With changes to search come changes to search engine optimization.
SEO is known for being a constantly updating landscape, but with the rise of AI integration in search engines, questions are raised as to whether SEO may need to embrace radical changes. Some speculate that AEO (Answer Engine Optimization) could be the next emerging subset for SEOs to grapple with.
In this post, we’ll cover what AEO is, how it differs from SEO, and how it could impact the future of organic search.
What Is Answer Engine Optimization (AEO) Currently?
While the acceleration of AI integration in search engines has sparked renewed interest in the topic, it isn’t actually a new concept.
Answer Engine Optimization has been a subset of SEO ever since the rise of voice search, appearing as a term from around 2018 onwards. It has historically focused on creating content that gives specific answers to searchers’ exact queries.
Voice search and voice assistants offered a new way to search. Those engaging with voice assistants tend to ask specific, answer-driven queries. Rather than looking to research topics themselves, they are asking directly for a singular answer.
A typical search engine query might be “bookshops near me” while a voice search would have more direct intent, such as “what time is FATJOE books open until?” The typical search engine query would include the opening times as part of the overall info delivered, but with reduced results, the user has to directly ask the question to ensure they get the most useful answer.
The voice assistant will then provide one answer before offering to expand on more if needed. Even if you’re using the voice to search on a device with a screen (such as using Google Assistant on your mobile), it will still prioritize one result while offering to include more if needed.
This has coincided with the rise of featured snippets eating up potential search traffic as the answer is provided without the searcher ever needing to click on the actual page providing the result.
This has caused a dramatic rise in “zero-click searches”.
Google themselves actually addressed this back in 2021, defending the fact they drive more traffic to sites than ever before.
That is perhaps undermined, however, by the fact a recent study found that as many as 25.6% of desktop and 17.3% of mobile searches are zero-click searches.
These have long been a pain point for SEOs. From a metrics perspective, their site’s performance may not be suitably credited for the answer they have provided.
They don’t see an increase in traffic, and with the user never engaging with the site, they may lose out on follow-up interest or sales-funnel opportunities that would arise if the searcher actually read the full article.
These pain points have been greatly exacerbated by the shift to AI-powered search results and conversational search models.
AI chatbots are attempting to aggregate search results into their own unique answers to searchers’ queries, bypassing the possibility of even displaying webpages in the results, let alone driving clicks for those pages.
The new AI Answer Engine is changing the game, offering users direct answers to their questions WITHOUT the need to click on websites.
— Shek (@ShekOMP) February 5, 2023
This is a nightmare for SEOs and has even led to some questioning whether they can sue Google and other search engines for using their material without proper accreditation.
After all, Bard wouldn’t be able to generate the answers if it didn’t have the Google index of webpages to pull from, so shouldn’t webmasters be credited for the results their content helps produce?
The future of appropriate attribution for contributions to AI-generated queries is currently up in the air, but the fact that Answer Engine Optimization is upon us really isn’t.
Answer Engine Optimization is a pre-existing term, but its meaning will inherently shift in the realm of AI-powered answer generation overtaking traditional search results.
Google just introduced Bard, while Microsoft is fully committed to integrating Bing with ChatGPT (launching tomorrow!). This marks the end of #SEO and the start of Answer Engine Optimization #AEO pic.twitter.com/1m06ZaDpgy
— Sachin Ganesh (@_SachinGanesh) February 6, 2023
How Does Answer Engine Optimization Differ From Traditional SEO?
The quick answer is that AEO is just one part of the SEO umbrella.
Traditional Search Engine Optimization has focused almost exclusively on increasing rankings within the SERPs. Higher rankings generate higher Click-Through-Rates, higher rankings and CTRs generate more organic traffic, and more organic traffic creates more opportunities to convert users into customers… rinse and repeat.
This will still be relevant. Even if Answer Engines do continue to rise in prominence, there will always be a segment of searchers using desktop or mobile search who will scroll through the results to find appropriate web pages.
The change will come with the way you tailor your content and your pages to best answer searcher queries.
It’s safe to assume that Google will get attribution set up properly before the full rollout of Bard. Bing already includes attribution as part of its answer construction, and with the outcry from webmasters, it’s safe to say Google will follow suit.
Even without attribution in place, the early Google layout displays the ‘Read More’ section where links to external posts can be found and it will be vitally important to jockey for position in those new carousels.
With this in mind, there will still be value in creating engaging content marketing material that contributes to these answers, demonstrating your site’s expertise, experience, authority, and trustworthiness.
Understanding the Role of Search Intent in Answer Engine Optimization
To dominate the answer engine space, you must understand the user’s search intent more than ever before.
Featured snippets already consume a large percentage of potential clicks from search queries, but the option is still there for the reader to click into the article itself to gain additional context for the answer.
The initial snippet might not quite answer their question, but it could prompt them to feel the article itself will do, so they’ll click it to double-check.
These new featured snippets are really interesting.
It’s a lesson in understanding which part of the answer is most important when it comes to fulfilling a searcher’s need. pic.twitter.com/wx0Lzae104
— Dr. Marie Haynes🐧 (@Marie_Haynes) March 5, 2023
The current featured snippets system might occasionally be irritating (hooray, my reward for being helpful is fewer clicks!) but you can at least see Google’s working out, as it were.
Observing the featured snippets for targeted terms can help you understand what Google sees as most important to the user’s search intent for that given query.
This will, in a way, be diminished with the advent of AI answer generation.
While you’ll be able to try to reverse-engineer an understanding of what Google feels is most important for that particular search intent, you won’t have clear signpost markers like these snippets drawn from one specific content result. Instead, it will be an amalgamation of several sources to try to generate the best single answer for a given query.
I was reminded of this post I wrote back in 2016 for @Moz .
I think that everything happening in the last few years is backing up a lot of what I was thinking.
Somehow the same happened, then, in 2017/18 when I started talking about Visual Search and Lens. pic.twitter.com/0zhmDm01sV
— Gianluca Fiorelli (@gfiorelli1) March 2, 2023
With increased AI integration now generating the answers directly, you have to ensure your content lines up precisely with the user’s query to ensure it’s included as part of the answer generation (and, therefore, hopefully credited as such).
With answers, not results, generated for the user, they are far less likely to scroll past the answer to browse additional results. If they’re using a conversational model for what would historically have been a search query, there’s even less chance as it won’t actually be generating traditional results as we understand them currently.
We’ve already seen the importance of answer engine optimization in the context of voice search, but with the rise of AI integration into both search results and conversational models, the only way to try to ensure your site’s prominence and accreditation for answers is to directly and precisely answer user’s search intent.
@GoogleAI moves toward ensuring factual knowledge using the ease of in-context learning. (Wonder if this is part of refining accuracy for its Knowledge Vault?)@jasonmbarnard @cyberandy @Marie_Haynes https://t.co/RWJiejIbCR
— Jeannie Hill (@essentialskill) March 5, 2023
The Future of Answer Engine Optimization And SEO
Answer Engine Optimization will continue to be a developing force in the coming years, making up a greater and greater subset of overall SEO efforts.
It shouldn’t be thought of as a replacement for SEO but instead as complementary to it, building on traditional SEO foundations.
The rise of AI will surely have a fundamental impact on SEO, so stick with us as we chart the rise of AI in search.
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