Artificial Intelligence (AI), automation and machine learning are having a profound impact across all industries. Their potential is to revolution mundane everyday tasks and frees our time to be more productive and creative. AI and SEO is already happening, with self-learning algorithms and deep learning GPT-3.

However, pure artificial intelligence is still not a current reality. Most applications that we consider AI are in fact automation or machine learning. It's worth understanding the nuanced differences to really grasp the potential of AI on SEO.

To spark the discussion of SEO and AI, we invited Shannon K. Steffen onto #SEMrushchat. The center of the conversation focused on how traditional, manual, and human-centered SEO could be threatened or augmented by AI.



Human SEO is the understanding of human search patterns when using tools such as search engines and social media networks. [For example] machines can never understand how a mom with a screaming baby at 3am searches differently than a CEO mom's nanny searching for that same product in the middle of her day with a laughing baby at the park. Humans search based on emotion. This is where AI and SEO intersect.

— Shannon K. Steffen

Q1. Do you think AI will make SEO obsolete?

Shannon thinks no! SEO, is a living, breathing technology with immortal and ever-changing “best practices,” such as keyword research, web development, content and link building, each of which is essential for search engines themselves to function properly.

AI enables humans to do “human” things more easily and improve how SEO is implemented. There is little chance of SEO “dying” as it forms the backbone of digital marketing. Instead, AI could make it more exciting and evolve to encompass optimization tactics beyond those directly related to search engines.


Carolyn Lyden "No, I think it'll make it easier for humans to do the human things and make the tasks that are automate-able easier."

Alice Davies "Not at all. if Anything, it just means another exciting change for SEOs. The term 'SEO' encompasses MANY optimisation tactics, not just that of search engines!" 


Experts including Craig Campbell and Bill Slawski predicted SEO will not become obsolete under any circumstances, because elements unique to human nature, like curiosity and empathy, are still beyond AI’s reach. Further, humans control the AI tools themselves. Planning a marketing strategy is also a uniquely human occupation. However, there will definitely be a dip in hiring due to automation, as tools with more advanced capabilities continue to be developed.


Kim Doughty "I think marketing specialities that involve strategy will, for the most part, at least require human oversight. Tools will be more advanced because of AI but won't go as far as replacing the person."


SEO itself will be a lot better due to AI. Already, great progress has been made due to a collection of new, real-time data streams. AI will help humans optimize visual content better, improve voice search, target conversational keyword clusters, provide better UX, cut down black hat tactics, create efficient reports, and make informed decisions in general.


Danny Ray Lima "It's going make us better marketers in a few ways such as; cutting down black hat SEO, improving visual and voice search, optimizing content for conversational keywords and the end game of better UX and value."

Alexis Huddart "No, it will just change aspects of SEO work like: data work & presentation, keyword clustering, content generation and offer new data streams"


AI’s integration with SEO will only become stronger, with machine learning and quantum computing delivering new insights that will help us create stronger, long-term, user-focused strategies. Marketers need to learn how to use AI effectively to strengthen various components of SEO.


Marianne Sweeney "Of course not. It will, however, make it a long game instead of short, strategic, instead of tactical, user-based instead of systemic. ML uses elements of SEO for learning. Learn those elements, work with UX, IA and content to influence from the other side"


AI reinforces human experience in SEO by automating tasks that we need to do and provides immediate feedback on the results. It can help us discover new patterns in our behavior and even simulate outcomes of decisions. However, it can’t supplement or reproduce decision-making capabilities that have been developed over years of human experience. Like Andrew said, if multiple organizations use the same AI, human skills would be the crucial differentiator for each one of them.


Perfect Search Media "Artificial intelligence reinforces the importance of SEO. It's a tool to be used with the industry, not something that can simply or realistically replace it."

JP Sherman "Another thing about AI is that it will provide feedback to our efforts, hopefully illuminating new and unforeseen patterns of human behavior - so we can use SEO to implement"


Ai and SEO Recap: Do you think AI will make SEO obsolete?

  • AI reinforces the importance of SEO. It's a tool to be used with the industry, not something that can simply or realistically replace it.
  • AI will refocus some of the existing tactics and strategies of SEO. Forcing us as an industry to better understand databases, markup, schema and other technologies as we integrate them into our SEO efforts.
  • It will automate a lot of what we do. But, a lot of decision making is based on experience that we have built up over the years. AI can only simulate that, not produce it.
  • Tools will be more advanced because of AI, but we won't go as far as replacing the person. Emotions such as curiosity and empathy may be beyond the grasp of AI.

