The year 2023 was unlike any other I’ve seen in SEO and Search. I say this as someone who has been in this industry since 2007. Many others I spoke to expressed similar sentiments at various points throughout 2023.
By March, Search Engine Land had published multiple stories that, in any other year, all could have been the story of the year.
And the news and updates kept coming, day after day, week after week and month after month. Until at last, here we are, with no more year left to go! Although, with how this year has gone, I may be tempting fate – it’s entirely possible that a major Search story will break on Dec. 31.
Search Engine Land has covered all the biggest stories for 17 years, and we did it again in 2023.
Here’s our look back at the biggest SEO news and updates of 2023.
Search Generative Experience
The all-new, AI-powered Google Search — officially: Google Search Generative Experience — was announced May 10 after months of speculation and rumors. It was powered by multiple large-language models (LLMs), including PaLM2 and MUM.
The AI-generated answers are presented in a variety of forms via a snapshot, with links, images, videos and the ability to ask follow-up questions. SGE has received countless feature updates and expanded to 120 more countries, all while its content formats continue to evolve.
Leading up to this:
- In January, we learned that Google would unveil a version of its search engine with chatbot features. This followed reports that Microsoft was working to integrate ChatGPT features into Bing Search.
- In April, Alphabet and Google CEO Sundar Pichai confirmed that conversational AI was ‘absolutely’ coming to Google Search.
- By May, we heard the new Google would be “visual, snackable, personal and human” in a bid to win over younger searchers (who Google knows from internal data were using TikTok and Instagram for Search — see: Survey: 51% of Gen Z women prefer TikTok, not Google, for search).
Google tried to make it clear — Bard is not Search. This didn’t stop people from confusing Bard with some AI features it teased at the same time (which we later learned was SGE).
But the arrival of Bard — Google’s answer to ChatGPT — was huge news in the Search world. Bard is Google’s experimental conversational AI service, powered by LaMDA.
- When Bard was introduced, there were no links or citations to the sources used to generate its AI answers, with some seeing this a declaration of war on publishers. Google’s initial explanation was that Bard was “intended to generate original content and not replicate existing content at length.” Citations were added later.
- Google seemed to rush the Bard announcement (widely considered to be so underwhelming that Google lost $100 million in market value the following day) to Feb. 6 so Google could upstage a Feb. 7 event at which Microsoft announced its new AI-powered version of Bing Search, powered with GPT-4.
- A month after announcing Bard, Google opened a waitlist. SEOs who got early access shared early Bard issues, which included hallucinations and getting bad SEO advice that went against Google’s guidelines (e.g., Bard thought buying links is a good idea). Overall, SEOs weren’t impressed with Bard — Google Bard was called disappointing compared to ChatGPT and Bing Chat.
The arrival of generative AI led to brands, including BankRate, CNET and others, experiment with publishing AI-generated content, as we saw in January. This emergence of generative AI-written content reminded us of the old content farms wiped out by Google’s Panda updates.
Google seemed to change its stance on AI content this year, less than a year after warning against AI written content.
Content that is helpful and created for people first (vs. solely for earning search rankings) was now OK, according to Google’s Danny Sullivan. Google reiterated its stance a month later, with Sullivan saying Google’s focus is “on the quality of content, rather than how content is produced.”
Meanwhile, content creators quickly became concerned about AI answers stealing traffic and revenue:
- Google sued for allegedly stealing content, data to train AI products
- Daily Mail ‘set to sue’ Google over Bard copyright issues
- Google: All online content should be available for AI training unless publishers opt out
- New York Times: Don’t use our content to train AI systems
- 26% of the top 100 websites are now blocking GPTBot
- Report: Generative AI violates copyright law, rights of news publishers
- Number of websites blocking Google-Extended jump 180%
We also saw bad examples of AI content this year:
- These 44 hilariously terrible BuzzFeed travel articles were AI-assisted
- Google ranks AI-generated ‘Star Wars’ article lacking E-E-A-T
- Microsoft calls deceased NBA player ‘useless’ in AI-written obituary
SEO wasn’t front and center at the U.S. vs. Google antitrust trial, but we learned a lot about how Google actually ranks pages.
- How Google Search and ranking works, according to Google’s Pandu Nayak: This is an absolute must-read. Learn how indexing, algorithms, deep learning systems, human raters, click and query data and more shape Google’s Search results, based on Nayak’s testimony.
