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EPISODE 8 – Hannah Millist

Understanding the impact of SGE on SEO, with Hannah Millist

For the last 20 years, if you wanted to find something out online, you almost certainly used Google to start the process. But in what feels like the blink of an eye, AI has come along and promises to disrupt how people discover, interact with and understand the whole of the internet. 

Joining me in this episode is Hannah Millist, founder of TwoGether Digital, where we talk about how Google is experimenting with AI in its search results, and how businesses can get their content to be SGE ready.

In this episode, we discuss:

  • What SGE is
  • How you can test SGE out before it gets released to the UK 
  • How AI’s integration into search results is likely to impact SEO and web traffic
  • The type of content that Google seems to prioritise in its SGE responses

CONNECT

 

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Episode Transcript
Episode transcript

For the last 20 years, if you wanted to find something out online, you almost certainly used Google to start the process. But in what feels like the blink of an eye, AI has come along and promises to disrupt how people discover, interact with and understand the whole of the internet. Joining me today is Hannah Millist, founder of TwoGether Digital, where we’ll talk about how Google is experimenting with AI and its search results, and how businesses can get their content to be SGE ready.

Hannah, welcome to the podcast. Hello there. Lovely to be here. Great to see you again. Thank you. Hannah, for everyone who’s listening, can you just start off with a bit of an introduction to you, a bit of background to you and your career? Yeah, I originally didn’t start off in marketing for my career.

I, I actually was a teacher, a secondary school teacher, and, I took a career break to have my children and then when I started thinking about what I wanted to do next, when they started going to school, I just got really interested in blogging and, Sort of the online sort of community and the online world and yeah One of my friends needed some help because he had dyslexia and he couldn’t write the content he needed for his website For his catering business.

So he actually asked me to help And I had to learn very quickly about SEO about writing content how to get that content to rank the purpose of that content and actually through that I just got really enthusiastic about it and just learnt more and more. And before I knew it, I had several people asking me to do it and I, set myself up as a freelancer and then eventually it got to the point where I had enough clients that I thought, actually, this is something I really want to push on with.

So I actually, so me and my husband actually to get set up to get the digital together. So and that’s what I’ve been doing for the last sort of three years. And who are the clients that you typically work with now? So I tend to work, with more of the sort of B2B clients. so for example, I work with, some clients in the non destructive testing industry, the, the tick industry, which is related to the oil and gas kind of, industry.

And I work, I’ve worked with, I’ve worked with, catering companies, I’ve worked with cleaning companies, I’ve worked with recruitment, agencies, and I have done some B2Cs, I’ve worked with some local electricians and that kind of thing as well, but yeah, but generally it tends to be more towards the TIC industry.

What do you, I’ve not heard of that expression before, TIC? Testing Inspection and Certification. Oh, I see. Yeah. There you go. it’s, regardless of the industry, the principles of search engine optimization. remain pretty much the same, don’t they? Yeah, everyone needs good content and everyone needs to, be building their brand online and generating leads.

So it’s, yeah, it’s all, good stuff. Brilliant. Thank you very much. look, when we spoke before, you were telling me about some really interesting stuff you’ve been doing, just testing the latest developments in Google’s, labs, particularly around SGE. It’s not something that I’m massively familiar with.

I’m sure a lot of people in the audience, it’s something that’s new to them as well. Can you just give a bit of an overview of what SGE is? Yeah, so SGE stands for Search Generative Experience and it’s Google’s, latest, experiment really. with AI. And the idea is that, on search, at the moment, you type in a search query, a list of websites come up, you might get certain features like featured snippets and all the other different things that Google brings in.

But actually, generally speaking, it’s like a list of links and you have to click through to the website in order to find the information. Generally speaking and whereas actually with search generative experience that will change when you go on to Google you will actually Type in your search query and Google’s AI will actually generate a response for you And that will be presented to you at the top of the page and only then When you scroll down, will you start getting the list of, websites as we’ve seen in the past.

So it’s really, different. and the way it pulls information and the way it presents that information changes based on what search query you actually put in. So it is really gonna. shake things up, it’s going to be, it, will change the way people use Google, I think. Yeah, I can imagine it’s going to make a huge difference.

just, thinking about using Google SGE. It’s not something that I’ve tried yet. I don’t think it’s available in the UK yet. How have you managed to test it? no. So at the moment it’s in labs, but you can only really, which is, you have to get an account and actually, request to have a go.

and it’s only in certain territories. I think still in the experimentation phase. You can get it if you’re in the US or in Japan or in India, places like that. But actually in the UK, you can’t actually get hold of it yet. And Google’s still playing around with it and trying to figure out how to use it and present it to users.