Q2. What's the impact of AI on SEO?

AI has infused human traits into SEO and changed it from a system that could be easily manipulated to a knowledge-centered technology that encourages interaction and trust among people.

The short-term impact of AI on search algorithms and results won’t be drastic. After all, algorithms are only as good as the data they’re fed. Therefore, until AI becomes perfect, SEOs and engineers will be left scratching their heads when inconsistencies crop up.


Peter Mead "Impact of AI in SEO will be hit and miss in the early days. Like we have seen in the Algos thus far. It helps speed things up, but often needs correcting by us."

Tim Capper "Do not overestimate the impact of AI just yet, after all it took 5yrs for AI to understand what a picture of a cat looks like."

Bill Slawski "Until AI improves, it will befuddle SEOs and search engineers trying to understand why it does some of the stuff it does."


Right now, Google is using AI to understand users and provide a better user experience. 


Danny Ray Lima "I think we are seeing it now, with the quick changes in the ranking algorithm as Google uses AI to understand users. I believe AI also puts a huge emphasis on user experience from search results to the way we build/design websites. AI makes us think User"

Natasha Woodford "I think AI will level the playing fields in the industry, not black hat tactics but genuine best practice doing what it does best"

Dhaval Shah "Less spreadsheets, more Grafana! More scalable, consistent, and replicable insights/patterns from better collection of data."

The Weekly SEO "Sophisticated AI will make it easier to interpret big data and understand ranking factors at a query level. It will also make our data more impactful, so we can make smarter decisions about our SEO strategies."


As marketers, we must adapt to the changes that AI influences. As JP Sherman stated, we need to change our perception of the internet from a collection of web pages, to a database of information. This way, we would be able to correlate and study huge amounts of data, making our research process more effective.


JP Sherman "In the near/ short term the impact will be minimal, but will be touted as a panacea - but I think AI or ML will only be as good as the data its fed - so, brush up on schema & structured markup."


We should also attempt to understand the potentially damaging impact of AI before we fully adopt it. Immoral inputs or inputs devoid of morals might lead AI to learn incorrect ethical principles. In turn this will have undesirable effects on content marketing and user behavior as a whole.


Bill Slawski "Potentially more frightening, AI will learn morals from human (Hello Taye!), and that moral input may be inhuman."

Dean Brady "AI can have a profoundly disturbing impact on SEO and content marketing if left to run on its own. It will learn user behavior and make suggestions/changes that do not contain any moral input."


Ai and SEO Recap: What's the impact of AI on SEO?

  • It forces SEO to become more human and bridges the changes in technology with the know, like and trust society we've become. 
  • It will make processes faster, will provide more accurate data and will help in building more robust SEO strategies.
  • It will be able to correlate a huge amount of data quickly, allowing us to focus on the elements that matter rather than trying to find them.
  • It will level the playing field in the industry. Not with black hat tactics but with genuine best practices doing what it does best.

Q3. What are the advantages and disadvantages of using AI for SEO?

Shannon believes that human connections and engagement are the central tenets of both AI and SEO. AI might not serve up the accurate content, but it will certainly help weed out black hat tactics for ranking.

Ultimately, you will get more conversions from the traffic that SEO brings you. People who try and game the algorithms will be the only ones to suffer continued setbacks with the evolution of AI.

Automation is the single most important advantage that AI offers – improvements in speed, efficiency and cost savings allows us to focus more on key areas that impact user experience. However, faulty inputs will quickly lead to bad decisions.


iPagesCMS "Automation! giving you more time for other important jobs..."

Heather Harvey "As others have mentioned, AI will help automate many areas of SEO to allow humans to focus on the key areas that will improve the user experience. Disadvantage - it has to learn from current data & human input which is riddled with errors. Errors in, errors out."

Simon Cox "Speed, efficiency, less resource costs, being able to spot outliers more easily. But... If AI gets it wrong you can make bad decisions quickly. Understanding the results is critical."


AI helps marketers decide, filter, manage, and present complex sets of big data. Sometimes, though, this results in the devaluation of human input. Human analysis is always needed to monitor and control results.


Kat Hammoud "AI can help automate some tasks, saving time. Disadvantages - not always accurate and cannot fully replace SEO as human behavior and analysis will need to control the AI and audit the results."

