The organic search landscape in 2024: what senior marketers need to know

Following Embryo’s recent CMO conference, where we had the privilege of some of the country’s most respected marketing leaders joining us for two days, here’s a round-up of our key need-to-knows for senior marketers wanting to stay up-to-date with what’s important in SEO in 2024.

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What do we mean by search in 2024?

It’s important to make the distinction between a search engine and a search behaviour. Whereas a search engine is a platform, search behaviour can be carried out on many platforms (not just search engines), and we’re starting to see this increasingly across non-traditional platforms such as TikTok. It’s worth noting that this behaviour will vary depending on factors such as demographic, search intent, and topic or industry. As with voice search, some queries seek deeper information, so will continue to best suit traditional search engines such as Google.

Search engine market share

search engine market share

Data: Statista

In this piece, we’ll focus on Google’s search platform. Whilst Bing has clearly experienced a growth in its market share over the past year, at the detriment of Google, there’s still a significant way to go before the players in the search engine space alter dramatically. As marketers, we know it takes time to change behaviour patterns, and this is no different.

A brief history of recent algorithm updates

Google’s renowned for constant testing and iteration of its search algorithms; some are explicitly announced, many more remain unconfirmed. Some are seen across the web, whereas others are seemingly contained at an industry or even keyword-theme level. We’re also experiencing a higher-than-ever frequency of confirmed updates. But I’d suggest that the last 8 months of major updates provides a telling (and condensed) summary of what should continue to be valued and prioritised in an organic search strategy in 2024:

October 2023

  • Spam update – targeting content considered thin, spammy, and duplicate, amongst other factors
  • Helpful content update (mark 3) – continuation of 2022’s big update to evaluate what content can truly be considered helpful to users

November 2023

  • Reviews update – targeting sites with reviews content: are they high-quality reviews?

May 2024

  • Site reputation abuse update – targeting third-party sites that exist primarily for ranking purposes
  • (For a more expansive timeline of what Google’s up to, as well as the latest changes to other digital channels, visit our industry updates page.)

lloyd at our cmo event

Back to (SEO) first principles?

Ultimately, the common thread throughout these updates still puts the user – or person, to put it in real terms! – at the heart of the search experience. Google’s mission statement, after all, is to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

In three words, the updates centre around:

  1. Quality
  2. Legitimacy (more on this later)
  3. Intent

And so, despite some hysteria in certain corners of the internet, the key tenets and principles of a sustainable SEO strategy remain the same: a technically sound, trusted website, with high-quality content informed by a solid understanding of your audience, is the ultimate (and ongoing) goal. For senior marketers who aren’t hands-on running SEO campaigns, this is the primary takeaway.

What does an organic search result look like in 2024?

As has been the case for several years, gone are the days of ten blue links representing the first page of Google’s search results. Now SERPs surface a wide variety of formats, differing from keyword to keyword. This is based on Google’s interpretation of what type of content would best serve the intent of the searcher. But crucially, on some SERPs, ranking in position number 1 doesn’t guarantee a click. Sometimes this first position result can appear halfway down the page – and certainly below the ‘fold’ in the immediate field of vision.

In these instances, it may be video results taking pole position – particularly if your target query involves a “how to” intent. Similarly, the People Also Ask feature may be prominent, meaning your content needs to answer commonly asked questions.

This evolution highlights the need for SEO teams to go beyond keyword research tools and get ‘hands-on’ with SERPs, to understand how their audience likely wants to consume the content they’re seeking.

Ranking outside the box?

Increasingly, it’s necessary to look beyond the channel you’re trying to succeed in, in order to achieve results in that channel. SEO is no different, and many of the recent spam-related updates point to the need for brands to appear online as true businesses – not just faceless websites. A key consideration to this end is Google’s Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness, or EEAT, guidelines. Does your website’s digital footprint give the impression of authenticity and originality? This is where websites which only exist for ranking purposes are being weeded out, and the need for a business with a strong product-market fit, and a story to tell, becomes ever more important.

This is another example where the overlap between search engine and user requirements is evident; as we covered above, Google seeks to surface results which truly benefit its users. So a piece of content written by an expert in their field reassures users and search engines alike. Ultimately, this can make it (relatively) easier to understand SEO: by focusing on what’s important to your customer and pursuing this as a critical path, you’ll not be far off from what Google also values.

embryos cmo event

AI in organic search: the hottest of hot topics

We left the big one until last. Partly because this is such a fast-moving topic, that there’s something new every day. AI in organic search can be divided into two key sub-topics:

  • AI search results
  • Using AI to write content

AI search results

Something that’s seeped beyond Marketing Land and into the wider public realm is the introduction of AI-generated search results. Initially being rolled out in the US to users logged into their Google account, at the time of writing, AI search results are garnering attention for the wrong reasons. Hallucinations, a natural by-product of the training process of large language models, have ranged from nonsensical and amusing (“What’s a fruit ending in -um?” – “coconut” ) to potentially extremely dangerous ‘health’ advice.

Many of the more concerning results have been traced back to Reddit, which Google forged a partnership with earlier this year, to mine its content for LLM training. So currently, we’re seeing a direct contradiction of Google’s own advice around EEAT being manifested through the generative AI search trials.

This raises the question of whether eventually, legislative interventions will put a stop to certain AI capabilities, certainly within organic search; when the legal system is already struggling to legislate for the advances in technology that AI has brought, will we see a blanket ban on AI-generated results? What’s more likely is that, as exists currently, there’ll be a degree of self-policing amongst companies such as Google – as seen with its your money, your life (YMYL) classification for sites considered high stakes, such as healthcare or financial services.

It’ll certainly be interesting to see where public opinion within the wider population settles with AI search results; will people appreciate and readily adopt the ‘shortcut’ that generated results give them? Will there be a lack of trust? Will we start to see a migration away from Google if the user experience becomes unreliable? Realistically, this will vary based on search intent and user demographic; there’ll undoubtedly be some more sceptical searchers (myself included!) who will likely always prefer doing some of their ‘own research.’

Using AI to write content

Whilst undoubtedly a way to rapidly produce website content, using AI wholly to populate your website with content has drawbacks. Predominantly, in achieving the essential pillars of quality and originality which we’ve referenced throughout this article. However, for a balanced view, as has become evident through successful applications of AI in other situations, the quality of output from an AI tool is predicated on the quality of the input through prompts and training of the language models upon which the tool is based.

Google’s guidelines have changed in the last few months, to no longer say “content written BY people” to content written “FOR” people.

To quote straight from the digital horse’s mouth:

“Google’s ranking systems aim to reward original, high-quality content that demonstrates qualities of what we call E-E-A-T.

Our focus on the quality of content, rather than how content is produced, is a useful guide that has helped us deliver reliable, high-quality results to users for years.

Using automation—including AI—to generate content with the primary purpose of manipulating ranking in search results is a violation of our spam policies.”

Embryo’s advice to our clients remains to use AI as a support in your research and planning, but certainly stop short of using it end-to-end.

The bottom line

Overall, the broad theme of what ‘works’ in SEO in 2024, hasn’t massively changed from previous years. Only perhaps there’s a continued move to being customer-centric; so in something of a paradox, focusing more on your customer, and less on “doing SEO” you ultimately achieve better (and more sustainable) SEO outcomes.

As search as we know it continues to evolve, such as with the roll-out of generative AI search results, will we see a point where the infallibility of Google begins to emerge? Watch this space.

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