Yeah. Okay. So you’ve been, you’ve created an account and then, just, I don’t know, tricked Google into thinking that you’re based, say in the US or Gambia or wherever. Yeah. Yeah. You can use a VPN to do it. And then, yeah. And then you just have to make sure you’ve got like a, not a, business Google account, but a personal Google account and then you can, trick it and you can have a little bit of a go.

Yeah. But it’s, it’s interesting. You mentioned so that the, AI generated results appears at the top and I think more and more in Google search results, There is more stuff appearing above the fold and that’s going to be adding to it. is there a type of query that Google will present that style of information for?

or is it universal? Is it they provide that style of result for absolutely everything? no, I don’t think it’s, I don’t think it’s going to be for absolutely everything. I think it’s, I think Up until now, really, it’s obviously, because they’re playing around with it, you can’t know 100%, but around about 85 percent of queries are showing an SGE result.

So I don’t think it’s going to be for everything, but it’s going to be for queries where you’re trying to get information as a, as a, That’s the order of the day or you’re trying to make a decision or discern something so so for example, if you were asking, what’s the pros and cons of building your own patio versus by asking somebody to build it for you or, something like of that nature, you would it would pull through an answer.

Or if you were asking for, if you’re asking for, you’re looking for a product. So you’re saying, find me a red dress, then actually, you would get an SGE response. If you were asking for, what are the top 10 reasons to outsource my cleaning? to a cleaning, commercial cleaning company, then you’d get an SGE result.

So it’s, those kind of queries that would actually get the response. Yeah. And where’s Google getting this information from? Is it creating it from scratch or is it sourcing it from around the web? Oh, controversial. so Google kind of claims that they are using the information out there to then generate Kind of the response and when it’s presented to you get it’s almost like a very giant featured snippet in a way like a huge one and You then get a little carousel of websites now Google says that they’re not pulling the information directly from those websites and they’re not copy and pasting the information But they are websites that corroborate the answer that SG is given.

So the wording is very careful. So I wonder if they’re worrying about like lots of people lots of SEO specialists are saying Oh, they’re worrying about getting done for copyright if they haven’t stopped them so far though, I know but I just think it’d be just I find the wording quite interesting.

I think you know, if you If you look, the way, it’s presented next to the, answer, you you’re like, is it from there or is it not? it’s not a direct citation. It just, and I think some people have done experiments, where actually they found, That some of the answers have actually, they’ve found almost the exact wording on a website that’s been pulled through.

So I think there’s probably a degree, there’s some tiny bits of copy and paste, but actually it’s supposed to be AI generated. This all sounds very similar to what I did during my GCSE history. Yeah, a little bit. Changing a few words here and there, just enough to sneak past the examiner. Yeah, I think so.

I think that’s probably what’s going on. Okay. that’s interesting. I didn’t realise that they’d provide, like you said, a carousel of, websites where they’re, I suppose it’s corroborating the information, even if it’s not just repeating it verbatim. Yeah. Yeah. And there’s like little chevrons that you can click on that as you, go down the answer that then provides even more websites that are backing up what they’re saying.

yeah, I suppose a concern from the SEO industry and website owners as well will be that if that becomes more and more prevalent, the traffic that they would otherwise have been getting to their website for answering those sorts of queries. And they’ve probably spent quite a lot of time, effort and money optimizing their sites.

So it appears in the search terms for those relevant search results for those relevant queries. People aren’t going to be leaving Google at all for that. Yeah, I think there’s definitely going to be an impact on, on, on informational sort of traffic, you get to your website for informational, search, terms.

And I think, Yeah, I think it’s inevitable. Why would you, if you’re just looking for a very simple answer to something, Google gives you that answer on its homepage, its search results page. Why would you click through to another website? Like, why would you? And so I think, and I think because the AI can, manipulate the answer so it exactly matches what you want.

You don’t even have to, so up until now, you would type in a query and then if the first result wasn’t exactly what you wanted, you can, keep going down the list until you find something that’s, exactly what you want. Whereas with AI, it can just, it can whatever you type in, you can get almost the exact right answer.