Peter Mead "Some of the advantages of using AI for SEO is to free us from thinking about problems, so we can think about other problems, and not keep an eye on it. Disadvantages are we will have more that one brain, so who is going to keep an eye on it?"


When it comes to SEO, AI gives marketers access to big data, a deeper understanding of industry trends, and helps prioritize UX by standardizing practices and processes. What is more, you can precisely match user intent based on their past behavior, while helping them discover new solutions with a personalized, humanized content strategy.


Natasha Woodford "Better standardisation... ie currently more human influence/uncertainty in the actual process but when AI applied it will be programmed and therefore more continuity? (I think). ie team dynamics/disruption to SEO practices."

Marianne Sweeny "Precision relevance for user queries based on what the user has waned in the past as evidenced by their behavior. Nice if you like eating at the same restaurant always. AI leaves behind the delight of discovery. That makes content strategy all the more important."


Over-reliance on AI could easily be your biggest drawback. You need to understand that AI is a reinforcement, not a replacement, to SEO, and figure out exactly how it will help you create successful campaigns.


Danny Ray Lima "The disadvantage is relying too much on AI. AI is developed to aid the marketer in making informed decisions, but the biggest disadvantage is not knowing exactly how you can benefit from AI"

Debi Norton "Advantages of using AI in SEO is to automate aspects of SEO that do not require, human intervention. A1 SEO disadvantages are that some people think "SEO is DEAD" A1 is it - but at present, it is more in addition to an SEO - not an instead of."


Ai and SEO Recap: What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of using AI for SEO?

Advantages:

  • Automation. It can give you more time for more important jobs.
  • Faster processing, accuracy, multi-tasking, reduced dependency on human resource.
  • Access to hyperfocused data, understanding industry trends, prioritizing UX in the SERP.

Disadvantages:

  • Not affordable for all.
  • If AI gets it wrong you can make bad decisions quickly. You need human intervention to check for accuracy.
  • Loss of jobs and loss of confidence in the Human SEO Consultant.

Q4. How can SEOs keep the balance between what AI can do and what will be left for human specialists to work on?

Google keeps saying that their search algorithm chases user intent – a clear signal that marketers have no business chasing the algorithm. It has been said many times, and Shannon repeats this: create content for humans first. Your SEO efforts should focus on the wants of the customer, not those of the business. While SEO can help you communicate with the search engine, AI will assist you to create content directly aimed at humans.

Humans are the boss of AI. Humans decide what AI will or will not do. That said, you can tip the scale depending on the aims of your campaign and the capabilities of your team. You can go easy wherever AI becomes a deterrent instead of an advantage.


Carolyn Lyden "Not sure that there *needs* to be a balance in that the humans are the bosses. If you decide what AI can and can't do for you, then that's what you've decided, ya know? Everything else is not relevant to how it's working for you."

Perfect Search Media "Human specialists wear the pants in this relationship. We can always scale back AI if it becomes more of a hindrance than a benefit. For every team, the perfect balance between AI and human work will be slightly different."


The two elements of marketing that will always be controlled by humans are creativity and responsibility. You need creativity to deliver your brand message to fellow humans; you need to take responsibility for the results returned by AI. While AI is good at processing data, humans are good at coming up with and communicating ideas. 


Heather Harvey "I think a lot of it will come down to common sense. You should always check all of your work, including the results returned to you by AI. There will always be the creative element of SEO that humans need to work on for humans."

Benyamin Elias "AI is good at processing large amounts of well-defined data. Humans are good at processing and communicating complicated ideas. Let machines do what machines are good at. Let humans do what humans are good at."


Don’t forget that humans are behind the AI tools that automate SEO. Ultimately, your knowledge of SEO and digital channels is critical if you want to reap all the benefits that AI offers. You need to stay on top of the implementation process and not over-rely on AI for the outcomes. The balance will speak for itself in the results.


Marianne Sweeny "SEOs are among a cadre of human specialists that ensure human factors are part of the development of AI. That is, if they want to be. It requires a knowledge of the space that extends well beyond usual SEO information channels."

Praveen Sharma "We need to make sure AI is here for us, we are not here for AI. Incorporate it into your SEO so it helps in better strategy implementation. Make sure it doesn't make us forget what we can do and make us totally dependent on it."

JM Thomson "If your job is to do quality SEO for the client you'll find the balance in the results. If AI is getting the job done - that's good. If not, you'll be doing the work by hand - like always."