- 7 must-see Google Search ranking documents in antitrust trial exhibits: We learn a lot from internal presentations and documents, including Google’s pillars of ranking, what user interaction signals Google looks at (clicks, reads, scrolls, hovers); how Google learns from users and uses that data to improve Search; 18 aspects of search quality and much more.
- Former Googler: Google ‘using clicks in rankings’: Eric Lehman, a former 17-year employee of Google, said during his testimony: “Pretty much everyone knows we’re using clicks in rankings.” When this was published, we didn’t yet have the full context (provided in the two stories above) around just how much click data was using due to less-than-stellar reporting from people who just don’t understand much about how search works.
Also this year (separate from the antitrust trial), Google’s Gary Illyes told us that links are no longer a “top 3” Google search ranking factor, which is in line with what Google said a year ago and told us would happen nearly a decade ago.
Links clearly still play a role in SEO. However, for Google, links are less important for ranking webpages than in years past.
Hidden gems, personal search and Notes
Google announced a trio of updates in November:
- Google Search introduced a ranking improvement aimed at surfacing hidden gems from social media, blog posts and forums.
- Google launched a more personalized search experience with several new search features, including a Follow button, personalized search results, perspectives results updates and creator snippets.
- Google began testing Notes on search results, as a Labs experiment.
Although it felt like an incredibly volatile year, and we were warned to “buckle up” for more, Google only released nine algorithm updates this year – less than the 10 it has released the previous two years. You can read the annual recap of 2023 Google algorithm updates by Barry Schwartz.
- Fun SEO fact: This year marked the 20th anniversary of the Google Florida update.
Reminder: Our history of Google algorithm updates page features all the latest news and guidance around the latest algorithm updates.
Link best practices
Google shared new link best practices in their SEO and search developer documentation.
This help document evolved from covering the basics of crawlable links to covering anchor text placements, how to write good anchor text, internal links and external links.
CNET got “exposed” for deleting thousands of pages (a.k.a., content pruning), which is a fairly common advanced SEO practice. CNET wrongly believed that content deprecation “sends a signal to Google that says CNET is fresh, relevant and worthy of being placed higher than our competitors in search results.”
However, Google’s Sullivan wanted to make Google’s stance on this tactic clear:
- “Are you deleting content from your site because you somehow believe Google doesn’t like ‘old’ content? That’s not a thing! Our guidance doesn’t encourage this. Older content can still be helpful, too.”
Read all about it in Google warns against content pruning as CNET deletes thousands of pages as well as my follow-up guide, Improving or removing content for SEO: How to do it the right way.
In memoriam: Google Analytics UA
We knew the end of Universal Analytics (UA) was inevitable. Google published blog posts, sent us emails, posted reminders on social platforms and showed us an intrusive interstitial every time we logged in. Google even threatened to set up Google Analytics 4 for us if we didn’t.
While it seemed everybody was talking about AI, GA4’s switch-or-else date — July 1 — eventually came. Despite all the advanced notice, marketers still felt unprepared. Our coverage:
- Universal Analytics is officially replaced by Google Analytics 4
- Universal Analytics dies aged 11: ‘Be brave and be strong’
- 13 of the funniest reactions to GA4: The roast of Google Analytics 4
Search Engine Land’s UA property finally stopped processing data on Sept. 8 — 68 days past the date on which we were expecting, and told repeatedly, it would stop. I wonder if there are still any UA properties collecting data as we close out 2023?
10 more Google Search updates and changes
- Google says mobile-first indexing is complete after almost 7 years
- Google reduces the visibility of HowTo and FAQ rich results in search
- Google’s 2023 Search quality rater guidelines update: Here’s what changed
- Google rolled out new site names, favicon and sponsored label on desktop search
- Google will replace FID with INP as Core Web Vitals metric
- Google updates page indexing report in Search Console with more fine-grained issues
- Google introduces Google-Extended to let you block Bard, Vertex AI via robots.txt
- Google officially drops Mobile Usability report, Mobile-Friendly Test tool and Mobile-Friendly Test API
- Google launches new Google Trends portal
- Google launches Perspectives, About this author and more ways to verify information
New Bing / Bing Chat / Bing Copilot
In January, we learned Microsoft was planning on adding ChatGPT features to Bing. By February, we learned it would be powered by GPT-4, (OpenAI released this model in March) and the new interface was spotted in the wild.
