Inside Google’s SGE: Uncovering the Beta Version of AI-driven Search

Written by
Svetlana Shchehel
Dec 12, 2023
22 min read

On May 10, 2023, during the annual I/O developer conference, Google announced that it was finally ready to reimagine the traditional search experience using generative AI.

Following Google’s SGE announcement, SE Ranking started developing our new AI-powered Overview feature to work with SGE, which now undergoes beta-testing. We also decided to investigate the nuances of SGE and its impact on digital search. That’s why our team analyzed 100,000 keywords over 30 days, examining 2 million search results using this new AI-powered Overview feature.

While many of us are excited about witnessing a major technological transformation that can completely change the way we search for information, the rapid advancement of AI also evokes feelings of fear and concern. SEOs and marketers are wondering how many of the SERPs will be affected, the way it will reflect on their website traffic, and, most importantly, how to get prepared to mitigate the risks.

With our research, we tried to address some of these fears and offer data-backed insights on what to expect from Google SGE.

SE Ranking’s findings on the SGE snippet

The first findings highlight that SGE is becoming quite a commonly generated snippet that’s going to change the traditional approach to search and SEO. 

Our research of SGE with AI-powered Overview feature showed that Google tends to generate SGE snippets for every search regardless of intent, location, or other factors:

  • Only about 4% of keywords did not contain SGE snippets on the search results. And no dependency on search intent was observed.
  • SGE answers appeared in 90% of searches with the default US location and in 87% of local searches. 

The length of SGE answers varies a lot: 

  • The shortest answers contain 634 symbols.
  • The average length is 4,000.
  • The longest answers extend up to 377,000 while including all expanded dropdowns.

Thus, the conclusion can be made that SGE can generate detailed answers on different topics and hide part of it in dropdowns.

As for the links featured in the SGE snippet, our research showed that the average number of links to webpages incorporated in SGE snippets per search is 28. However, only 45% of them appeared in the top 10 organic search results.

Bogdan Babiak
CMO at SE Ranking
In the remaining 55%, to generate snippets, Google’s SGE uses results beyond the top 10, or from keyword results from similar clusters of topics that Google considers as related. SGE also changes links very quickly. We’ve discovered that, on average, 86% of links change for the same search query during a month. Therefore, optimising various similar searches is essential to boost your chances of frequently appearing in the AI snippet. In other words, by controlling more search results, your likelihood of being featured in snippets increases proportionally

Based on this first SGE research insights, we can agree that SGE integration will dramatically change the SERP’s architecture and operation, causing shifts in organic traffic patterns.

Anastasia Kotsiubynska
Head of SEO at SE Ranking
The research already shows that only ~4% of all searches right now aren’t triggering the snippet generation, which means that almost all niches and websites will be affected by the update. Moreover, we can see that the snippet already takes a lot of space–an average length is about 4000 characters. This supports the belief that regular organic SERP results probably won’t be reached and clicked as much after the release of SGE. Meanwhile, it’s clear that SGE results have been changing a lot and will probably change before the official release, but we can already keep tabs on how it looks for your target keywords and try to adjust our SEO strategy based on that.

How to get access to SGE through Search Labs

The new search, called SGE (Search Generative Experience), is available for testing in Google’s Search Labs, which is a dedicated testing environment introduced by Google on May 10, 2023. This was the day Google revealed its ambitious plan to transform search with the help of AI. 

Currently, Search Labs and SGE are available in 120+ countries and territories. The new search also supports 7 languages. It runs on both Chrome desktop and in the Google App for Android and iOS.

Many of the insights we will provide in the following sections are based on the information shared by early adopters of SGE. A special thanks to Lily Ray, Barry Schwarz, Kevin Indig, Aleyda Solis, Brodie Clark, and Cyrus Shepard for all the observations they generously highlighted in their posts and articles.

How SGE differs from the current Google SERP layout

A major thing that makes SGE stand out is the interactive AI-powered snippet at the top of the SERP.  It features an answer to the user’s query and a carousel of websites that SGE used to corroborate the response, with three websites visible by default.