And the chances, I think, if you’re maybe the first website on the carousel next to the answer, you may get a click through, but actually after that point, it’s, it’s very unlikely. so I think, if your, SEO, strategy is based on building lots of blogs that bring you traffic in for informational searches, you’re gonna have to rethink what you’re doing, or you’re gonna have to try and rank at, one of the top, one of the top positions in the carousel.

Yeah, and I think my gut feel on all of this is it’s actually quite a healthy thing for the search industry to have to adapt to. Yeah. Sorry, you carry on. Yeah, no, From a user’s point of view, I think it’s brilliant actually. I really like it. particularly if you’re looking for a product, because it keeps you out, because, it’s presenting the information as, as much as it can in an, unbiased way.

You’re not being clicking through to a website and then getting caught in like an excellent sales funnel where you get drawn down to buying that product. Whereas maybe, whereas actually, if you’d had more time to think about it, maybe that wouldn’t have been the right fit for you. So I think if you’re a consumer or if you’re trying to really get a broad overview of a topic in as unbiased a way as possible, actually, I think it’s gonna be really good.

and I think, it’s going to save you a lot of time, like it does actually do that. And I think, Google did say that was one of the reasons it was doing it was because it wants to give people information as quickly as possible. That is part of its sort of mission. And, actually it does do that.

So, from the user or the consumer’s point of view, I think it’s excellent. Yeah, I totally agree and I’m sure we’ve all had the similar frustrations of looking for a recipe or something similar online I do it all the time look for a recipe Click on the top result or even it’s probably any of the top three five results or so It’s an exact match and it’s really well reviewed and all that you’re desperate to get the recipe and you’ve got to scroll through pages and pages of background story Oh, I remember when my grandmother passed this recipe down to me and she learned it from her and it’s amazing I don’t care.

Tell me the ingredients. Tell me the steps I need to do. And if Google can, for all of the other searches that are being manipulated by search marketers in that same way, if Google can strip that out, that’s got to be a better experience for the user. But I also think it’s actually beneficial for the industry as a whole because so frequently I’ll see questions, I follow quite a few different search forums, and someone will ask a well meaning question like, oh yeah, I’ve got a client and we’re struggling to optimise for, I don’t know, video production.

And then there’s a load of responses saying, Ah, but you’ve got so much that you can start optimising for. Start reviewing camera lenses. And I’m just thinking, Why on earth would a video production company want to be attracting people who are interested in camera lenses? They’re trying to sell video production services, Yeah.

Not photography equipment. Yeah. And it’s, there’s so much content that’s being produced just because it’s going to attract traffic without any consideration for, is there a commercial reason for that traffic to arrive on our website in the first place? Yeah, 100%. I think it’s, I think it’s, it’s just gonna get rid of that and I think, It’s good because I think mark like it’s going to make us as people who are trying to mark help Companies market themselves really think about the quality of the content on the site Like we should be doing that anyway, but like you say I think when you’re under pressure to actually you know generate traffic for your for your client or, get, and hit targets and stuff.

You can quite easily go down the slippery slope of just doing anything in order to do that. Whereas actually I think it’s really going to have, you’re really going to have to think about content quality. You’re going to have to think about making sure that, the, Clients own personality and opinions and thoughts are actually coming into that content.

You really gonna have to think about, is the content of the different types of content good for the user? I think the user is going to become more front and centre a lot more. And I think that’s really, crucial, actually. Yeah, I can’t remember, Hannah, if I mentioned when we spoke previously that it’s probably about a year ago, I did some experiments using chat GPT and Google.

And so it’s like a Pepsi challenge type experiment where there was a search box, people could put in a query for anything, tennis shoes, whatever. And behind the scenes, The app was, simultaneously running a query on Google, the local country that they’re in, and ChatGPT at the same time. And then it would present the results, side by side, anonymously, and the user was then asked to say, which one do you feel is a better match for your search results?

And it was, I think it was about two thirds of respondents, and there were over 1, 500 people tried it, about two thirds of them preferred the results provided by ChatGPT. Yeah. Interesting. It was very surprising. And one of the things that I noticed with the results that were being provided was that the chat GPT ones, they just weren’t being manipulated by marketeers.

So lots of the Google search results were for product comparison sites. often they would favor really super high domain authority websites like Facebook or YouTube. And that’s okay for informational searches, but if you’re searching for a something that you want to buy, that’s not where you buy them from.

