Google Artificial Intelligence AI Search

AI search is (sort of) here. How scared are marketers?


By Sam Anderson, Network Editor

June 11, 2024 | 12 min read

Google’s tentative launch of AI-powered search results has caused a range of emotions from abject fear to hilarity. We asked leading marketers how frightened they are, from one to 10.

A road sign being swallowed by a rising tide

AI search: How scared should publishers, brands and search experts be? / Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash

We’ve been expecting AI-generated summaries to deploy in Google’s search engine results pages since May of last year, when the tech titan revealed its ‘search generative experience’ feature. Many have been watching with a sense of dread – most conspicuously the publishers expecting a rapid reduction in the 40% of their traffic that originates with Google, but also brands, retailers, and search experts whose future seemed uncertain.

And then, over the last couple of weeks, the AI feature started to deploy with mixed results including suggestions to eat rocks and put glue in pizza, many of which seem to come from Google’s AI-training partnership with Reddit). The situation has led to high-profile defenses from chief executive Sundar Pichai.

Between these poles of the concerning and the absurd, it’s hard to know what the correct dose of fear is. So we asked marketers: How threatened should we all (especially publishers, brands and others in the media space) be feeling right now?

Tom Mansell, director of organic performance, Croud – fear factor: 8

“The rollout has been rushed; Google is responding to the threat to their market share from other LLMs (like OpenAI’s GPT-4o, AI-powered search platform Perplexity, and Microsoft’s Copilot). The quality of results has been poor, forcing Google to release a statement outlining the steps it is taking to fix it. AI overviews do pose a threat to traditional results; brands not featured can expect a decline in click-through rate on traditional organic listings. The race to the top is going to be extremely competitive; our jobs are going to get harder. To get ahead, we need to understand the data that is training the LLM, by analyzing the results it serves. We see a bias towards user-generated content from Reddit and other online communities, demonstrating a preference for content with first-hand experience of the subject. We also see a bias towards publishers that can demonstrate expertise and authority on a subject through tactics such as authorship and off-site content syndication. The principles of EEAT (experience, expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness) will continue to serve us well based on what we can see so far, and this is going to force a lot of brands to level up their SEO maturity to prioritize these principles.”

Tristan Sanders, head of performance marketing, Oliver – fear factor: 7

“For 20+ years, consumers have clicked on the organic listings in Google. They can be more trusted. The ads at the top? Well, they’ve just paid to be there. We’re not clicking those. In reality, those ads are likely to be of more relevance to the user precisely because they have paid to be there – they’ve got skin in the game. It’s cost-per-click; they’d be throwing money down the drain should a subsequent destination be anything other than excellent for the user. Google’s search generative experience (SGE) means two things. First, the battleground is now in the models that power results, whether the source is correct or not (and without the CTR/site dwell time that signaled the quality of that result). And second, we’ll see results that could, in theory, be monetized and manipulated by paid advertising. But with trust in AI-derived results already being rapidly undermined, any attempt by Google to action this second point would be met with incredulity by the user. This result has been paid for. Not believing that. It’s no wonder that Google is forecasting a decreasing proportion of its revenue being derived from its bread and butter: PPC ads. Perhaps that ought to be the same for us advertisers?”

Carmen Dominguez, head of organic, Hallam – fear factor: 6

“One way or another, AI is here to stay: Google will not drop AI just because it is not successful in its first few months. If it’s AI overviews or something else (such as more complex snippets), Google wants people to spend more time in its environment and less time browsing websites. Organic traffic decreasing is not new – this has been happening since 2018. The key is not ignoring AIO but getting ready for the change that will inevitably come. How do we adapt? Diversifying platforms, expanding beyond just traditional organic search and developing a brand that is consistent everywhere. Online, offline, paid and organic. I’m not scared for the future, but I do worry for small brands without big budgets – they might struggle to compete in such a competitive environment. The paradox of modern search means that users are moving towards small, unique brands that care about users and the world around them, while Google moves to promote big brands with big budgets. Given this conflict, I wonder how influencer marketing will grow and evolve over the next few years.”

