E-A-T your heart out, Google.
Expertise, authority and trustworthiness — known as E-A-T — have been the mantra of the optimization world since Google added them to their search guidelines in 2014.1 While those principles are still foundational, they’re no longer enough to be competitive in search. The advent of artificial intelligence and large language models, or LLMs, has rendered traditional search engine optimization mere table stakes.
It’s time to take a much closer look, and start thinking of SEO in a new way: specificity, examples and ownability.
With each human generation, search engines are losing market share to social media and AI chatbots. More than 40% of both Gen Z and Millennials prefer to use either social media or chatbots to answer their questions, according to research by HubSpot and Consumer Trends Reports. You may hear such stats thrown around as “Google owns 96% of search volume.” But the devil’s in the details: Google owns 96% of desktop searches on a search engine. Even Google — in the most Google of ways — has admitted that search behaviors have changed forever.
All of this means that the future of optimizing for search entails much more factoring in the latest Google update. Let’s dive into the new S-E-O and why each component is both distinct and critical.
Specificity and search optimization: You can’t outrank the government
We recently worked on a search optimization project with a client who wanted to rank high organically in Google for queries around Social Security tax rates. In many Google results, the Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service ranked first and second, with the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP) and Investopedia in third and fourth. Makes sense, right? We were forced to ask ourselves — and ultimately our client — who could be more authoritative on Social Security than the government itself?
Search results will continue to trend in this direction. For questions with simple, objective answers, Google is simply going to show you the literal authority on the topic. So, if it’s important that your brand or business rank for a topic where there is a clear authority, consider a cluster strategy.
The power of “cluster” pages for building search prestige
SEO has evolved way beyond picking the right assortment and quantity of keywords. Search engines increasingly try to understand the intent, or the why, behind every search. This is one of many reasons we push our clients to adopt a pillar-and-cluster strategy. A “pillar page” functions as a landing page for a topic: it answers as many high-level questions as possible, as succinctly as possible. “Cluster” pages, on the other hand, address specific angles of a topic. In the case of Social Security taxes, cluster page headlines might include “Social Security tax strategies for those 65 to 70 years old” or “Nearing retirement? Here’s how Social Security taxes should factor into your plans”.
Another example is one many people approaching retirement face: required minimum distributions, or RMDs. There are more than 18,000 monthly searches around the topic of RMDs. IRS.gov owns the featured snippet, then the top four organic results in descending order are IRS.gov, Investopedia.com, Investor.gov, and AARP.org. Some cluster page ideas for this topic might include headlines such as “What happens if you fail to take an RMD by the required deadline?” or “How do RMDs work if you have more than one retirement plan?” These pages will garner much smaller monthly search volumes, but you have a much higher chance of ranking.
The cluster approach serves a three-fold purpose: It forces you to be specific, it forces you to speak directly to your audience, and as a result, it increases the likelihood that organic traffic is people you’re actually trying to reach. Do this enough times for enough topics, and the cumulative effect can be substantial.
Examples and search optimization: Content only you could create.
Real-life anecdotes, case studies, hypothetical scenarios, calculations and other types of examples are a great way to prove that your content is written by people, for people. It also ensures that people get the answers they were looking for — particularly on complex topics and questions.
Why is this important? Google is losing market share, but it still owns the majority of searches. In their latest documentation update, Google states that its automated ranking systems are designed “to better ensure people see original, helpful content written by people, for people … The helpful content system aims to better reward content where visitors feel they’ve had a satisfying experience, while content that doesn’t meet a visitor’s expectations won’t perform as well.”
The goal is to make the content more accessible, easier to digest, and more human —demonstrating to Google that you’re offering something different than anyone else out there.
And for those searching on social media, anecdotes, case studies and the like are inherently more engaging and shareable. So by injecting your content with examples, you’re helping your content check all three boxes: search engines, chatbots and social.
Ownability and search optimization: Be citable.
Citations are the ultimate future of chatbot search. We’ve written about privacy considerations with LLMs like ChatGPT — and the dangers of using outputs wholesale. A federal judge ruled in August that AI-generated content could not be copyrighted, saying that “human authorship is a bedrock of requirement of copyright.” A big reason why? You don’t know where the output came from. Many publicly available LLMs have been trained on large chunks of the internet — including copyrighted material.
Businesses are already wising up to this and, as we wrote this summer, are creating custom LLMs trained only on the data they provide to ensure ownability. However, this only addresses one side of the issue. Your audience will still be using public-facing LLMs, and you need them to find you there. Chatbots will inevitably provide citations with their responses, and we expect the logic to be not dissimilar from the Social Security example. But there are two key ways to emerge as a citable source: proprietary data and strong points-of-view.
Publishing study, survey or poll results that you own is the strongest signal you can send to LLMs that you’re literally the source. A secondary effect is that you’re more likely to get shared by experts and influencers on social media.
A second, less powerful way to prove you “own” the content is by including definitive quotes from senior leadership or publishing strong points of view. If you’re a large financial services company, publishing a quote from your CEO about the chances of a recession is far likelier to get picked up than a limp line saying “leading experts expect a recession by 2024.” Says who? And who are those leading experts? There’s nothing ownable about that sentence.
The future of search optimization is a moving target
In the near term, some sites are opting to block large language models from crawling their sites. This is understandable, given the current state of the technology and its broad lack of sourcing capabilities, but it brings with it a risk: Will you know exactly when to unblock your site from LLM crawlers? Perhaps the right moment will be obvious courtesy of legislation or a blog update by a leading AI developer, but it would be the first obvious thing about this technology. Ultimately the decision is up to you, just know that by blocking your site from LLMs you’re losing nearly 15% of searches by Millennials, Gen Zers and Gen Xers.
As you create content optimized for search, continue to express your expertise, authority and trustworthiness (E-A-T) — but remember to add the layers of specificity, examples and ownability (S-E-O). They will be increasingly important as audiences shift from using Google exclusively to using a combination of search engines, chatbots and social media.
Let’s talk about your SEO strategy. We’d love to hear what’s working and offer some ideas for how we can help you better reach your target audience. Get in contact here or send an email to email@example.com.
1 Google posted an update in December 2022 changing the acronym to E-E-A-T, which stands for Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness. It’s worth noting they included the following language: “These are not fundamentally new ideas. And we’re by no means abandoning the fundamental principle that Search seeks to surface reliable information, especially on topics where information quality is critically important. Rather, we hope these updates better capture the nuances of how people look for information and the diversity of quality information that exists in the world.” Our editors believe the overall thesis of specificity, examples and ownability, as an enhancing layer, encompasses the added “E” of experience and extends well beyond.