Our research also showed that the average number of links to webpages incorporated in SGE snippets per search is 28.

The snippet may take a few seconds to generate a response to your query as the AI algorithms are at work.

SGE snippet example

The snippet comes with a vibrant background and can vary in color, potentially included in shades of red, green, blue, lilac, etc. You have an opportunity to ask follow-up questions. Sometimes—like in the example above—the snippet already includes ready-made follow-up ideas. In other cases, Google may not provide any pre-populated ideas, but you can always hit the “Ask a follow up” button. 

While the snippet includes links to the websites used to corroborate its response, some SEO specialists reported that SGE isn’t very good at source attribution. We’ll cover more on that later. 

And unlike Bing, SGE doesn’t clearly indicate the sources of all the cited information. For comparison, here’s what Bing does:

Bing source attribution

At the same time, when you switch to the expanded mode, the source attribution improves:

SGE expanded mode

As for the length of SGE answers, it also varies a lot.

The data collected during our SGE research shows that the shortest answers contain 634 symbols, the average length is 4,000, and the longest answers extend up to 377,000 while including all expanded dropdowns. Thus, the conclusion can be made that SGE can generate detailed answers on different topics and hide part of it in dropdowns.

AI-generated responses may occupy a relatively moderate amount of the SERP real estate leaving plenty of space for traditional blue links, especially when the full snippet is hidden under the Show more button. 

Snow more button SGE snippet

Without switching to full-screen mode, these moderate-sized snippets can occupy the whole first screen, and the temptation to hit the Show more button may outweigh the desire to scroll down.

SGE screen space

In many cases, the snippets can become quite large, featuring a text response and multiple products that SGE deems relevant to your request.

Product query SGE

Also, if you ask a follow-up question, the SERP will show both generated snippets during your conversation, taking up even more SERP space.

Generative AI snippets vary depending on the type of search query, and one can draw parallels to traditional SERP features:

  • Informational searches trigger snapshots similar to featured snippets.
  • Local searches results in generative AI producing a response formatted similarly to a local pack.
  • Ecommerce keywords prompt Google to showcase various products, resembling product carousels.

Regardless of search type, AI snippets include a carousel of sites in the top-right corner. The three visible links will probably get the lion’s share of traffic. The difference between various snippet types lies in the presentation of the AI response and extra details featured in the snippet, such as ecommerce products, photos, reviews from GBP, maps, etc.

Now, let’s briefly explore each major type of AI snapshot you may encounter:

General informational queries

General informational queries generate a SERP snippet with a textual response, a few links to the source websites, and suggested follow-up questions.

Informational query SGE snippet example

How-to queries generate similar results, but the information is often presented in the form of a list.

how-to queries sge

Informational AI snippets may include images, such as the ones in the screenshot below.

SGE snippet with photos
Source: https://twitter.com/lilyraynyc/status/1666107028178124801?cxt=HHwWgoC2xfjgmZ8uAAAA

The fascinating thing about this example is that Google pulled Marie Haynes’ photos from her company’s Google Business Profile page. This shows that Google uses all sources of information out there, and then combines information pulled from multiple sources to generate the most helpful responses. 

Another interesting element that SGE tends to include in the snippet is quotes from GBP user reviews. This happens when you search for places like Google’s London office, Taj Mahal, or Search Labs. In most cases, the snippet will also include pictures, although Search Lab’s GBP profile evidently lacks them. Interestingly, a map is not included in these instances.

SGE snippet with GBP reviews quotes

Listicle-type informational queries

Search queries that are best answered with listicle articles trigger a slightly different type of snippet, featuring a list of suggested solutions along with their short descriptions.

SGE snippet with a list of tools

Sometimes, this list of solutions can be combined with a textual response presented as a bullet list. Additionally, the snippet may include a map if SGE decides your query has a local context.

