Small Business SEO in the AI Age: 9 Smart Moves to Adapt Now

Silver letters A and I (AI) in front of a group of shiny balls against a pink background as part of small business SEO blog post for 2024.
Jen Carroll & Annalisa Hilliard

Jen Carroll & Annalisa Hilliard

With the advent of AI chatbots, search engine usage is expected to drop over the next two or three years. It's time to add conversational search optimization to your small business SEO strategies.

"This decreased reliance on search engines—what it ultimately looks like and how it will affect SEO for small businesses—isn't clear, but one thing is highly likely: big tech's firm grip on technology will remain unaltered. For small to mid-sized businesses, the challenge will be navigating this new terrain where conversational AI reshapes discovery and interaction."

At one time not all that long ago, television gave viewers a glimpse of the world as it was framed by three major networks. It served as a communal experience, even for those who grew up during the steady rise of cable TV and its wide array of channels gated behind subscription fees. Eventually, the advent of online streaming accelerated further fragmentation, spreading shows and movies across numerous platforms, each with its own paywall, and creating a new (and costly) age of decentralized content consumption.

We’ve been thinking a lot about the evolution of TV lately. In some ways, we think it could mirror the potential trajectory of the digital search landscape. Just like TV networks once dominated the daily information and entertainment rhythms of millions, Google and a small handful of other major players have dominated online search for the past two decades, structuring our access to information, homogenizing our culture, and leading many to adopt SEO for their small businesses among other online marketing tactics.

Now, artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots (ChatGPT, Claude, Google’s Gemini, etc.) and answer engines like Perplexity.ai have arrived. Similar to the effect of cable and streaming on major TV networks, AI is quickly disrupting the search engine status quo, potentially redistributing control with its new paradigm: conversational search. Seer Interactive’s Wil Reynolds recently wrote 25 percent of searchers are predicted to leave Google in the next two to three years. Although we can’t locate his source, we do believe he’s right.

This decreased reliance on search engines—what it ultimately looks like and how it will affect SEO for small businesses—isn’t clear, but one thing is highly likely: big tech’s firm grip on technology will remain unaltered. For small to mid-sized businesses, the challenge will be navigating this new terrain where conversational AI reshapes discovery and interaction. Adapting to these changes by optimizing for conversational search and leveraging AI technologies for enhanced customer experiences will become crucial strategies in ensuring visibility and relevance in a rapidly evolving digital ecosystem.

Redefining How We Search

How AI chatbots and answer engines may alter the future of SEO

The dominance of major search engines, notably Google, has molded us into keyword people. Driven by algorithms that prioritize relevance and authority, users know well how to adapt their questions into keyword-focused queries. Even the use of modern voice-activated assistants, which have been with us since 2011 when Apple rolled out Siri, had little effect on people’s googling habits. So, what’s changed?

The advent of ChatGPT and similar AI chatbots in late 2022 marked a significant evolution in conversational AI technology. Unlike Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant, these newer AI models offer a deeper understanding of linguistic context and nuance coupled with the ability to generate more accurate, detailed, and conversational responses. Intended for more than just task execution or fetching basic information, they’re meant to engage humans in complex dialogues, providing explanations and generating original content.

This advancement in AI capabilities, coupled with their explosive integration across platforms and devices, offers searchers a more intuitive way to find information using everyday language, encouraging a shift towards conversational search methods over traditional search engines. While we don’t think search engines will disappear any time soon (after all, ABC, CBS, and NBC are still around), we do believe their grip on search will be loosened.

For long-time SEOs like me [Annalisa], this signals a major transition on the horizon, one that was promised with voice search over a decade ago but never really materialized. I believe AI chatbots will indeed move us, to some degree, away from static, keyword-driven queries to a more dynamic, natural language-based interaction. This change reflects a broader trend towards personalization and efficiency in digital interactions, catering to the growing consumer demand for immediate and accurate responses to complex questions.

As conversational AI continues to mature, its ability to parse nuanced requests and offer specific, contextually relevant information is improving, challenging the search model we know so well. Hence, the predictions of search engine abandonment and the need for business marketers and SEO professionals to adapt their strategies, focusing on natural language processing (NLP) technology, question-based content, and enhancing their online presence across a variety of platforms. It’s a critical juncture. Adaptation will be crucial in maintaining relevance and competitiveness. 

'CSO,' the Next Frontier for Small Business SEO

Chatbox image on dark blue background with the word Chatbot emerging from it in 3D. Part of my small business SEO blog post 2024.

