Perplexity’s growth upends SEO fears, reveals crack in Google’s dominance

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When Microsoft announced Bing would be infused with OpenAI’s technology, businesses began complaining about the potential loss of web traffic. What about all the effort put into Search Engine Optimization (SEO)? Google‘s entrance into the space with its Search Generative Experience (SGE) only made critics more vocal. However, a new study of the AI-first search engine Perplexity suggests that those fears may be overblown.

“It’s a very exciting time in what’s happening around AI and search,” Jim Yu, chief executive of the enterprise SEO platform BrightEdge, told VentureBeat. “For the past couple of decades, the search model has incrementally evolved. Now, there’s a big change: search is fundamentally disrupted with new AI models.”

Yu’s company has spent time parsing through a database of queries run through Perplexity, analyzing the results to understand the future of search and what it means for consumers and companies. According to their research, Perplexity referral traffic from its search engine to brand websites has grown 40% month-over-month since January. In addition, 60% of its citations match the top 10 organic Google results, meaning that those using Perplexity are shown similar and relevant answers to queries like they would get when using traditional search.

‘Beginning of an opening’ to Google’s crown

Yu explains that companies still need to invest in SEO, regardless of whether or not AI is involved. But in an AI era, credibility will be key to having a site be often cited in responses. “If you rank well today, you’re off to a head start,” Yu says. But instead of focusing on optimizing individual pages, think bigger. “Sharpen your focus. What topics do you have the right to win in?” he asks.

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Google has remained the undisputed search leader for decades, but AI — specifically generative AI — is threatening its market dominance. Perplexity’s referral traffic growth is evidence of that. “This is the first time we’ve seen someone change a market share with any velocity in terms of actual referral traffic to [brand sites],” Yu shares, although he admits Google is far from hobbled. “It’s a fraction of a fraction [of market share], but there’s momentum.”

To understand Perplexity’s impact on search, Yu cited nine industries BrightEdge studied for its research: healthcare, education, B2B tech, restaurants, travel, entertainment, insurance, finance and retail e-commerce. The team uncovered domain differences between Google’s SGE (which is still in beta at the time of this writing) and Perplexity, highlighting which content sources are received the most by which search engine.

  • Reddit is cited as a top domain across seven of the top nine industries, except for Healthcare and Finance
  • For Finance, Perplexity prefers Yahoo, MarketWatch and CNN
  • The Mayo Clinic, Yelp, Tripadvisor and Coursera are deemed to have high authority for healthcare, restaurants, travel and education, respectively
  • E-commerce is an area where Perplexity and Google don’t exactly see eye-to-eye. Both use Wikipedia and Amazon, but regarding third-party product reviews, Google uses Quora and Consumer Reports. Reddit is once again Perplexity’s preferred site.

Some sources are pulled in thanks to paid partnerships while others are obtained through the open web. Regardless, Yu argues that this is an example of “beachfront real estate” where gen AI engines must strike deals with online communities to get the training data they need for their models. Just look at Reddit’s licensing deal with Google ahead of its IPO and Yelp’s tie-up with Perplexity.

Perplexity on the move

BrightEdge’s report follows Perplexity’s announcement that it will soon display branded ads on its search results. The AI search engine company will show native ads in related questions, allowing advertisers to influence what follow-up queries are displayed. Such a move appears antithetical to a claim the company makes on its site that search should be “free from the influence of advertising-driven models,” but Perplexity’s Chief Business Officer Dmitry Shevelenko tells AdWeek that advertising was “always part of how we’re going to build a great business.”

If this evolves beyond native ads or sponsored questions, could there be an equivalent of Google AdWords on Perplexity? Though far from the scale, this might make the AI app more like Google and draw more interest from digital marketers.

Search advice for marketers

Perplexity’s growth after a year of existence illustrates that AI won’t necessarily destroy web traffic, nor will it make people rethink Google search marketing. Rather, once SGE rolled out of beta sometime this year — possibly by Google I/O — Google’s place at the top will be secured again. “Never underestimate Google,” Yu proclaims. “[It’s] very dominant in referral traffic.”

However, based on BrightEdge’s study, he offers these insights:

  • Identify the areas where you have the best expertise from a topic perspective. Where do you have the right to win with your content? In the past, SEO involved optimizing for a few keywords. But now, Yu recommends optimizing for a conversation. One response will trigger a follow-up query along with another, so make sure your site has all the relevant content.
  • Ensure your site has structured information for AI search engines. Use metadata because it hints to AI about where the content comes from, who the author is, etc.; plus, it gives the models an easy way to tag and cite the source of the information it pulls. If you’re already doing SEO well, this shouldn’t be a problem.
  • Consider breaking down silos within your organization. Yu explains that the AI experience glues everything together so optimizing for the web requires help from everyone on the team, regardless of department.

It’s important to note that this report does not suggest that Perplexity is a better marketing tool than Google. Rather, Yu urges businesses to be prepared, saying this snapshot of the young startup reveals that it “shows the beginning of additional models for search.” He elaborates by saying we could ask a question on Perplexity, turn to Google to help shop or plan for a trip, but then use OpenAI’s ChatGPT to find out how to buy a billing system. “You’ve got to prepare for a world where there are multiple AI engines,” Yu remarks.

“AI-first engines are steadily gaining ground and carving out their own areas of expertise, making it critical for the marketing community to master multiple search platforms. There is too much revenue at stake to get left behind, which is why we’re closely tracking the development of these engines and all things AI search – from traffic trends and queries to result quality and more.”

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