SGE snippet with list of businesses and a map
Source: https://twitter.com/rustybrick/status/1661836977484734504

Interestingly, SGE has made changes over time, as the same query no longer shows the map and list of local businesses:

Places to learn SEO with no map

Local queries

Search queries that clearly indicate a local intent generate snippets that look much like the Local Pack. However, these snippets can feature up to five listings, whereas a traditional Local Pack displays only three.

5-pack local SGE snippet
3-pack regular search snippet

AI snippets with only three listings were spotted as well:

3-pack SGE local snippet

Ecommerce queries

Ecommerce searches often result in snippets containing textual advice on selecting the desired product and a list of products that SGE deems suitable based on your requirements. Each listed product comes with a short description.

SGE ecommerce query snippet

As Lily Ray, SEO & Head of Organic Research at Amsive Digital, noted, these snippets may contain plenty of links to “top products” articles. On mobile devices, they’re placed at the bottom of the snippet:

An interesting observation by Kevin Indig is that SGE appears to use user reviews to make specific product recommendations, such as identifying standing desks that are “good for home” or “good for tall people”:

SGE tagging products
Source: https://www.kevin-indig.com/x-realizations-from-testing-search-generative-experience/

If your query combines commercial and informational search intents, you may see a snippet that looks like this:

Ecommerce query with informational intent snippet

The snippet resembles those generated for informational queries but includes product images and links to the store (Please note that the screenshot above displays a brand store and not a reseller. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case).

It also appears that SGE will be integrated with the Merchant Center, allowing for more detailed information about suggested products and the list of stores it can be purchased from.

SGE snippet with detailed product information

For now, the feature doesn’t always work smoothly:

SGE's detailed product info not working
Source: https://twitter.com/lilyraynyc/status/1663560571806167047

Do all search queries trigger a generative AI snapshot?

The short answer is no. Cyrus Shepard managed to single out seven categories of search queries that do not trigger AI snippets:

1. Navigational queries like Facebook or Amazon, although there may be exceptions.

Brand query triggering ecommerce AI snippet

2. Quick Answers, such as weather forecasts or song lyrics.

3. Sensitive queries related to topics like “gender identity,” or “holocaust”. However,  not all controversial topics are considered sensitive:

SGE snippet on controversial topic

4. News and current events.

5. Recipes, which is a bit surprising.

6. NSFW/explicit/porn queries.

7. Many of the YMYL queries, such as searching for the “best credit card for poor credit score” or the “best place to buy ketamine” won’t display an AI snippet. Oftentimes, though, SGE would generate answers for queries that could be considered YMYL. It is happy to list “diaper rash symptoms”, and “mortgage rates”, give advice on how long copyright protection lasts and even offer advice on “whether headaches can be a sign of cancer”. On all occasions, SGE would add some sort of disclaimer stating that the information provided cannot be considered medical, financial, or legal advice.

Our research of SGE with SE Ranking’s AI-powered Overview feature showed that Google tends to generate SGE snippets for every search regardless of intent, location, or other factors. Only about 4% of keywords did not contain SGE snippets on the search results. And no dependency on search intent was observed. SGE answers appeared in 90% of searches with the default US location and in 87% of local searches.

Messages you can get if AI search is not available

Note that depending on the type of query, SGE may suggest that you “Get an AI-powered overview of this search” or it would state that “An AI-powered overview is not available for this search.” 

AI-powered overview is not available message from SGE

Here’s an example of some navigational and news searches where SGE believes that an AI response may not be the most relevant for the user, but it could still generate it if requested. Google likely assumes that an AI overview of the search would do no harm in such cases.

Get an AI-powered overview of this search message for navigational query
Get an AI-powered overview of this search message for news query

In some cases that are particularly sensitive, SGE provides no message at all and offers a regular SERP instead:

AI snippet not generated with no message

If you enter conversational mode, it will display a “Here are some results” message still not giving you the opportunity to generate an AI snippet:

AI snippet not generated and message Here are some results message shown

And in some cases, SGE may offer to generate an AI snippet, but then change its mind and display a “no AI overview is available” message:

Which SERP results are cited and linked to in the generative AI snapshot? 