As the digital marketing landscape undergoes this monumental shift, the well-established practices of SEO marketing for small businesses will evolve to include what I’m calling, for the moment at least, conversational search optimization (CSO). We don’t consider this simply new jargon but a significant addition to the SEO function, fueled by advancements in AI and NLP. Maybe someday the entire process will flip, and we’ll be CSOs who also offer SEO. We’ll see.

CSO becomes a new SEO objective

CSO represents the strategic adaptation of global and local SEO for small businesses to the nuances of conversational AI and chatbots. While SEO focuses on optimizing content to rank highly in traditional search engine results, CSO aims to align with the conversational queries processed by AI, prioritizing context, intent, and natural language understanding. This shift acknowledges a growing interest among some users for interacting with AI over search engines because AI provides a more natural, dialogue-based experience that mirrors human conversation.

How NLP is a user-intent game changer

At the core of CSO lies the importance of NLP and understanding user intent. The latter has, of course, been an essential part of small business SEO for years, but NLP takes it to a whole new level. Because AI can comprehend, interpret, and generate human language in a way that is both meaningful and contextually relevant, chatbots and digital assistants can do more than ever before: anticipate needs, offer personalized recommendations, and engage users in ongoing dialogues. Understanding user intent—what the user truly seeks to know or do with their query—becomes paramount in delivering accurate and satisfying responses.

Where will we access search data in a CSO-dominant world?

Good question. It’s the biggest potential pain point when it comes to SEO help for small businesses. As the adoption of conversational search with AI chatbots grows, keyword research tools will also need to adapt, as well. Every SEO company for small business will want to see what types of questions users are asking chatbots, the intent behind these queries, and how they’re framed in natural language.

If we end up with decentralized search, the challenge for keyword research tools to provide comprehensive data across platforms will indeed be significant. These tools might adapt by forming partnerships or integrating APIs to access AI and chatbot datasets directly. However, if usage is splintered across numerous platforms, companies will need to decide which datasets to integrate, potentially influenced by user volume or data richness. Additionally, while chatbots might offer query data, privacy concerns and regulations like GDPR will likely shape how, or even if, such data can be shared.

Other possibilities include the development of content aggregation and syndication services designed specifically for this fragmented landscape. They might specialize in aggregating, curating, and syndicating content specifically for consumption by AI platforms, acting as intermediaries between content creators and AI technologies. There could also be an increased role for publicly funded and maintained knowledge repositories that aim to provide unbiased, reliable information accessible by AI for public benefit.

In the meantime, accessing conversational data today involves leveraging existing tools, including ChatGPT itself, in creative ways to get insights into voice search as well as query length. Seer Interactive, an agency I mentioned earlier in this post, offers some helpful tutorials on integrating ChatGPT into the SEO research processes. Plus, companies can also monitor indirect indicators of conversational queries, such as increases in traffic from specific platforms known to use AI chatbots extensively. Until more direct methods become standardized, a mix of innovative approaches and traditional SEO strategies will be the best path forward.

How searchers may conduct in-depth research in the future

As conversational AI reshapes how we search the internet in general, we may witness a significant shift in online research behaviors beyond convos with chatbots. For example, we referenced the answer engine perplexity.ai earlier in passing; it combines internet searches, AI-driven conversations, and the ability to pinpoint products and services based on user location. This integration suggests an approach where AI and traditional search coexist, offering both conversational engagement and local search results.

In scenarios where an AI’s knowledge base is outdated or a user wants deeper insights (or to simply shop on a particular site for a particular thing), the user is likely to turn to the links an answer engine like perplexity.ai provides directly within AI conversations. Will these links lead to authoritative topical sources, scholarly databases, and real-time data feeds?

Perplexity.ai currently does a decent job of surfacing trustworthy sources, in large part because its revenue is driven right now by user subscriptions and not advertising revenue. However, the initial results it delivers are not as extensive as Google’s SERPS, and going deeper necessitates constantly refining your query. Plus, many questions remain about the perplexity.ai’s business model and what it will mean for the content creators (including small businesses) who feed it. 

Of course, concerns about AI “hallucinations” remain valid. Will AI model creators be able to avoid blatant inaccuracies? I’m guessing much of that depends on how their efforts to get inside AI’s “black box” go.

Beyond AI chatbots, users seeking information are likely to tap into the collective knowledge of trusted communities on social media and in local and global platforms like Reddit, just as they do now. Additionally, recommendations from media or trusted influencers could play a role in guiding users to reputable sources for further research. These varied approaches underscore the importance of a multi-faceted approach to online marketing for small businesses, ensuring they can effectively engage with and be discovered by their target audience across the web.

