Google’s AI Overview + The Shrinking SERP

May 08, 2024

Katie Tweedy
The SERP is transforming with the emergence of Google's Search Generative Experience. Keep reading to explore how these changes redefine SEO tactics.

Google’s AI Overview + The Shrinking SERP

The search engine result page (SERP) is shrinking. It’s been shrinking for years, just slowly enough that it’s barely noticeable, like that cotton shirt you’ve washed one too many times in hot water and is now an unintentional belly shirt. But as Google prepares to broadly roll out its AI Overviews (formerly known as Google’s Search Generative Experience), the smaller SERP is suddenly in a stark reality.

As a reminder, Google’s AI Overview is a new search feature that uses AI to provide answers to search queries. AI Overview results are far more comprehensive than Quick Answers, a popular SERP feature, and in essence become their own mini SERPs. While AI Overview has a myriad of impacts to SEO and digital marketing, the sheer amount of space this new search feature can take up is of immediate note. For once launched, the SERP will have even less real estate for brands to play in.

How did we get here?

Over time, Google has continued to test and iterate its search experience by adding, moving and lengthening paid search ads, adding and editing search features like People Also Ask, the Knowledge Graph, and Google Maps, introducing the infinite scroll (which seems to serve paid ads more often), and testing rich snippets that enhance organic listings like ratings and recipe markup to name a few.

Designed to enhance the search experience and keep the searcher on Google for as long as possible, these changes to the SERP have also slowly shrunk the available space. A page that used to give 10 out of 10 spots to websites now might only have 8 available spaces on page 1, the rest given to paid ads and carousels. For more competitive searches, over 50% of the search space available is taken by paid ads and SERP features.

To add fuel to the fire, as part of Google’s recent Helpful Content algorithm updates the search space is now littered with third-party aggregators and discussion forums all in an attempt to rank unbiased content ahead of branded content. This means that for high value terms, digital marketers may be fighting for 20% of the space available on page 1. That’s bleak.

Then layer in the impending AI Overviews, a search feature that when expanded is easily double to triple the length of a traditional featured snippet, and digital marketers could be fighting for one to two organic spaces on page 1 of Google.

What should marketers do?

So, the SERP is shrinking.  Instead of bemoaning the good old days of the 10 blue links, marketers should take a beat and remember that search is inherently in a constant state of change. This change is not bad; it’s not the death of SEO. People will still turn to search to find information, and people will still visit websites for all the same reasons they do today. It simply means that, once again, tactics will have to shift and evolve.

What does this shrinking SERP mean for marketers? AI Overviews will at least initially focus on informational, high funnel queries like “what degree do you need to become a nurse.” That could also include common brand questions, like “what is [your brand’s] return policy.” This means there are a few tactics marketers should tackle when planning for AI Overviews. First, marketers should conduct a brand audit to ensure AI Overview learns from and pulls in answers to brand questions from the brand website, not a third-party. Marketers should also optimize content to try and be pulled into relevant AI Overview results and double down on those crucial mid-funnel topics to capture the non-brand traffic not targeted by AI Overview and where ranking will be less competitive. And finally, marketers should ensure they know what questions their audiences are asking and provide helpful answers from the brand’s unique perspective. That tactic will always be successful, no matter the changes to the search landscape.