What if search engines don’t send you traffic anymore?

AI and zero-click search screenshot of Google Labs AI overview results for AI search engine examples
Google's Search Labs AI Overview to a search query asking for examples of AI search engines. It posts at the top of results, pushing down all other results and links below it.

AI (Artificial Intelligence) summaries are already being incorporated into search engine results.

Does AI and zero-click search answer questions so well that people won’t even bother clicking links to read more?

There are terms for that phenomenon. It’s Google Zero, also called a no-click search or zero-click search.

We already see it for basic queries like “What time is it in Brussels / Tokyo / Mumbai right now?” You get an immediate answer at the top of search results rather than going to websites like “Time and Date dot com” that used to be the only way to easily get that information.

I want to call your attention to something that’s happened in the last few months with AI.

In addition to AI tools like ChatGPT, Google’s Gemini, and Perplexity.ai, there are AI “assistants” that are rolling out as an integral part of mainstream search engines like Google and Bing. AI is coming to Apple’s Safari browser, too.

Whether anyone wants these assistants or not is another matter, but it’s coming or is already here.

I’ve been getting Google’s AI results for months because I signed up last year via Search Labs to research how they work, but now they’re rolling out to every user.

So far, AI search results (or AI Overview as Google calls their version, formerly known as SGE or Search Generative Experience) are displayed at the top of the results page, “above the fold” and often obscuring the familiar paid and organic links further down.

That’s not a huge deal – people do know how to scroll – but what if AI kills the scroll because it is good enough that the question is already answered right there in the AI summary?

After years of working hard to get our website and blog links to the top of search results, so that people will see them first, click them and then visit our sites, no-click search may mean that a lot of that doesn’t matter as much any more.

Yes, many AI Overviews and summaries do include source links, but will people click them?

Screenshot Microsoft Bing Copilot AI assistant home screen
Screenshot of the Bing search engine homepage - Copilot is Microsoft's AI assistant, powered by an advanced version of ChatGPT. You can also use Copilot in paid subscriptions to Microsoft apps like PowerPoint, Excel, Word, Outlook, etc.

Of course, there have been instances of AI results hallucinating and giving false or ridiculous answers to search queries. Will people trust the results as time goes on and they become more familiar and more accurate?

Even though the option exists for people to use other search engines like the privacy-focused DuckDuckGo, I don’t foresee a big change away from Google in most people’s search habits, at least in the near future.

Do note, however, that younger people are using social media (particularly TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram) as search engines because they feel that the results are more authentic than Google.

Will that shift to more social search accelerate?

There IS a new option to get Google results that are the way they used to be – mostly links.

It’s called “Web” and you can find it at the top of the Google results page, usually in a dropdown list under “More.” See the screenshot below.

How many users even know or care about this, though, much less will consistently use it? ‍‍

Screenshot how to find Web just links results in Google search
Look for More, then Web. There are still some larger paid results when sorting by the Web option, in my experience, but the overall results are much cleaner because it's mostly just links.

There is a lot going on in SEO (Search Engine Optimization) right now, in addition to AI and zero-click search.

Related blog post – What is social SEO? 5 tips to improve yours

Two other items besides AI:

  • Recent Google algorithm updates, including 2023’s HCU (Helpful Content Update) and the March 2024 core update have hit many niche sites very hard and some are not recovering even if they’re quality sites. I’m particularly seeing lots of anguish in the travel blogging world.
  • There was a recent big leak of internal Google documents about their ranking algorithm. Some of the documents contradicted what Google had been saying officially about site authority and clicks driving site ranking, among other things. A lot of SEO experts are not happy about that.

So let’s cut to the chase.

What should you as a destination, attraction, tourism partner business, hotel, or economic development pro do about these AI and search-related developments?

What to do about AI and zero-click search?

As I joke in some of my digital marketing workshops and conference sessions, I know just enough about SEO to be dangerous. It’s part of my expertise as a blogger and content creator, but I wouldn’t call myself a total SEO expert.

So, my first reaction to all this and my advice to you is, don’t overreact.

1) Don’t overreact.
Control what you can control.

Especially, don’t overreact to things that are out of your control, and that is definitely the runaway train that is AI and the mysteries of algorithms.

Let us all chant my usual mantra togetherwhat are the only things we control?

That’s right, it’s our website, blog, and email newsletter.

Related blog post – How to start an email newsletter for tourism marketing

Just because Google may not send traffic to that website and blog the way it used to does not mean that we don’t have other tools at our disposal to get, and keep, people’s attention.

Stating the obvious – there is also a lot you can control about the in-person experiences you deliver to your visitors, guests, and customers. Do not neglect basic hospitality and Modern Marketing 101, which includes responding to people on social media and in reviews.

2) Get your brand front of mind.

Here’s the best advice I’ve heard so far – work to build more awareness of your brand name.

Rand Fishkin analyzed data from SparkToro and Datos Inc. to show that people spend most of their time on the internet finding out about things on social sites and other places, THEN going to search engines to get more information.

“When people watch videos on YouTube, browse news on the Washington Post, scroll through posts on Threads, dig around Etsy, or trawl through the long tail of the web, they’re exposed to the ideas, information, problems, and brands that turn into search queries.”

Instead of hoping to be found as you swim in a massive sea of AI summaries and hyper-competitive link results, use tools in addition to Google to help make people aware of you, so when they search, they’re often searching specifically for YOU.

An effective media relations program plays a part in this brand-building. Learn effective PR strategies from no-nonsense Gini Dietrich at Spin Sucks, including her PESO model for Paid, Earned, Shared, and Owned media coverage.

3) Build strength and visibility in multiple places. Never depend on one platform.

Keep your website and blog useful and fresh, keep growing your email subscriber list, AND keep using the power of social and digital media to your advantage.

People can and will find out about your destination via a Facebook post by a visitor having a great time, a Pinterest Pin linked to one of your blog posts, a travel podcast like the Amateur Traveler, a YouTube video, a LinkedIn post, a great photo or video on Instagram, even a recommendation on Reddit’s Road Trip subreddit.

Related blog post – Pinterest marketing for tourism, with insights from Visit Muskegon, Michigan

Use smart, focused content repurposing to tell your stories in as many places as possible, using different media (text, image, video, audio) and in front of different audiences of prospective visitors.

4) Know thine enemy.

Do some experimenting with AI search yourself.

Try your favorite keywords and key phrases on a couple of AI assistants like Bing’s Copilot or ChatGPT. You no longer need to create an account to try ChatGPT, but some features will be limited.

If you don’t have target keywords or phrases, try a simple, popular traveler’s query like “things to see in [your town]” or a more specific one like “things to do with kids in [your town].” What are the answers like?

In general, it appears that the usual good SEO practices can help you show up in AI search results. Here is how to optimize content for AI readiness.

Do you feel a bit more prepared for AI search issues now? Let me know what you think in the comments.


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Commenting area

  1. Absolutely solid advice. The basics have not changed. Be helpful and be memorable. Build your homebase first, then reach out. Do not panic over moment to moment changes. Thanks for staying the course!

  2. Thanks, Becky. I learned a lot myself in writing it. Gotta diversify, move fairly quickly when it’s time to do so, and know when to fold ’em, too.

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