Watch and listen as Aravind Srinivas, CEO of Perplexity, delves into the innovative workings of perplexity.ai, a direct competitor to traditional search engines like Google. This discussion is part of Hard Fork, a weekly series from the New York Times hosted by Kevin Roose and Casey Newton focusing on the imminent technological transformations shaping our future. 

8 Small Business SEO Tactics to Capture Conversational Search

There’s a strong possibility good websites—as defined by more than just today’s search algorithm signals—could grow in importance to both businesses and AI technology. AI’s advanced natural language processing capabilities will hopefully allow it to evaluate content trustworthiness in ways that go beyond current standards, such as analysis of context, relevance, factual accuracy, and even the authoritativeness of sources cited, potentially taking the identification of quality content to a new level.

1. Optimize for natural language queries and voice search

To effectively adapt to the rise of conversational search, small business SEO strategies must take the nuances of natural language and voice search optimization into consideration. This includes a focus on long-tail keywords that mimic the conversational tone users employ during voice searches or when interacting with AI chatbots. By ensuring content aligns closely with the spoken inquiries of their target audience, businesses can enhance their visibility in search results that prioritize user intent and context, crucial for being recognized by sophisticated AI algorithms.

Moreover, it’s essential to integrate these conversational phrases into website content, metadata, and structured data in way that’s balanced with traditional SEO keyword research. This strategic alignment helps in presenting businesses as relevant sources of information that resonate more effectively with users across both traditional search engines and conversational AI platforms. Understanding and leveraging the natural language patterns of potential customers is key to this process, requiring a thoughtful approach to content creation that addresses users’ needs and questions directly. 

We can understand why small businesses may be tempted to just go with AI chatbots to generate their content. While this can save on resources, using chatbots for content creation still requires time, writing experience, and a clear understanding of user intent to make sure the generated content is optimized properly for the right audience, has the capability to meet the goals a business is trying to accomplish, and aligns with brand voice. Chatbots, although sophisticated, have their own default style, making it a challenge to personalize content effectively, especially for those less experienced in writing or content strategy.

There's a strong possibility good websites—as defined by more than just today's search algorithm signals—could grow in importance to both businesses and AI technology.

2. Enhance content for featured snippets

Enhancing your website’s content for featured snippets is crucial for adapting to conversational search. Featured snippets are selected search results highlighted at the top of Google’s search results and designed to answer the user’s question directly. Ironically, they play a significant role in conversational AI responses because they provide authoritative answers.

To target these snippets, create content that directly answers questions your audience might ask in a clear, concise manner. Use question-based headers, bullet points, and numbered lists for clarity, when appropriate (don’t go overboard here). Structuring your content this way not only makes it more accessible for conversational AI but also increases the likelihood of your information being featured in snippets, enhancing visibility and driving more traffic to your site.

If Google’s search dominance and the prominence of featured snippets fade over time, the strategy of small business SEO for these elements will need to evolve again. Businesses may shift towards directly integrating with various conversational AI platforms or focusing more on creating content that aligns with the NLP capabilities of diverse AI systems. This could lead to a more decentralized approach to content optimization, where the emphasis is on quality, conversational engagement, and direct answers provided across multiple platforms, rather than targeting a single source of traffic.

3. Incorporate structured data

The importance of structured data lies in how schema.org markup significantly enhances AI chatbots’ and search engines’ understanding of a website’s content context. By defining and organizing information using this markup, organizations make their content not only more accessible to these technologies but also ensure it is interpreted accurately. This structured approach to presenting data is crucial for small business SEO in the age of conversational search, as it helps align with the precise, context-aware responses expected by users engaging with AI-driven platforms.

4. Integrate AI into your website

Integrating AI into a small business websites can enhance customer interaction and support. When considering chatbot options, it’s essential to evaluate their sophistication and ability to provide a seamless user experience. Look for chatbots that offer natural language processing capabilities and can learn from interactions to reduce the risk of providing frustrating or irrelevant responses. Additionally, creating an API for more advanced chatbot integration might require technical expertise or partnership with developers experienced in AI technologies. This enables personalized and intelligent conversational features that can significantly improve customer service and engagement on your site.

Keep these following pros and cons in mind as you vet potential AI chatbot options.

Pros:

  • Provides 24/7 customer service, answering queries any time.
  • Can handle multiple inquiries simultaneously, improving efficiency.
  • Offers personalized experiences by leveraging user data and preferences.
  • Reduces operational costs by automating routine tasks and responses.

