Technology Top Stories
9 mins read

Hey, Google. What’s the future of search for publishers?

Media was always better when it owned direct relationships with its consumers. Then, conventional wisdom held that it is okay to disintermediate in the race for traffic and scale.

Now, with developments such as Facebook falling out of love with news, Twitter going X on us, and the future of search with the potential impact of Search Generative Experience (SGE, providing narratives rather than lists with links in response to search queries), we’re coming full circle.

So, what is the future of search?

In this article, we asked expert opinion on:

  • What the history of search tells us.
  • Short- to medium-term changes.
  • The future of “the web of links”.
  • Human factors in search.
  • Elements to consider for the future.

If I have to summarise it in one word right now, that word will be quality.

The Expert

Stuart Forrest is the Global SEO Director for Bauer Media, based in London. There he looks after organic search audience acquisition across Bauer’s global portfolio, with teams in the UK and Germany.

Bauer has an “enormous digital footprint, with brands in the UK such as MCN, Parkers, Car, Grazia, Empire, Mother & Baby. In Germany, Bauer operates in women’s lifestyle, automotive, consumer technology, entertainment, food, etc. As a diverse digital business, it’s also one with a wide range of skills and maturity in organic search,” he explains. His role “is to accelerate their capability and ensure that organic search is a competitive advantage for Bauer”.

Stuart is best described as a media exec who now works in SEO rather than an SEO exec working in media. “I’ve had my whole career in media, and from a background in sales, I moved into publishing, first print and then exclusively digital B2C brands, starting my career at Haymarket, and then via Immediate Media, Future and now to Bauer.

No matter what people think of SEO, with organic growth making up nearly 60% of total traffic for most publishers, they must be “brilliant [at SEO] to deliver audiences” to their platforms.

It is in this capacity as a media/SEO specialist that I spoke to Stuart about AI and the future of search, a topic, which he will also discuss at our Media Makers Meet (Mx3) AI summit in London on 7 December, which we’re hosting in collaboration with Media Voices.

My questions to Stuart follow something I posted on LinkedIn earlier this year about AI and how search results may be delivered, and more recently, after listening to a Blueconic podcast with The Rebooting’s Brian Morrissey and A Media Operator’s Jacob Donnelly on AI and search.

The crux of their argument was that with search potentially less reliable, and Facebook falling out of love with news, publishers with quality content, excellent first-party data, and strong direct-to-consumer relationships will be in better shape than those that do not.

Of course, when it comes to the future of search, it is not all black and white. Google will not suddenly switch to summary-only results and do away with link-based results. Besides, Google does not operate in the same way year after year.

As Stuart points out, the bigger challenge for publishers may come from the way their future consumers engage with media in altogether new ways.

Search over the years & the human factor

There have been enormous changes in search over the years, including how it “favours high-quality content from well-known brands such as ours,” he explains.

Understanding how (and why) search has changed requires an understanding of what Google is trying to achieve. It’s very simple; it wants to do the best possible job of meeting the needs of consumers by matching them to the right content. If it does that, they will come back, and it’s that which powers Google’s own advertising business.

Google has become much better at understanding nuances of intent when users search and the results it delivers in response. Stuart explains:

“We’ve seen a few big themes increasingly characterise the search landscape.

  • Firstly, search is now more personalised than ever, as Google uses more and more information from our online behaviour and the search query itself to decide what to serve in response. Two people using similar search queries may now see quite different results.”
  • Secondly, Google is working harder to ensure that high-quality content is served to users. It isn’t always successful at this, but it is the case that more and more emphasis is being placed on quality ‘signals’ in content. By that, we mean explicitly demonstrating experience, expertise, authority and trustworthiness in the content we produce, the author who produces it, and the domain which publishes it.”
  • Finally, and this is perhaps why Mx3 AI is happening at all, artificial intelligence increasingly drives what we see in the SERP (Search Engine Results Page) and how we interact with search results. We’re also on the verge of seeing Google’s proprietary AI delivered into the SERP, possibly in competition with our content as publishers, in Search Generative Experience (SGE).”

But it isn’t all change.

What hasn’t changed,” says Stuart, “is the role of humans in deciding how effective Google’s results are. Google use 16,000 human ‘search quality raters’ to effectively mark its homework and decide if results meet consumers’ needs. So, in a world of AI, Machine Learning, and other technologies, humans still play an important role in deciding what we see in those search results pages.

Short- to medium-term change

Gazillion words have been typed, and angry Twitter-ex rants exchanged about Google flip-flopping with sometimes unexpected and surprising changes. However, Stuart believes that is not really the case. “If you are surprised, then you haven’t been listening.

He believes we will see the same thematic changes continue but with more impact as time passes. For media businesses, this means:

  • “That the quality and helpfulness of content will continue to grow in importance, as will their ability to understand what this means and how to differentiate content that delivers or does not. Publishers do not want to be in the latter category, and I believe we have only ourselves to blame if we are.”
  • “Media, particularly those which have grown out of brands with long and successful track records in successful print products, have quality in their DNA. We must ensure that we play to our strengths and thrive in this landscape. Our long track record of providing high-quality content to our consumers should make it easier for us to turn that to our advantage than some other operators in the digital landscape.”

One question looms large.

The worrying shadow on the X-ray of all of this is SGE (Search Generative Experience),” says Stuart, “and what it might do to our traffic from search when it is finally moved out of the US-only prototype and into mainstream global search results.

There, it threatens to soak up actual referral traffic from search by providing consumers with the answers they need on the results page without requiring a click to our sites. That could completely upend our business model by disintermediating publishers using the content we’ve invested heavily in to deliver the (narrative-form) results.

