing my podcast community. Because if you rely on Google, for instance, or search, for instance, for everything, you could end up in real big trouble if Google goes away.

The other thing I want to say here is if Google goes away is it doesn’t mean that there won’t be gatekeepers. There is a reason why Facebook or Instagram is the social network. Why YouTube is the video site. Why Amazon is the ecommerce site. Why LinkedIn is the business social network. And why Google sits above them all as the search engine.

People don’t want to have to go to 50 different places to find what they need. They want one source of information. And sure, maybe one source of information for this type of information, one source of information for a different type of information. But they don’t want to have to go 5 or 15 different places for that type of information.

I also think it doesn’t mean there won’t be search. Who sits atop the search space, or any of these spaces, could change. But I think it’s pretty likely consumers, people, will want to be able to go and just ask a question and get an answer. It’s why ChatGPT and BingChat and all of those tools excite me so much. Because we’re seeing a big difference in the way customers behave, or we soon will.

In any case, no matter what happens, you want customers to be able to find you. It’s not about ranking. It’s about building a brand that matters in your customers lives. And I’ve said this before, but I want to be explicit about it right now, that the best way to win at search is to have customers seek you out by name.

That’s got lots of benefits beyond search, too. You know, people who look for you by name will be willing to find you no matter what happens to Google or any other big tech gatekeeper. They want to connect with you.

So when you think about content and how you help your customers, You want to start by thinking about what are the kinds of questions AI can’t answer. You know, is there original research you can do? Is there opinion you can offer or perspectives on things that are going on in the world that are genuinely helpful to your customers where they are? Some of these may be more relevant, or not, depending on the kind of business you’re in. You know, if you are a hotel, let’s say, you should be able to talk about your local market better than just about anybody. So that would be really helpful content. If you’re creating just some generic restaurant guide where you merely list the addresses and names of restaurants in your area, that’s not super helpful. People can find that anywhere. But if you’re talking about the restaurants you really enjoy because of a specific reason, well that might be really useful, really interesting content. If you’re a manufacturer of a piece of machinery and you’re explaining why this machinery solves a particular use case, well, again, you’re going to be more expert there than most other people. So you want to think about what are the things that you are truly the expert. You really have the experience.

Your people’s brand’s story matters too. There’s a certain level of making sure you’re doing personal branding for the people creating your content. Whether it’s the marketers on your team, or whether it’s the subject matter experts that those marketers rely upon, or if it’s the subject matter experts themselves. You need to think about what are you expert at? What is your company known for? What is your team known for? What are you known for? Double down on that, triple down on that, lean in hard to this. While we’ve known this for some time, Google’s recent behavior is telling us that that’s what customers want.

They want a trusted source. We kind of have been talking about this for a little bit, going back to an episode almost three years ago, talking about the rebirth of trust in gatekeepers. It’s clear. Customers, people want people they can trust and that they can believe in.

Activities like keyword research matter, but probably not as much as they once did. Instead, if you’re thinking about keyword research, you want to think about understanding the language your customers use. How can you speak in their language more effectively, rather than worrying about finding this specific keyword that everybody else is ranking for, so you need to rank for it?

Google and Bing and everybody else is getting much smarter about synonyms, so it’s not as important as it once was to get every term precisely the way your customers search for it. Writing for people though, in their language, in their terms, makes for a better experience. It’s about using the words they use to make it easier for your experts to be understood. And that will (probably) help you rank better. That will (probably) help you show up in search better. That will (probably) help you attract customers who want to interact with you more easily.

Which brings me to my last point. You really want to think about why you do what you do., whether it’s creating a piece of content, or offering a product or service to the marketplace.

Why do you do that? Why do you do what you do? You’re creating content. Why? Who is it you’re creating that content for? Why are you creating that content? Who benefits? Why are you creating the product? Why are you creating the service? Who benefits?

If your answer for these questions is search, is Google, then even Google now recognizes that’s not terribly valuable to anyone.

But if your answer is your customer, or better yet, people more broadly, your community, your neighbors, humanity, then you’ve literally got a better shot at showing up in search. You’ve literally got a better shot at getting people, and customers, and your community, and your neighbors to seek you out, to want to work with you.

Conclusion: Search Marketing in the Age of AI

Search marketing in the age of AI is not about ranking, it’s not about traffic. It’s not even about ROI — return on investment. It’s about "ROU" — "return on you", return on Y O U. On your experience, your expertise, sure, all of those things. But also your humanity, your ability to help your customers solve their problems, to be meaningful in their lives.

And if you do a really good job of that, then it won’t matter if you rank in search or not. It won’t matter if you, you know, post on social. Customers will want to engage with you, will want to find you, and will want to work with you for a long time to come.

When you do that well, everybody benefits. You, your business, your customers, and the world. We need to remember that we’re not going to beat the machines by being more machine like. We’re going to win in the marketplace, we’re going to win in society, we’re going to make the world a better place when we focus on our humanity. So don’t think about ROI. Think about R O U. Y O U. And think about how you help your customers.

And then the AI will like you just fine, as will all the other people you want to reach, too.

Show Wrap-Up and Credits

Now, looking at the clock on the wall, we are out of time for this week. As always, I want to remind you that you can find the show notes for today’s episode, as well as an archive of all past episodes, by going to Again, that’s Just look for episode 397.

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Show Outro

Finally, I want to say thank you so much for tuning in and for participating and for being part of the community we’re building here at Thinks Out Loud.

I know I say this every week, and I know it might sound like it’s right, but it’s not. I would not do this show without you. Your support, your listenership, your comments, your conversation, the community you are helping me build here means so very much to me. So please keep your tweets coming, keep your messages coming on LinkedIn, keep your emails coming.

I love getting a chance to chat with you and hear what’s on your mind and learn how we can do a better job building the kinds of content and insights and information and community that works for you and benefits all of us. So with all of that said, I hope you have a fantastic rest of the week. I hope you have a wonderful weekend, and I will look forward to speaking with you here on Thinks Out Loud next time.

Until then, please be well, be safe, and as ever, Take care of yourself.

Tim Peter is the founder and president of Tim Peter & Associates. You can learn more about our company's strategy and digital marketing consulting services here or about Tim here.

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