Yeah, yeah, I think, that’s really interesting, isn’t it? I think it’s, and I, it’s, there’s no denying that actually SGE is a response to, to chat GBT. there’s just, how many times have I been trying to figure something out for a client and I’ve looked on search to have a look and I’ve thought, Oh, I just can’t, I just can’t find what I need.

And so you go to chat GBT and you type it in there and it can not always, but a lot, of the time actually get you a lot closer to what you need. And I think there’s no denying that this is a reaction to that and actually, hopefully, will stop a lot of, tricks that are being played, I think, to manipulate the results.

Yeah. And I know my own behaviour as well. In the space of a year, it’s gone from, I will use Google exclusively for any sort of search query. I might go out to my social network as well for recommendations, but if it’s just a sort of early stage informational search using Google only, to now, it’s, okay, I’ll start with Google.

And then if there’s a ton of information, quite often what I’ll do is just ask ChatGPT to summarise it for me. Yeah. Just, summarise all of these different articles and the main points from them and what I need to understand. Yeah. Or what’s the expert consensus on this particular problem. And it’ll do it in a couple of paragraphs and it’s, bang on.

It’s really, helpful. so it, it feels like more and more, I mean it feels like it’s going to be inevitable. Yeah. SGE is just integrated and rolled out into the search results for queries. In the experiments that you’ve been running, have you noticed things that people can influence on their websites so that their content is the content that’s being featured and referenced?

Yeah, like there’s lots of people out there who are actually doing some really good work trying to figure out what is it exactly that SGE is looking for. And I think one thing that keeps coming up time and time again is that, is making sure that You put whatever the search term is, actually you summarize it really concisely at the top of your blog.

Now, this is good user experience. Anyway, like I think a lot of people have been doing this for a while. you have a key takeaway section at the top for people who actually are on in a rush. They just want a quick answer and they want to go. And then, people who want more in depth will then read the rest of the blog, hopefully.

So I know we. like we personally have been doing that with our clients for a while, but I think this is almost like, a souped up version of that where it has to be very concisely and simply explained, and put at the top, so that, so SGE can like grab it really. and so one of the pro, one of the things I’ve been looking at.

So this kind of only works if you’re actually ranking quite well anyway. So I think you have to do all the, like the good SEO practice first. So you have to get, you have to make sure the content’s excellent and that it’s optimized properly. And so all the good SEO, great stuff that we do, get it ranking and then actually look for those web, those keywords, those maybe top sort of 10, 30 keywords that are bringing in traffic to your website and actually look on SGE and just see where you’re ranking for them.

I think if it’s for purely informational ones, just, and if you, and you can actually then change the blog to see if you can then pull it through to the carousel. So for example, for one, client, I found us, so we looked at what keyword they were ranking for, a particular one was ranking for, what I thought the search query was, it was a long tail search query.

So actually, I just wrote a really concise answer. At the very top of the blog resubmitted the, it to Google search console and then it pulled through to the carousel, search generative experience. So actually it, does work, but I think it doesn’t work every time, but I think you can maybe go back and try again to see if you can get it appearing at any point.

And I, but I don’t, I think if your blog isn’t ranking well originally, I think then you’re probably going to have to work on that. that first before you can then get it to rank in SGE. Okay, so are you seeing then still a strong correlation between, say, the number and quality and relevance of the backlinks to a particular page or website and that effect on SGE?

If the blog is ranking well, it already, it doesn’t, to me, I’ve not seen. It seems to be more if the content exactly matches the search intent. but I think this, I think it will change. I think as Google almost refined the process, I think then domain authority will start becoming a bit, a bigger, factor in it for sure.

It feels like that would make sense for Google to do because that’s the edge they’ve got over all the other competitors in that space now, isn’t it? They’ve got such a clear map of the, link networks between every website ever. and if they can combine that with a really high quality AI understanding of the searcher’s intent and the quality of the content on the page, that would, for the user’s perspective, you’d expect to give a really strong result.

Yeah, I think, I wonder if, trying to refine that is possibly why it’s not rolling out, straight away. It’s, it’s been in labs for a really long time. so I’m wondering if, they’re doing a lot of work on that really. I’m sure they are. Yeah. I’m sure there’s a lot of very smart people working on it night and day.

Yeah. But, it’s going to be a fast pace. environment to be, to be involved in. And I’m sure whatever we optimize for now in a year or two’s time, there’ll be new tricks. There’ll be people like us trying to manipulate the rankings and, Google will get wise to that and change things all over again.