New Bing earned praise from SEOs (e.g., New Bing is mind-blowingly fast and better than I expected) despite seeming to have multiple personalities (or “confused”) early on and received multiple quality improvements since.
It also came with a waitlist and would only be open to Edge users on desktop initially. Over a million people signed up for the AI-powered Bing over the next 48 hours.
Microsoft’s AI-powered search earned much media attention and created the perception that the company might finally gain ground on its longtime rival, Google. But hype, as it often does, turns out not to be reality.
By the time Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella spoke at the U.S. vs. Google antitrust trial, he sounded like a defeated man, saying at one point:
- “Yeah, I mean, look, that’s called exuberance of someone who has like 3% share, that maybe I’ll have 3.5% share.”
In November, Microsoft announced a rebranding of Bing Chat to Copilot. When that change will actually become visible remains to be seen, as Bing still refers to its chat experience from Search as “Bing Chat” or “Chat.”
- AI in search: Insights from Bing’s Fabrice Canel
- Bing Webmaster Tools performance report gains new data but you can’t filter by just Bing Chat data
- Microsoft adds controls to disallow content in Bing Chat
- Microsoft Bing adds new Deep Search generative AI feature
A former Yandex employee allegedly leaked source code, part of which contained 1,922 search ranking factors. This was huge news when it broke, but has almost been forgotten now.
It turned out that 1,922 figure was low — there were actually 17,854 Yandex ranking factors. See Michael King’s excellent analysis: Yandex scrapes Google and other SEO learnings from the source code leak.
Also, Russia’s largest search engine is now reportedly for sale.
Yahoo started dropping hints in January about its return to competing in the search space. In addition to hiring, a tweet promised Yahoo was going to make search “cool again.”
Now we know Yahoo’s new Search experience will start rolling out in the first few weeks of 2024, Brian Provost, SVP & GM, Yahoo, told me at SMX Next in November.
The ad-free search engine, founded in 2019, shut down.
Search Engine Land
We turned Search Engine Land into a chatbot this year. Yes, we trained ChatGPT on our content so you can explore, experiment and learn more about search marketing.
Later in the year, SearchBot got a huge upgrade, including new personas and image generation.
Sign up here for free access.
SMX Advanced and Next
We ran two digital events this year – SMX Advanced in June and SMX Next in November. Both shows were packed full of actionable SEO tips and insights.
Below are links to our coverage of some SEO session from Advanced:
- Using AI chatbots to 10X your keyword research
- How generative AI will change SEO as a profession
- Using ChatGPT to drive technical SEO
- 30 ways enterprise organizations can grow SEO with limited resources
- E-E-A-T: Making experience and expertise your content advantage
- Perfecting prompts for SEO content development
You can expect to read lots of coverage of SEO sessions from SMX Next over the coming weeks on Search Engine Land.
Plus, congratulations to all the 2023 Search Engine Land Award winners.
Salary & Career Survey
Here’s what you told us:
- 2023 Salary & Career guide: How much search marketers make
- Gender pay gap persists: Men earn 26% more than women in search marketing
- Search marketing: Evolving roles, responsibilities, challenges
20 years of Barry Schwartz
Search Engine Land’s own Barry Schwartz has now been covering all things search for 20 years — 17 of those here at Search Engine Land. JR Oaks did a fascinating breakdown of 20 years of search based on Search Engine Roundtable analytics data.
SEO in 2033
What’s next for SEO? More AI. We are only at the dawn of our generative AI journey and AI-driven Search as we enter 2024.
Pichai said this year Google Search will evolve substantively in next 10 years. And 2024 will be one year closer to the type of search that is more “personalized” (hello, Bard Assistant) and “ambiently available to users in radically different ways.” And he promises Google will get SGE right.
DeepMind co-founder Mustafa Suleyman echoed this, saying Google will look much different in 2033 – where conversation is the interface, not a Search box.
If you’ve never seen the 2013 movie “Her,” watch it. Or if you have seen it, watch it again. That could be the general direction Google is heading. The future of AI Search could be:
- Virtually assisted.
- Adaptive — to evolve and understand you.