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Stick the clicks

Search is changing (and why it matters)

I cheated on Google with Gemini, and I’d do it again. Maybe you cheated on Google with OpenAI, Perplexity or Bing Copilot. There’s no shame in going around search to find stuff using AI. It’s in the air these days. 

Now that this is a thing, however, we content creators need to know how to make sure our products and services get found by the new tools. I’m going to show you some ways. 

Most casual searchers have a few asks of web search. I’m thinking of people shopping for a specific item, or planning a trip, or looking to understand the motivations of a favorite superhero character, or needing a fact to settle an argument in a hurry. They’re also the people who are looking for your brand. They want:

  • Ease (don’t make me work too hard at it)
  • Convenience (if I need the address of that coffee place, I want to be able to find it on my phone while I’m out on a run)
  • Natural language; a conversation (sorry, fans of the Boolean search string)
  • Fast, condensed answers to questions; deeper insights (bingo!)

Chat tools based on large language models, or LLMs, are delivering those things. They’re easy. They’re conversational. And they’re versatile — they can answer questions, write and quickly rewrite all kinds of content, provide answers in a specific format (say, an outline, a table, bullet points, an essay), provide suggestions, summarize, compare, write code, assist in routine tasks. 

But it’s in organic search where AI is creating a big noise that sounds like a river approaching a cliff.  In 2023, a Salesforce survey found that predictive AI is influencing 17 percent of purchase decisions. Gartner, saying that generative AI tools are becoming “substitute answer engines,” predicted that users will be relying on traditional search 25% less by 2026. Not great news for Google, which has by far the largest search market share globally (and ad revenues to match).

If consumers are using Google less often — or using it differently than they used to — that has to mean something for brands. A lot of retailers have been working to make sure Google points customers to them for decades. What now?

Needed: A new roadmap

How customers find your brand is changing. Are we tumbling over Niagara Falls? Or just guiding our canoe gently around a few inevitable rocks?

The arrival of LLM chatbots is certainly shifting how we think about finding what we’re looking for online. The old model was: Deliver links to sites that contain answers. The new model is: Deliver answers. Ege Gurdeniz and Kartik Hosanagar summarized neatly in Harvard Business Review: “While Google has been the colleague who points us to a book in a library that can answer our question, ChatGPT is the colleague who has already read every book in the library and can answer our question. In theory, anyway.”

As a marketer, here are some questions you might be hearing, or asking, ever since ChatGPT bounded into the mainstream and boodles of chat tools followed.

Is search dead? (No, but it’s changing.)

Is SEO dead? (No, but it’s changing.)

Is product content dead? (Good content is more important than ever!)

In the before time, search keywords were everything. Professional search engine optimizers calculated the value of phrases like “hiking boots,” “tennis shoes” and “winter jackets” and speckled them into product descriptions, landing pages and blog posts.

Today, individual keywords as such are becoming less important than the context the words appear in. This is how LLM tools interpret the world, through a step called entity recognition — understanding the categories that human words, things and ideas fit into (for example, organization, person, place, product, quantity, size, color) and how the pieces fit together. It’s a shift from words to topics.

If you’re a marketer, copywriter, SEO or someone else who works in product-related content, this matters to you because it up-ends how you’ve always assumed shoppers would find you via organic search. 

Your audience is still out there

If keywords are fading out, what should we be paying attention to?

Even before LLM and Google’s newly pervasive AI-fication arrived to hand out answers instead of links to answers, snippets on Google search were taking about 35% of clicks — that is, those searchers weren’t clicking into a site from the search results page. Conductor (an enterprise SEO platform) calculates that 51% of all search is informational — someone is looking for a specific answer; they find it; the end. And then about 31% of searchers are looking for something local to them. That leaves about 18% who are focused on ecom shopping.

How to connect better with the 18 percent looking to buy? The long tail. In fact, long tail keywords. 

These are phrases that are quite specific to a given shopper’s wants, and they usually contain several words — there isn’t a formula for how many words, but generally more than two. For example, shoes for runners with flat feet, vs. the more broad keyword running shoes. Searchers look for these phrases less often — the “tail” part refers to where they fall on a search demand curve. But taken together, they add up. A frequently cited figure is that 70% of all searches are phrased as long tail keywords. And a searcher who’s that specific is often ready to make a purchase, not just looking for a piece of info. 

Because of their specificity, and because they’re less common in the total sea of search, long tail phrases in your content help make it easy for people to find your products when they’re ready to buy. They’re also conversational, and they help provide topical context for LLM tools. Even if a chat answer doesn’t bring someone directly to your site today, it could help generate leads who are ready to buy later.

Quoting Deborah Carver, “No matter how you’ve felt about SEO in the past, your potential audience is typing keywords into search bars to find content like yours. The only difference between this behavior now and a decade ago is that the search engines are much smarter — and actively looking to prioritize higher quality content.”

Five things (plus a handful) to do today

Based on all that, here are Thread’s top five recommendations to content marketers.

1. Double down on good content.

Never create content just for clicks. Think of providing context over scattering keywords. Demonstrate that you understand EEAT — Google’s holy writ of experience, expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness. They’re factors that help Google determine whether search results are returning high quality, relevant information, and therefore deserve highlighting.

2. Content on every page matters.

Users are increasingly arriving on your site by unexpected pathways — they might land on a product page rather than your carefully planned category page. Make sure info about your products is complete and accurate — don’t give potential reviewers reasons to ding your product because what arrived wasn’t what they were expecting.

3. Listen to your consumers.

Create value for them by anticipating and answering their questions. Create trust by solving their problems. Make use of channels that don’t rely on organic search — like your own email list or brand app. Know the platforms where your consumers spend their time — and go there.

4. Go for the long tail.

Keywords as such aren’t as relevant in the universe of LLMs as they were in traditional search. But by describing your products or your brand in concrete, conversational terms, you may just connect with the exact person looking for you.

5. Be conversational.

Mostly, be yourself — amplify your brand’s unique voice. Don’t sound like generic AI-generated marketing copy. Sound like you.

There are also things your brand can and should do in the new search world that aren’t related to content. Things like:

  • Make sure your site’s technical SEO is water-tight. To get selected for SGE snippets. You still need excellent “crawlability.”
  • Use responsive page design — pages have to load fast on any device.
  • Use AI to improve on-site search. One study found that “69 percent of shoppers go straight to the search bar when visiting an online retailer, and 80 percent have left a site because of poor search experience.”
  • Multimodal queries — for example, someone uploads an image and asks, “Find me rubber boots in this exact plaid” — make image optimization important.

The experts at Search Engine Journal provide this advice: “The quickly changing search landscape plus Google’s intransparency make SEO a volatile channel that can bring traffic to our site but doesn’t guarantee that well to keep pouring water. Rather, we should think about how to bring organic visitors to channels where we can build deeper relationships with our audience. … What is the second-click experience on your site?”

Search tools have been changing since the moment there was a web to search. In the era of AI, the strategy that will keep your brand visible could be summarized as: “You do you, Boo.” Emphasize human relationships, highlight human experiences, and create content that reflects human needs and wants.

Thread can help your brand sound more human while simplifying and streamlining high-volume SEO content creation. If help sounds helpful, give us a call.

Drumroll, please: Thread is now a Certified B Corp! We 🎉 are 🎉 stoked

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