Cons:

  • Limited understanding of complex queries can lead to customer frustration.
  • May require significant upfront investment for advanced customization and integration.
  • Risk of depersonalizing customer service if not implemented alongside human support.
  • Reliance on technology means potential downtime or glitches affecting customer interactions.

5. Create comprehensive company knowledge hubs or databases

By curating detailed repositories of information about products, services, and company insights, businesses can directly feed accurate, up-to-date content into AI systems. This ensures that when AI chatbots and voice assistants query these databases, they deliver precise and reliable information to users, making the company’s digital presence more robust and authoritative in conversational search environments.

For small businesses, developing extensive knowledge hubs and databases means going beyond just creating product-level pages on their website. It involves crafting detailed content that encompasses all aspects of their offerings, including FAQs, how-to guides, and in-depth articles that cover niche topics related to their products and services. This approach feeds AI systems with rich, structured data and enhances its visibility and relevance in conversational searches.

6. Focus on the user experience

Optimizing for user experience on a website is nothing new, and I believe it will only increase in importance going forward. A site that functions well no matter the size of the user device ensures content is easily accessible and legible across devices. This involves carefully choosing a website CMS and any third-party integrations, solid design for mobile and desktop, use of webp files for faster image and page loading, and avoiding multiple and/or especially intrusive pop-ups. 

Furthermore, the overall user experience on a website goes beyond just speed and responsiveness. It encompasses how easy it is for users to find the information they’re looking for, the intuitiveness of the navigation, and the clarity of the call-to-action buttons. Ensuring the website architecture is logical and user-friendly can dramatically improve the time users spend on the site and their likelihood to return. Attention to these details ensures that a website not only attracts visitors but also effectively guides them through the customer journey, from initial interest to final conversion.

7. Diversify traffic sources

Diversifying traffic sources is essential for small businesses, reducing dependency on search engine traffic. By initiating email campaigns, participating in forums, and executing a well-thought-out social media strategy, businesses broaden their audience, offering a direct connection to potential customers and fostering brand loyalty. This holistic approach will be a boost to global and local SEO for small business as search changes.

In parallel, integrating digital and traditional PR activities enhances brand recognition and credibility. Effective PR strategies, including media outreach and influencer collaborations, expand reach and drive engagement that can help support businesses in a competitive landscape.

Keep in mind: several of these strategies (social media marketing in particular) come with the caveat of operating on “rented land.” While valuable, reliance on third-party promotion should be balanced within a comprehensive marketing strategy, safeguarding against the volatility of platform-controlled audiences and policies.

8. Keep tabs on emerging AI platforms and technology

Businesses that aim to stay in tune with conversational AI advancements need to dedicate a little bit of time to continuous learning. Leveraging specific newsletters and media can streamline this process. Check out the following newsletters:

All of these newsletters offer insights into AI developments, marketing trends, and practical applications of AI technologies. Plus, readers can get both summaries and deep dives, making them invaluable for small businesses looking to incorporate AI effectively with minimal time investment.

9. Set guidelines for data privacy and ethics

For small businesses that want to pivot more to conversational search and plan to use AI internally, we recommend creating guidelines that align with both legal requirements and ethical considerations. A good starting point is consulting resources such as the GDPR framework in the EU or the CCPA in California to understand data protection laws relevant to your operations. Additionally, industry-specific guidelines, available through professional associations or tech industry groups, can offer tailored advice. Online courses and webinars focused on ethical AI use also provide valuable insights. Engaging with a legal advisor who specializes in technology can help tailor your company’s guidelines to ensure compliance and ethical use of AI.

Human hands on a laptop keyboard with screen reflection in the foreground. Screen reflection says Chat AI. Part of my small business SEO blog post 2024.

Embrace the Evolution of Small Business SEO

Just as television evolved from a few channels to the vast expanse of streaming, underscoring a shift toward conversational search and more decentralized, interactive modes of accessing information. Rethinking SEO for small business provides an opportunity to leverage AI to connect with audiences in more meaningful ways. By embracing these technologies, companies can ensure their digital presence resonates with the changing preferences of consumers and positioning themselves strategically in a rapidly evolving market. 

Just as cable streaming revolutionized TV consumption habits, conversational AI is set to redefine the ways in which consumers seek and interact with online content. For small businesses, this scenario underscores the critical need to refine their digital presence, ensuring they stay ahead in an environment that prizes adaptability and forward-thinking. As we contemplate how small business SEO is changing, it’s important to see it as an opportunity for those willing to embrace innovation and adapt. This proactive approach is not just about staying competitive; it’s about seizing new avenues for engagement and service delivery in a world that continues to be shaped by digital advancements.