Thank goodness (and thanks to AI) we’re finally moving past the age of SEO, where it actually mattered exactly what words you used, and how many times, and how long content was supposed to be (looooong) and all of these other awkward techniques that made the web a far less enjoyable (and useful) experience for search customers.

We used to have to follow all these silly SEO rules:

  • 2000-3000 minimum word length per page
  • Using the primary keyword in the title, title bar, and all the headings
  • Image alt tags had to include relevant keywords
  • And only one link was allowed per 3 paragraphs or 300 words of text
  • etc…

And as soon as some SEO guru figured out how to tweak the SERPs and published it, everyone would copy them, inevitably leading Google to make updates to combat the skewing of search results. So SEO became this cycle of bad habits and worse content…

AI technology, specifically natural language processing software (which produces LLMs like Chat-GPT), is making all of this less about keywords and more about meaning and intent. And as a result a lot of the old ways of doing SEO are quickly becoming obsolete.

Keyword density (how many times a keyword appears in a web page) is rapidly becoming irrelevant. The high volume / low competition terms that we’ve spent so much time finding during keyword research aren’t as much of an advantage as they used to be because Google is returning results that are semantically similar now. And it’s not like technical SEO no longer matters but it’s mostly problem-solving bad site architecture, not finding some magical combination of keywords and links to rank.

It’s a rout!

The ultimate SEO killer is already here and lying in wait. Those of us who’ve discovered Chat-GPT have completely changed the way we search, browse articles, and discover information in general. We don’t even go to search anymore… You can easily ask Chat-GPT to perform a search, summarize the results, and find the best match to your question and it will (in seconds), saving you the time it takes to search, read, and contextualize the same information.

Google’s Gemini (previously Bard) is being integrated into their entire suite of products right now to combat this disruption, so we can expect AI-powered search to overtake traditional search in months not years.

The likely impact of this is hard to estimate fully because there is really no precedent for comparison but I don’t think it is sensationalizing the matter to say that this changes everything for search and SEO. Soon humans may not be the ones actually reading web pages the majority of the time despite the fact that they are the ones asking the questions and searching for answers.

AI bots will perform these tasks increasingly in the years to come, but what that means for making websites and content is not yet completely predictable. However, the way that instructions are passed to Chat-GPT, even by the folks at OpenAI, conversationally, in written text form, as you might instruct a person to do something in an email –in plain English, so to speak- is an indication that AI will simply understand the context of a page linguistically and no amount of SEO hackery is going to influence it otherwise.

I can have pretty deep and extremely abstract conversations with Chat-GPT, and it learns my preferences and adapts its output throughout a given chat session -I regularly ask it to find topics for content that “are not already oversaturated”- and it has no problems with these kind of tasks. You can even ask Chat-GPT for recommendations on optimizing your content for search. With all of those capabilities, I am confident that it can identify and ignore “SEO content” easily.

These things were not possible a year and a half ago. Another year and a half will have introduced another wave of remarkable AI achievements and broken through another levy of industries; causing disruption and economic fallout. It’s a wild time to be alive and it’s certainly not a boring time in the marketing industry.

What does this mean for content creators?

For years now Google has been telling content creators to stop worrying about gaming its systems and to focus on delivering value and building relationships. Of course they would say that, and SEOs have been right to argue their evil necessity over the last 20 years but, for all the reasons I mentioned, this is quickly becoming an outmoded way of thinking.

Google’s recommendations sound increasingly like good advice these days: focus on making content (you do need a lot of it), delivering value (everyone agrees on this), and not worrying so much about your metrics and the direct impact of one particular piece of content versus another. Content marketing can only be successful when done consistently and without too much concern for how it “makes money”.

The best content is exactly what it needs to be and nothing else.

It’s exactly as long as it needs to be to convey its message and value. It’s exactly as technical or as light and conversational as its audience will enjoy. It can be in the form of blogs, podcasts, videos, interactive content, and other mediums equally because it’s not nearly as much about meeting certain quotas of keywords in the right places as it is about getting people to engage with you.

What still matters in SEO?

Don’t get me wrong, you still have to tell people (and Google) what your content is about. There’s never been much benefit in clever-but-difficult-to-parse headlines; just tell people what they’re going to get in your article, video, or whatever -don’t make them guess. And just assume that Google, Bard, Bing, OpenAI, etc. will figure out what you mean just like the humans do.

Don’t worry about keyword density, alt tags and headings containing repetitive keywords, etc. -if the question involves keywords, don’t worry about it. Worry about answering questions that people are really asking out in the world.

Writing articles to rank for “social media consulting agency” instead of “social media agency” is out. Creating videos that tell your story, authentically, as a social media agency owner in the trenches of your industry -this is the “new meta”. This is what matters in SEO.

A functional website with a valid SSL certificate and a minimum of extraneous calls to javascript libraries, widgets, embeds, ads, and other invisible content that sometimes has issues completely loading –this matters (greatly) to your visibility in search.

A logical website structure with promotional pages, pillar pages (hubs of content around a particular topic) which link to your product pages and receive links from your blogs and backlinks from other sites –this still affects your search optimization, for sure.

But anything that sounds like an “easy SEO hack to rank in Google” is a scam. It’s always been blackhat and inappropriate but now it’s just wasted energy. The robots are too smart for our tricks so we’ve got to stop playing games with Google and actually get good at this content thing.

You know “good content” when you see it

We can all easily tell the difference between good, useful content and content that was simply made to mask a sales process. We smell it a mile away. So we shouldn’t think that anything less than awesome, extremely useful content is going to have any effect on our customers.

As the stakeholders of marketing at our various companies, we have a difficult task ahead: convincing the less-tech-savvy people around us that are also key decision-makers that there is no longer some technical wizardry which will maintain your profile in search and, more importantly, it drastically degrades the much more meaningful user experience.

Even more difficult to explain is that people are hungry to hear from the brands they’re evaluating and will move to another vendor quickly if they aren’t being fed the information they need. Much like having a website quickly became table stakes once the World Wide Web arrived, and then having multiple social media profiles for every brand became standard practice, moving towards human-oriented content (even if humans aren’t the ones reading it) versus spider/bot oriented content (which is what “SEO content” is…content for bots) is quickly becoming mandatory to participate in modern business.

Maybe it’s just time for us to drop the “marketing” part of “content marketing”…

We’re just making content to make content at this point. We’re making content because our customers demand it. To be fair, we aren’t exactly dedicating resources like call centers to assist them in their purchasing process. We aren’t going door-to-door or even into the office, necessarily, to educate (and pitch) them. We’re doing everything through Zoom calls, automated systems, and so-called frictionless environments. And bully for us, this helps us compete in the marketplace of today, BUT we can’t expect our customers to just sit quietly with their questions if we’re not out there, in-person, lovingly explaining our products’ features and benefits to them when and where is convenient for them -the buyer.

Content is the tradeoff to the evolution of marketing and sales in today’s fast-paced, remote-friendly world. We have to produce content, “just for the sake of the content,” in order attract, qualify, and convert our customers. And we have to make this content for them, not for the robots they’re using to find it, and, what’s more, these robots are smart enough to understand us as we try to communicate with the people on the other side of the screen.

SEO will evolve to incorporate more AI-friendly best practices I’m sure and, more importantly, voice search will become more of a thing to consider because people are becoming accustomed to using their voices to communicate with their AI platforms, and will soon expect it of search and websites equally.

All of this, in the end, impacts the customer experience and that’s (according to the experts, according to Google, etc) where your focus should be as well.