As Google turns 25, it seems an auspicious time to discuss the past and future of websites in the age where AI impacts everything. Over the weekend there were many discussions as Google turns 25 regarding how Google founders, Larry Page (the reason Pagerank got that name) and Sergey Brin, envisioned a new type of search engine and how that image morphed over the last two and a half decades into the behemoth it is today. I heard some gloom and doom for website owners in that discussion, especially as AI impacts nearly everything in our lives and appears destined to do so even more in the future, so I’d like to put my two cents into the discussion.
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last 25 years, you know the power of Google. Begun as a search engine, Google grew to the largest search engine on the planet, with more than 93% of all searches occurring on Google, much of it using its browser, Chrome (77%). If you own a website, Google’s dominance impacts everything you do on your website as you fight for visitors among the millions of searches that start on Google as users seek products to solve their needs. For instance, while social media is an important influencer of awareness, 87% of product searches now start online through search engines and Amazon. And, 56% of users consider results from search engines like Google in making a purchase decision.
Beyond being a search engine, Google now dominates other areas such as voice-activated devices (Google Home), App hosting (Google Play), video (YouTube), navigation and mapping, cloud storage (Google Drive), and digital advertising (Google Ads), and has a presence in other areas like mobile phones and connected devices, like Nest.
As a long-time Google user, I was surprised to learn that the founders’ original idea was to provide better access to information and didn’t really have any notion of what business they were in. It was a research project begun when they were Ph.D. students at Stanford without any notion of how it might be used in the future. Through their search algorithm called Pagerank, which has been modified over the last 25 years, this company helps deliver the most likely query answers in a ranked format with the top options shown first. This reduced user effort to find the “right” answer and allowed the company to dominate the competition. That this algorithm succeeds is shown by the company’s dominance in search.
I was also surprised to learn that the original idea didn’t include advertising as a means to monetize the platform, as both founders abhorred the notion of online advertising. Last year, Google’s ad revenue was $227.5 billion accounting for much of the value of Google, which is around one and three-quarters of a trillion dollars. Of course, businesses use Google Ads due to the high ROI they achieve.
Google turns 25 and search will never be the same
Because organic traffic from search engines is so important for website owners in their efforts to reach their goals, websites were inevitably transformed to take advantage of the Google search engine algorithm. As you can see below, the impact of rank in Google search results dramatically impacts the traffic visiting your website.
This search engine optimization (SEO) is a major factor impacting content creation and website design. Hence, rather than providing a means to find information online, Google became a force that influenced the information provided to users. The pagerank algorithm is a complex combination of factors (200 factors based on estimates) and weights that force content creators to create content that optimizes rank for chosen keywords. Among the most influential factors impacting SEO are:
- load speed
- quality signals such as time on site, backlinks, engagement on social media, and low bounce rates
- security, i.e. https protocols
- technical aspects such as schema
- quality of the user experience
Google continues making changes to the algorithm as the company uncovers efforts by website owners to improve their rank artificially, such as keyword stuffing (adding keywords indiscriminately to create nonsensical content). These efforts are called black hat SEO, as opposed to white hat SEO, which seeks to rank well while still providing value to visitors. If you look at sites that rank in the top 10, you find they share these factors:
- they use the https protocol
- 98% included a meta-analysis
- were nearly 2000 words (although I’ve read that this number is increasing toward 3000)
- the title contained 45 characters, on average
- backlinks, on average, were 918
This supports the influence of Google on content creation.
How search has changed
Search changed dramatically over the last few years. First, Google added the Featured Snippet that provided answers to many search queries without requiring users to visit the website, resulting in fewer visits to many websites. You can see an example demonstrating how a featured snippet eliminates the need to visit the website in the image below.
Next, Google added shopping ads, which provided an easy comparison of products for shoppers that included pricing and ratings without ever needing to visit the website. You can see an example of a shopping ad when searching for red shoes below.
Now, voice search impacts the way users enter queries as the queries tend to be longer and more natural than when typing in a query. This led to adaptations in the keywords website owners use to create content something we now call long-tailed keywords, which now average over 2.
The future of search
AI now offers another factor impacting search. The first element of AI we saw was the autocomplete on search queries, which allowed the search engine to anticipate elements of your query. Other types of AI used to help users get the best search results are:
- Local SEO, which uses your geolocation data to prioritize results for restaurants and similar businesses in your local area.
- Note in the shopping ads shown when I searched for red shoes, that the AI knew I was a woman so it only showed ads for women’s shoes
Now AI threatens the very existence of websites, especially the immense effort involved in creating content to share on your website, which is currently critical for SEO. The argument goes something like this. A website owner shares content designed to provide value and attract visitors to his/her website. AI bots now scour that content to provide answers to queries or to provide useful information WITHOUT referring to the website or compensating the website owner in any way for the valuable content they provided online. Reddit has already instituted a fee for scraping content from its website in an effort to monetize its data, for instance. So, what incentive do website owners have to expend the effort and other resources needed to create content?
In response, owners of massive websites might disallow content scraping including indexing by Google bots that underpins the company’s ability to provide search results to users. While no one expects that websites will cease to exist in the near future, what about the long-term future of websites and their content? That’s not at all clear and leading experts in the area have divergent opinions with some predicting website owners will stop creating content that is needed to train AI bots and answer user queries without citing the sources of the information. Others predict a robust future for websites despite the challenge of AI, although they might be less optimistic about the eventual survival of Google search.
As Google turns 25 I think website owners need to give serious consideration to the future of not only Google but of search in a time when AI appears to offer an easier and more user-friendly alternative for user’s information needs. Of course, AI offers its own set of challenges, not the least of which is inaccurate information. One advantage of using search engine results is the ability to judge the veracity of information. For instance, I’m more trusting of a news report from the Washington Post versus some website I’ve never heard of before. Similarly, I’m more trusting of a professional-looking website over one that looks unprofessional. AI delivers results without the necessary quality signals needed to build trust and provide confidence in the answers.
Another problem emerging as AI becomes more readily available is that it appears AI has some inherent biases that make it a less trustworthy source of information.
Thus, in the short run, I believe websites are here to stay and are worth the effort and money poured into them by website owners. I do suggest that companies begin to expand their marketing tools beyond websites such as social media and influencer marketing, especially on platforms that don’t allow AI bots to scrape content. Building a strong community online offers an alternative if, and when, websites lose their ability to support brands.
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