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  • Writer's pictureJakob Nielsen

Website Survival Without SEO in the Age of AI

Summary: Content creators face reduced search traffic due to AI's prowess in delivering tailored answers, challenging traditional SEO strategies. Social will also drive less traffic. Permission marketing will be the main way to survive on the Internet.

After reading my recent article, “SEO Is Dead, Long Live AI-Summarized Answers,” anybody who produces content for a living will ask the same question: When users get great individual answers from AI and when AI creates custom articles optimized for the user’s needs, why would anybody visit my website?

The answer is that content providers should expect drastically reduced traffic from search engines and AI services. Search engines will decline in use as AI gets better and better. Sure, one of the popular AI services in the future may be named “Google,” but it won’t be a search engine as we know it. With less use of search, websites will see less search-derived traffic, which is why I say that SEO is dead. It simply can’t be your strategy for attracting business in the future.

AI services will get more use as users discover that they get superior answers from AI. But more use of AI will not translate into more referred traffic to websites. At rare times, users may click one of the provided references for more information, but they will do so much less often than they clicked on search result links.

AI provides so much more useful information right within that custom-written short article that it’s rare for users to check the footnotes. If people want more detailed information, they will frequently ask the AI a follow-up question. Either they’ll click one of the provided follow-ups, or they will use accordion editing to request that the same answer be rewritten with more details.

Search is becoming the old-school way for users to get their questions answered. This will reduce the SEO-derived traffic to your website. (Dall-E.)

Should You Exclude Your Content from AI Scraping?

Given that AI-created answers will drastically reduce the traffic you used to get from search, the obvious next question from any website owner is: Should I help AI large-language models construct better answers and better custom-written articles by allowing them to scrape my content for training data, or should I block AI access to my site?

I advise against blocking AI from accessing your content for two reasons:

  • Altruism: We have a duty to humanity to help AI tools get as powerful as possible. Better AI creates enormous gains in productivity and living standards for everybody in the world. Improved AI will be particularly useful to many people in poor countries where AI is the only feasible way to access many services since skilled human providers are too expensive (or are not available). To make future AI better, we all must feed it the best training data possible, which includes our content.

  • Self-Interest: I realize that many companies may not be particularly motivated to help AI improve the quality of life for people in developing countries. But the companies themselves will also benefit from being included in the training data: Training AI on your content means that you have a chance of being one of those featured sources that a few users will click. While this will not create nearly the same traffic you used to receive from SEO, some traffic is better than no traffic. If you are not in the training data, all those sourcing links will go to your competitors. This analysis is very similar to the question of whether to opt out of being indexed by Google: if your site doesn’t show up in the search results listing, users will click your competitors’ links instead.

Don’t assume that by denying AI your content, it won’t be able to answer users’ questions in your domain. AI will train on other companies’ content plus the masses of sporadic comments on social media, allowing it to build up the same knowledge base. No information is so rare that it can only be found on your website. Your exact perspective and way of phrasing things may be unique, but that’s not what AI needs. It’s writing its own custom-made answer to each user’s questions, synthesizing the answer across a myriad of sources. One less source won’t make any difference to the answer, except to the list of sources and to the traffic driven by that list.

AI hoovers up information nuggets from everything ever published to construct responses to inquiries. Deny AI access to include your content in its training data, and it may miss a tiny tessera (colored brick), but the synthesized mosaic will be much the same. (Dall-E.)

The ability of AI to feed on social media comments is an interesting way in which it demonstrates its superiority to search. Yes, search can index social, and now and then, a particularly good posting may appear in the search results. But the immense masses of low-quality social posts will never be seen and thus don’t enrich answers for search users. In contrast, AI feeds from a wide trough and gobbles up everything.

Insightful or novel info may be few and far between in social media posts. Still, millions of them collectively contain more insights than even the best individual article by a leading expert. It would be presumptuous of me to claim that this current piece provides more wisdom than the whole of the Internet put together. It’s still better for you to read me than to read the Internet because you would be swamped by garbage on the net and never benefit from good stuff scattered across a sentence here and five words there. But AI can compile all that and put the best bits together in those custom-written articles it creates for each user, specifically about their current needs.

AI is like pigs feeding from a very wide trough. It indiscriminately consumes all content and finds nourishment in even the most minor contribution, stitching them all together into a solid quilt to mix metaphors. (Pigs by Midjourney.)

Website Survival in the New World

How can your business survive the almost complete loss of SEO traffic in the future when AI-driven traffic will be a tiny and insufficient substitute?

You need other ways of reaching your customers.

Internet survival always was always a three-legged stool, with legs in order of importance being:

  1. Search

  2. Social

  3. Email

In the future, you’ll still want to sit on a three-legged stool, but a skinny AI leg will replace the sturdy search leg. The new legs, in order of importance, will be:

  1. Email

  2. Social

  3. AI

To survive on the Internet, you should sit on a 3-legged stool. In order of importance, the legs used to be Search, Social, Email. Soon, they’ll be Email, Social, AI. (Stool by Midjourney.)

While it’s sad to replace the intense flood of SEO-driven traffic with a thin trickle of AI-footnote-driven traffic, those are the facts. Wailing won’t help.

The good news is that you can retain strong connections with your most valuable customers through the oldest of all the Internet media forms: email. Yes, it’s old, but email will now be the best way of reaching customers because it’s entirely under your control.

Social will remain as the stool’s middle leg, but it’s not under your control. You’re at the mercy of products and people with names starting with X or Z. Sometimes their whims may favor you, but depending on whims is no way to run a railroad. Also, as generative AI makes it ever-cheaper to produce content, the overwhelming amount of content in every user’s social feed will make it nearly impossible for yours to stand out, regardless of its excellence. The effectiveness of social media as a customer connection tool is diminishing, and posting content there will soon be as futile as throwing a bottle with a message into the Pacific Ocean from Japan, hoping to gain a reader in New Zealand.

Marketing manager from Toyota launching an aggressive social media campaign to sell more cars in New Zealand: tossing not one, but two bottled messages into the Pacific Ocean. (Midjourney.)

I strongly recommend that you start now to build up your email list while you still have SEO traffic to feed the ravenous beast. Email is proper permission marketing, as emphasized by the world’s leading Internet marketing guru, Seth Godin. Empirically, my analytics show that my newsletter produces about 70 times more article reads than LinkedIn on a per-person basis. That is, it’s 70 times more valuable for me to gain an email subscriber than a social media follower. Of course, your number may differ, but for almost all companies, adding a well-supported email leg to your stool will be the way to survive the loss of search-driven traffic.

Infographic to Summarize My Two Search Articles

My analysis of search vs. AI for answering users’ questions is in two articles:

This infographic summarizes both articles in a single image:

Feel free to copy or reuse this infographic, provided you give this URL as the source.


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