Amy Banks, director of search engine optimization, Havas Media Network (partner agency to Search Laboratory) – fear factor: 5

“While changes in the industry have felt elevated in recent months, search has been continually evolving for decades. User journeys might be changing, but this also means exciting opportunities for search to grow in other ways. We need to focus our efforts on areas where we can capture citations from AI results. EEAT content and schema mark-up are two key areas for this. At the same time, we must optimize newer search-led channels to capture users on other platforms which are gaining traction, shifting focus to YouTube, social media, and e-commerce platforms to capture audiences organically – call it search experience optimization.”

Deyna Lavery, head of paid search, RocketMill – fear factor: 4

In paid search, AI has accelerated the move towards automation (back when ‘machine learning’ was all the rage). Traditional and new generative AI tools go beyond replacing repetitive campaign management tasks; they’re starting to democratize skills like asset generation and copywriting. The differentiator will be those who choose to rely on synthetic outputs, and those who use them as a force multiplier. AI is a tool, not a marketer. Can’t quite describe your concept? Generate visuals in moments to refine or discard. Struggling with ad copy? Here are ideas to remix or inspire a new approach. The best results will come from combining human ability with AI. It’s not a question of if, but how generative AI will be used in search results, and the long-term changes this brings. For now, there’s significant opportunity to be grasped.”

Eric Hoover, search engine optimization director, Jellyfish – fear factor: 3 – 9, depending on who you are

“It’s different for brands versus publishers. A major clothing brand, for example, will most likely see little to no impact from these changes in the near term. AI results in Google are not targeting e-retail, unless the consumer is asking an informational question. In fact, once paid elements begin populating AI search results, it may end up benefiting major brands. But publishers and anyone developing ‘informational’ or editorial content are already under extreme pressure. Google’s Helpful Content Update (HCU) devalued many well-established publishing sites, giving many high-ranking results to just a few major labels, along with discussion forums like Reddit. Now with AI Overview, those ‘rankings’ are even more threatened as they become part of the genAI result snippet, pushing down traditional organic results. For major brands and e-retail, my fear factor sits at 3-4; publishers are more likely to be at 8-9.”

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Tom Brand, director of growth, Found – fear factor: 2

“Fear factor? 2. Potential opportunity factor? 10. If you haven’t yet realized that traditional search is over, this is a wake-up call. Google’s AI overview could be a looming threat but, as we often see with Google, the shock spikes will dissipate and the kinks will be ironed out. So just breathe? Absolutely not. Every brand needs to recognize that search doesn’t just exist on search engines. Search is everywhere. Diversifying how and where you engage with your audience is the key to enhancing discoverability across all searchable platforms. Changes to any platform bring opportunities to capitalize on competitors’ blind spots. There’s always risk. It’s how you manage that risk that will determine whether you win or lose in the new world of search.”

Dave Peiris, head of search engine optimization & product, Propellernet – fear factor: 2

“The introduction of AI overviews is a major change, but I think the concerns around lost traffic are overstated. The response from both the press and users about the quality of the answer is pretty negative, and that seems to have led to Google reducing the number of queries that AI overviews appear for (from as many as 84% down to 15%). For users who do like the AI overviews, Google’s testing shows that links included within the overview have a higher click-through rate than regular search results – if you’re able to appear here, then you may find yourself getting more traffic. This may be a threat to those who currently rank #1 for most of their keywords. For everyone else, it’s an opportunity.”

Maddy King, performance and data strategy lead, Kairos Media – fear factor: 0*

*If you learn to work with AI, not against it

“AI technology is rapidly evolving and reshaping business tools, but there’s no need to fear it. Despite memes of AI’s amusing mishaps, it’s proving to be an incredibly useful tool that will change the future of work. Fear of automation isn’t new; it dates back at least to the 1950s. While technology has shifted work methods, it’s also birthed new industries and jobs. The real concern isn’t AI itself, but the people and companies leveraging it. Those who adapt and incorporate AI into their daily routines are the ones who will thrive (and potentially take your job). AI doesn’t operate in isolation; it enhances human capabilities. What should you do? Start by researching AI functions that can assist you today and start training yourself. The key is integrating AI into your daily workflow and learning to use it to your advantage. Working smarter, not harder, is essential.”

Google Artificial Intelligence AI Search

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