From the SEO point of view, it’s difficult to achieve a balance while Google is constantly shaking things up. Humans need to decide where to begin and where to stop. So, do your due diligence and add your own insights if you want to pass on the results of AI to your customers in ways that truly benefit them.


Danny Ray Lima "You need to understand that AI works for you not against you. If you let AI conduct keyword research great! That's a no-brainer, but make sure you look for quality and uniqueness in the keyword data, cause to AI that's data, but to you, it's content to users."


The big question is how the growing use of AI in SEO and other digital channels will influence the marketing job market in the years to come. 


Tim Capper "IS there a balance? - As an SEO I use tools to understand the Data, if I need more I employ a Data Scientist to find me what I need."


Ai and SEO Recap: How can SEOs keep the balance between what AI can do and what will be left for human specialists to work on?

  • Make sure AI is here for you, not the other way around. Incorporate it into your SEO so it helps in better strategy implementation, but make sure it doesn't allow you to forget what you can do and make you totally dependent on it.
  • Continue to do research on AI capabilities and continue to view these technologies with a sceptical eye.
  • Human specialists dominate this relationship. We can always scale back AI if it becomes more of a hindrance than a benefit. For every team, the perfect balance between AI and human work will be slightly different.

Q5. What are some of the best tools to use to optimize for both AI and SEO?

Shannon’s opinion is that the best SEO tools combine on-page technical SEO tweaks with content marketing opportunities.

SEMrush is a popular choice for our comprehensive on-site audits, rank tracking, keyword research, and competitive analysis features. 


JL Faveiro "SEMrush of course!"

Simon Cox "SEMrush is the best tool because I have not bigged them up for ages and I need an XXl tee ;)"


Other tools include:


Alice Davies "Buzzsumo for me!"

Danny Ray Lima "I'm a big fan of using SEMrush, Ahrefs, Buzzsumo, and Conductor. These tools stand out the most to me in terms of competitive research and content development. I also love Screaming Frog for my technical issues with the site and AI issues."


Google itself has plenty of tools that help you predict user intent via queries and understand user behavior. Start with the search results themselves to understand the AI beneath the ranking system. Try out Google Machine Learning kit for mobile, Google Assistant, Google Home, and Google Ads to understand how AI deals with the relationship between keywords and relevant content.


Bill Slawski "One of the best tools to use to understand AI and SEO are the results on Google themselves which leave a lot to learn from if you are looking for them and know what questions to ask."

Simon Cox "You could start with Googles own ML kit for mobile. I haven't so have no idea if its any good. I did try 80legs years ago but that kind of stopped being developed."

Peter Mead "Start practicing with Google assistant, like Home, and Amazon Prime. Try out queries. Also play with automated features of Google Ads. Play with Bing Ads. Get used to how voice recognition works too. There is a lot too it, and lots of places to start."

Alexis Huddart "Predictive content pre-set for hid interfaces for popular keyword strings, preset relevant to site/page/product/price/type/location/functions etc."


Don’t chase AI and tools because they’re constantly shifting with time, instead, focus on users, customers, their intents, and the content that connects them to you. 

Ai and SEO Recap: What are some of the best tools to use to optimize for both AI and SEO?

  • SEMrush for on-site technical, competitive research and keyword rankings.
  • Buzzsumo to highlight successful content topics that rank well.
  • Answer the Public helps you go from keywords to questions that AI or SEO can answer.
  • Google results offer a lot to learn from if you know which questions to ask.
  • Ahrefs and Conductor for competitive research and content development.
  • Screaming Frog for technical and AI issues with your site.

AI and SEO, Key Takeaways from Shannon:

  • SEO increases traffic, but AI increases traffic conversions.
  • Automation and AI are not the same things. Automation speeds up a process. AI helps the process become more human and engage.
  • Use SEO to communicate to the search engines and AI-related content to communicate to the humans.

That is all for today! Tell us in the comments about your take on AI and SEO. How is AI evolving? Where does it overlap with SEO and various other digital marketing channels? What kind of tools do you use to analyze your customer or user data?

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Note, this SEMrush chat was hosted in August 2018 and all information was relevant at that time.

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Maria KalyadinaMaria is the Social Media Marketing Manager at Semrush and the host of the weekly #Semrushchat. You can always connect with her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter! Join the #SemrushChat every Wednesday at 11 am ET/ 4 pm BST!
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