Google has represented the black box of SEO for over 20 years now, an amalgamation of indiscernible variables and algorithms handcrafted by the world’s best and brightest. Though Google has consistently documented and released their “best practices” for years—and SEOs have put their clever finishing touches on them to rank for competitive keywords—the tradition of performing quality Search Engine Optimization has always fallen to those most diligent and experienced to succeed. Enter Artificial Intelligence, now the most qualified contender to conquer Google once and for all. After all, to understand your enemy, you must think like your enemy. Fight fire with fire, right?
Well, not really, as it turns out. Not only has AI been around for a long time in many forms—accessible and oftentimes already used by many prolific SEOs—AI is used as a catchall phrase for anything that’s just more sophisticated. In many ways, AI is either automation, crawlers, macros, content spinners, Natural Language Generation, and so on. An acronym that has been the center of another hot trend, AI is a buzzword that can be a power play for a lot of industries, and digital marketing is just another one.
Understanding AI and the Importance of Being Transparent With Clients
There’s no doubt ChatGPT is the forerunner in this revitalization—or supposed renaissance—in utilizing computing power to work smarter and not harder. That much is clear and valid – any new tools to streamline quality work should certainly be welcomed. But what work exactly is being streamlined in this new iteration of AI? That’s where the transparency game gets tricky, in an area where digital marketing agencies already struggle with fundamental tasks as simple as link building and on-site optimization.
The thing about employing “AI” in your marketing strategy is it doesn’t give you a free pass to circumvent your responsibility of being transparent with clients. For example, one of the leading digital marketing agencies in the country recently leaned heavily into an AI play with the launch of an AI tool meant to identify keywords most likely to drive high-quality new client leads. They likewise supposedly revamped their entire marketing pitch accordingly. Looking past a bold claim that Stanford engineers worked on this project (I always thought college dropouts were the best engineers, but either way…), the copy and explanation are nebulous at best.
Starting with keyword research conducted by humans—which would be the most appropriate use of AI more than nearly anything else—the AI basically identifies all of the SEO opportunities on the website, and then SEO experts go on to execute those opportunities/gaps. Thus, the strategy is bookended by manual work from humans, with only a small portion (basically, an automated site audit and/or competitive analysis) taken on by what is called AI.
Has the world been clamoring for another SEO tool to automate diving into hundreds of data points and spitting out a plan of action? I don’t think so, especially with Ahrefs, SEMRush, Moz, SpyFu, etc., employing thousands of talented engineers and programmers to do this work tirelessly for years now. What is this new AI play that may have caught all these players off guard?
Looking at AI as a Buzzword
It isn’t uncommon for SEOs to use SEO tools for the preliminary SEO audit and competitive analysis – these things can take plenty of time. If you google search “SEO Audit Tool” or a variation of that phrase, you’ll see dozens of options from reputable companies that do this for free or a small fee. It is a common activity in SEO that has been around for a long time, and many have included their own metrics based on historical data and clean yet complex versions of algorithms to provide accurate results. You can take it or leave if you want to use the word AI to explain that. Here’s an example of what’s being provided here without the usage of a buzzword.
If this particular tool does an especially good job at identifying the work to be done manually by SEOs, then I suppose there could be an edge. So let’s see if this edge actually yields what it says it does by looking at a handful of their client’s websites. These were the first handful we ran through SEMRush’s Domain Overview tool. Is it AI? You be the judge. Note that we didn’t cherry-pick or leave any that were on a great trendline out of the analysis.
The below set of traffic graphs are associated with the aforementioned “leading digital marketing agency”:
Now, are all of these firms actively doing SEO at the moment? I can’t tell you that for sure – that’s why I’m pulling from a large sample size. If you want to scrutinize more websites, feel free to use the following search query and see for yourself.
Do any of these websites look like they’re benefiting from a special application of AI? Absolutely not. AI, in this instance, is another way of saying “proprietary” or “secret sauce,” phrasing that digital agencies have worked hard to distance themselves from for a long time. Long under the scrutiny of burnt-out business owners about what SEO work is being performed and accurately tracking the results, surreptitious AI plays mislead clients and encourage them to linger too long in a fugue state brought on by Shiny Object Syndrome.
If there’s an AI play, it should be discussed openly and obviously in how it will expedite or enhance existing, transparent work that’s been done. If not, this is just a setback in an agency’s duty to be forthcoming with the scope of work they’re committing to with their clientele.
So, What is it Like Actually Using AI for SEO?
In short, it’s more complicated, with a learning curve with some of these tools. But what you put in on the front will benefit you in the long term. We’ve been looking at videos such as this one, titled “Get the BEST SEO Keywords w/ ChatGPT & Excel 4 FREE” (which, ironic for this article, shows how much AI applies to doing extremely thorough keyword research).
I’m particularly excited about this roundup, with many well-known SEO masterminds in the place with their own niche takes on the benefits of using AI to make their lives easier and their output stronger.
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