So I suppose one of the principles of SEO at the moment, and probably throughout time has been see what is working for you and your competitors. And just do it better, and that’s going to be no different to SGE either. Yeah, I think we’ve really got to keep coming back to content quality, and the user’s experience, and I think if you can try and keep that front and centre, then that’ll stand you in good stead.

Because I think, you’re completely right, I think it’s going to change so fast. we haven’t actually, although we’ve played around with it, we haven’t actually, gone through and like completely changed our client’s blogs yet because we still don’t know, like when it will roll out if the techniques that, some very clever people have identified as working well, if they’re gonna carry on working well.

So I think you, I think it’s, I think we have to be aware it’s coming and it is gonna come, but, and also just be. really mindful of just doing really good content and SEO good practice. And I suppose if you have been super reliant on organic search for how you capture demand for your business at the expense of everything else, maybe start diversifying where you’re getting that traffic from now as well.

Yeah, I think I’ve like in some of my more, sorry, for some of my other clients who’ve been really in really competitive spaces, we’ve been doing that for a lot. for a long time anyway. because, and I think you have to, because I think it’s so competitive out there, that you’ve just got to have multiple channels, I think.

so in some ways it’s just an acceleration of the trends that we’ve already seen, or that we’ve already seen anyway. Yeah, I totally agree. from what you’ve seen, is there a particular style of content that’s being favoured? So written? transcripts, blogs, bullet pointed content. I don’t know. I don’t know what you’ve seen when you’ve been testing SGE.

I think, I would say it depends on the search query. It’s really focused on the search query and what The what? The U, it’s really trying to un, I think Google’s really trying to understand what the user wants to get. So I think rather than just saying, oh, definitely always bugs, or, actually, I think increasingly we’re gonna have to really think carefully about the intent of the search and what content would be best for the user to get that information.

I think obviously the search generative experience, it pulls on blogs at the MO at the moment to actually create that. answer. it, it needs that to understand it and understand what the answer would be. But for sure, it’s, it brings through, because it’s broke, it brings through different modules.

So it can pull through a bit like now, really it pulls through relevant videos and it, pulls through relevant images and, but it’s with the images, it’ll combine it into the. The AI response. So I think, again, it’s just going back to that search, the intent behind the search, really. Okay. That, makes sense.

Hannah, before we wrap up, is there any parting words of guidance or advice that you want to give everyone? I think make sure, I think if you’re, an SEO practitioner, if you’ve got clients that you’re trying to, support with SEO, actually, number one, just make sure you know that it’s that, what it’s going to be like, keep on, keep abreast of what, how it might be presenting itself in.

And then actually just make sure you inform your client that it’s coming. Make sure you develop a bit of a process as to how you’re going to tackle it. Like we haven’t jumped on it. We’ve obviously done a few experiments, but we’ve not. We’ve not changed anything yet. massively across our client sites because we just don’t know when it’s going to come.

Whether we’re what worked at one point is going to work in the future or, so we’re just trying to prime ourselves to be ready really. so that’s what I would say at the moment, because it is going to come, it’s just a case of when. It’s inevitable, isn’t it? Yeah. And I think that, that, guidance is a brilliant point to end on.

Thank you so much. it’s a really interesting topic. It’s a really interesting space to be in and it’s changing At such a fast pace. Hannah, thank you so much for sharing all of your knowledge on that. It’d be great to have you on again at some point in the future when we know a little bit more about how it’s impacting websites.

Before I let you go, I am asking everyone for a book recommendation that they think everyone in marketing should read. What’s yours? So it would be the first book I read on marketing when I was really getting into it. as an, as, I’m working as a content creator for my catering company friend, and it’s how to get to the top of Google by Tim Cameron Kitchen.

so he’s my professional idol. I think he’s awesome. yeah, read that book. It’s brilliant. I wonder how many of the principles still apply from when you first read it. I bet it’s most of them. yeah. When it comes to good, just doing really good SEO and creating high quality content, it is.

Yeah, it’s brilliant. I think it’s, and I think that’s what we need to keep coming back to. It’s just high quality content that is answering the user’s query. Brilliant. Thank you. How can people connect with you after the show? So I’m on LinkedIn and, you can also send me an email through my company website.

And, that’s TwoGether, so twogether-digital.co.uk

it is, yeah.

I will include links in the show notes. Brilliant. Thank you. Thank you, Hannah. Thanks, everyone. Thank you.