However, as Stuart points out, there is pause for thought.

Google has been more conciliatory and engaged with publishers than Meta over at least a 5-year span, AI is expensive for it to deliver and in some cases threatens to undermine their own search advertising model, and so it’s unlikely to feature in every search result.

With Meta dumping news and Twitter going X, some publishers saw traffic numbers plummet in 2023. Even with concerns, Google feels like the better bet.

For most quality publishers, Google represents 60% or more of our traffic,” says Stuart, “and I don’t see that changing imminently. Publishers should continue to explore alternative platforms but not lose sight of the fact that we have vigorous and increasingly diverse digital business models that depend on our ability to continue to generate traffic from search.

Bye-bye to the web of links?

Stuart does not believe the “web of links” will disappear, as some speculate, but things will change.

We’ve seen this to degrees already where Google has started to provide answers in the SERP (Search Engine Results Page) to some types of queries, undermining the business models of publishers who’ve dealt exclusively in simple question and answer content (such as ‘how tall is x celebrity?’) or tools-based content such as calculators or price comparison.

“SGE (Search Generative Results) undoubtedly presents a threat, and publishers must continue diversifying their content propositions to ensure that Google can’t simply replicate our content wholesale in the SERP. How we do that will vary by vertical and will be a challenge for all of us. It’s going to get harder, no doubt.”

That said, “Google is unlikely to undermine its own advertising-driven business model, and there is evidence that SGE panels are becoming less intrusive as time goes on,” Stuart explains, “not appearing at all when a regular SERP result does the job as well or requiring an active click from users before showing.

Fundamentally, I don’t believe that AI, either in content creation or how search results are displayed, will ever be able to compensate for the expertise and experience of real humans. It undoubtedly has the potential to become an exoskeleton for content creators, making them better informed, more productive and more effective in how they meet the needs of their audiences, but it can’t replicate that underlying experience or expertise.

Power to the people

While there may not be a doomsday link scenario, publishers must remain vigilant to spot changes in consumer behaviour. This is perhaps the bigger challenge.

As consumers, we have become increasingly sophisticated in how we use the web and search engines, and we will continue to do so. We cannot expect to hold back that progress, but we must keep pace with it,” explains Stuart.

Publishers who’ve built the most successful business models online so far have been those who’ve stayed close to how their consumers use the web and used it to their advantage. I don’t see that changing from either side, but it will become harder and demand more sophistication from publishers to keep pace.

Four steps to positioning for the future

Stuart lists four steps publishers should take to future-proof themselves.

  • Firstly, from a Google perspective, listen and listen really carefully to what Google says it wants to provide consumers in search. Then deliver it. Google isn’t quite the black box that people tend to think, and the signals around the rising importance of providing consumers with genuinely helpful content from high-quality writers in a safe, fast and easy-to-use digital environment have been there for some time. The most successful publishers have been those who’ve embraced that as part of their audience development strategies. Those who don’t do so will see their lunch taken away.”
  • Secondly, consider how SGE could undermine your business model if the worst happens. Google has introduced some tools to allow publishers to stop them from crawling content, so we don’t have to allow Google to crawl and display it. I believe publishers should block content from other AI platforms, such as OpenAI, where there’s no clear value exchange yet, if for no other reason than that it gives us a position from which to negotiate and protects our IP.”
  • Thirdly, publishers should work together on this. As an industry, we’re pretty effective at coming together to fight the big fights, and we’re stronger and better able to wield influence with the big platforms when we do so collectively. Trade bodies such as the PPA in the UK are doing great work here, with guidance for members just published, and they’re actively influencing the legislative agenda around this topic. I also think that publishers can use the power of their voices and their audience reach to remind consumers why real content, produced by real experts and with real experience, will always better meet their needs than something produced by a machine.”
  • Finally, don’t be content to allow Google to own all your relationships with consumers. I see organic search as the top of an engagement funnel that must have a direct relationship with our consumers as its ultimate aim. Publishers who do nothing to try to engage and retain the consumers they succeed in acquiring via search with direct relationships via newsletters, apps or registration/paywalls are missing the opportunity.

A fifth element: The next generation

According to Stuart, there have been and always will be “unknown unknowns” for publishers, so at least most publishers are primed for disruption. “Will Meta pivot again and decide it likes publishers after all (maybe)? Will publisher-owned communities and forums enjoy the comeback that some think (unlikely)?” he asks.

However, the main trend he sees comes not from the technology but from consumers themselves.

“I think the existential threat for publishers in the longer term comes from the behaviours of our future consumers and if we have a role to play. My pre-teenage children don’t really use Google or have any affinity with print-to-digital brands. For them, Snapchat or TikTok occupy by far the majority of their media consumption.”

“On a recent break in Amsterdam, I was struck by how differently they behaved to us when seeking information online. For restaurant or sightseeing inspiration Google Maps or Search aren’t the default first choice platforms. Will that change as they age, or will Google and Meta play a less dominant role for the next generation of consumers?” 

Search that!

Media Makers Meet – Live!
Stuart will be at Mx3 AI in London on 7 December to speak about AI, the future of search and media. Meet him there. Click here to see the draft agenda and to sign up.

Our other upcoming events
>> Mx3 Barcelona focuses squarely on innovation in media, emphasising creator-led, consumer, and B2B media operating in and across media verticals. It takes place from 12-13 March.
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>> The FIPP World Media Congress, which we produce on license from FIPP, takes place from 4-6 June in Cascais, Portugal. The magazine media world’s flagship global event, this will be the 46th edition since it first launched in Paris in 1925.
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