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From search results to search experience: NLP, GenAI & SEO

Mellissa Flowerdew-Clarke
Mellissa Flowerdew-Clarke
Head of Marketing, Europe
Length
7 min read
Date
8 December 2023

The search marketing landscape is rapidly transforming. Artificial intelligence, shifting user behaviors, and new digital platforms are all driving massive changes in how brands are organically reaching audiences. 

AI and NLP in search

We’ve previously explored our predictions for the future of search marketing and the importance of expanding your brand’s search strategies beyond a solely Google-focused approach. Now, we’re keying in on specifically how AI is impacting search and SEO — and how marketers can set up their content marketing strategies for organic search success in an increasingly click-less future. 

Over the last several years, search engines have been getting better at understanding and responding to the way humans speak. This is thanks to natural language processing, or NLP, which is a facet of AI that makes it possible for computers to semantically interpret the meaning of a search query. By training Google’s algorithms with NLP — specifically releasing the BERT model update to the platform in 2019 — the search engine has been able to produce far more relevant and contextual results than a traditional keyword-based search. 

NLP is the foundation of conversational search, allowing users to ask questions the way they might speak them, rather than stringing together keywords in hopes of finding relevant information. It’s also crucial for Google to interpret video and audio content as well as understand and effectively product results for voice searches. 

Content marketing and SEO practices are constantly evolving to respond to Google (and other search engine) updates, aiming to keep up with elusive and ever-shifting algorithms. The rise of NLP pushed marketers to create content that aims to answer potential questions the way users would ask them. Brands have given more focus to specific, long-tail keywords versus high-volume, generic ones. And sentiment has emerged as a critical component in how search engines understand user searches and digital content. 

The introduction of BERT to Google was one of the biggest advancements in search history. Now, just shy of five years later, we’re launching into an even more advanced and sophisticated search landscape. And it’s all thanks to —you guessed it — generative AI. 

From SERP to CHERP

Since the 2022 arrival of generative AI chatbots like ChatGPT in the public sphere, we’ve entered a new era of conversational search. It’s never been easier to have a “natural” conversation with a chatbot and be served up the answer you’re looking for without needing to scroll through links or dig for more information. And now, generative AI technology is integrating with search engines themselves through Microsoft Bing (which is powered by OpenAI’s language models) and Google’s recently launched Search Generative Experience (SGE)

Generative AI-powered search results are, in Google’s own words, designed to “take more of the work out of searching, so you’ll be able to understand a topic faster, uncover new viewpoints and insights, and get things done more easily.” 

The additional capabilities allow for a more conversational and contextual experience for users, helping them find their answers without even having to leave the search results page. They can highlight key points, extract additional information, and prompt follow-up questions. In fact, this kind of LLM-generated output is so distinct from a typical search engine result page (SERP) that Search Engine Land thinks it deserves its own name: “CHERP,” or Chat Experience Results Page. 

“This new interpretation of the SERP represents a more focused way to get information,” said DEPT® content strategist Anna Reilly. “Where maybe people were willing to scroll through a little bit on the page, now the assumption is that this box is all the information that I need. And usually, there are features to prompt or answer subsequent questions right in the box.”

SEO strategy for the evolving search experience

Just as content marketers and SEO strategists adapted alongside the rise of NLP, they must consider the changing SERP environment and evolve their strategies to remain relevant and discoverable. Today more than ever, the key to SERP success is developing content that aims to provide an excellent experience to the target audience.

“The goal of SEO, in the end, is to help people organically find the information that they’ll find most valuable. Google’s whole goal is to try to encourage these connections and create a great experience. To a search engine, SEO is helping connect people with the most valuable content,” Reilly said. “A content creator should be thinking about the same thing. If anything, AI search is a reason to let go of SEO ‘hacks.’ Instead, we get to think strategically about the value we deliver. How can we make sure our content, and the way we present it, is the most useful, valuable version of the information our customers are looking for?”

So what does that mean, in a time when generative AI has made it easier and faster than ever to churn out technically optimised content? The answer is leaning into and highlighting humanity, unique perspectives, and firsthand experiences within branded content — or (yes, another acronym) EEAT: experience, expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. 

Think of it this way: If an LLM, such as ChatGPT, can write a 300 word blurb answering a user query, then so can Google’s generative AI model. So as SGE and other genAI search engines continue to evolve and become better at guiding users to the more valuable and satisfactory information, they aren’t spotlighting generic, AI-written content that’s been informed by the same existing web info any LLM can access. Instead, the quality signals search engines will prioritise more heavily will be factors such as:

  • The first-person expertise and experiences of the author or publisher (which can be demonstrated via quotes, personal anecdotes, etc.)
  • The author/site’s authority on a topic (i.e. does this source have the credentials, industry stature, strong backlinks to prove it should speak on a topic?)
  • Real-world examples (such as including a case study or user testimonials to add credibility to business content)

“This might look like going back through your content and adding in differentiators that competitors couldn’t offer,” said Reilly. “So whether that’s quotes or other proprietary information, you want to make sure that that’s all blended in. But be considerate about what content it is and how it’s presented. Make choices that are authentic to your brand and rooted in what your audience values.”

The search landscape isn’t going to completely change overnight. It will continue evolving, introducing new features, and enhancing existing ones — all in pursuit of delivering an exceptional search experience to users. In the age of generative AI, marketers and SEOs have an exciting challenge and opportunity to find the intersection of AI and human-created content that resonates with readers and is recognised by the SERP.  And more than ever, that will look like unique content created to provide value, not just for the sake of KPIs. 

Questions?

Growth Account Director UK

Molly Deaville