Maybe your first guess is that SGE uses top-ranking search results to generate AI snapshots, similarly to how it generates featured snippets. 

But based on what we can conclude from testing and research, this is not the case. 

Google would often pull the AI response from websites that are not currently ranking high. This includes “smaller players” and even “random, questionable sites,” as Lily Ray puts it:

The first results of our SGE snippet analysis show that only 45% of those 28 links that are included in the SGE snippet on average, appear in the top 10 organic search results.

SEO specialists offer theories explaining the reason for this, ranging from “SGE not using all the ranking systems that search uses when deciding what to look at” to assumptions that Google prioritizes content credibility “at the creator/author of content level.”

Kevin Indig even suggests that it’s possible to reverse-engineer AI results. After clicking the links in the carousel, a user will land on a specific passage that Google used to form the AI snippet, which is a process that works similarly to featured snippets. 

By analyzing several SERPs, Kevin concluded that the unique angle of your content needs to match what the AI snapshot puts emphasis on.

Kevin uses the “corporate credit card” SERP as an example, where, SGE focuses on building its response around the subject’s benefits and risks for businesses:

Reverse-engineering AI results
Source: https://www.kevin-indig.com/x-realizations-from-testing-search-generative-experience/

In the snapshot above, you can see that the AI pulled the risks section of its response from the ExpenseAnywhere website, which ranks 26 in non-AI search results. The reason for this is that this particular content piece covered the specific angle that SGE was interested in:

Analyzing information pulled to AI snippet
Source: https://www.kevin-indig.com/x-realizations-from-testing-search-generative-experience/

While the exact reasons for SGE’s selection of certain angles for certain topics are not currently known, spotting patterns that work in your industry with different types of queries can help you incorporate relevant information to your content and increase your chances of making it to the carousel.

Are SGE search results personalized?

In one of her tweets, Lily Ray reached out to Google to ask if SGE search results were personalized. Google’s response was a definite no. According to Google’s reps, the context of the whole conversation is taken into account and search results can vary depending on your previous queries. That being said, your previous search history will not impact the SERP.

Where would Google Ads go?

Google Ads are definitely not going anywhere. Google needs ads to make money and will eventually incorporate them into AI-generated snippets.  

As indicated in a preview published on Google’s blog, ads will naturally blend into the SGE landscape just like how they fit into the non-AI search.

But that is a development for the future.

For now, as we are at the early stages of testing, Google Ads are not yet included in the AI snippets, and you can spot all sorts of SERP layouts, including:

  • Google Ads placed above the AI snippet. Oftentimes, this means that the snippet was not initially there, but you clicked on the “Get an AI-powered overview of this search” button. While this placement was common during the first days of SGE testing, it is no longer as widespread.
  • Google Ads placed below the AI snippet.
Google ads place below the AI snippet
  • Some SERPs do not include Google Ads but feature plenty of sponsored snippets in non-AI search results:
No ads in SGE info search
Ads in regular info search
  • In local searches, AI-powered SERPs do not contain sponsored links, while non-AI SERPs may have plenty of sponsored links:
No ads in SGE local search
Ads in regular local search

What will happen to existing SERP features, such as featured snippets?

As of now, various SERP features, including featured snippets, are still part of the SERP. Interestingly, featured snippets were spotted to be positioned directly below the AI snippets, which may seem counterintuitive as both serve as quick summaries of the topic.

SGE with a featured snippet and a video

In the provided screenshot, other familiar SERP features like the People Also Ask box and videos are still visible. The same goes for rich snippets, knowledge graphs, top stories, events, recipes, and other popular SERP features.

However, some SEOs believe Google will eventually remove certain SERP features like featured snippets or local packs. This is because these features duplicate the information presented within the AI snippet and occupy SERP space for no justifiable reason.

Local pack below the local AI snippet

What does the SEO community think about SGE?

Based on the poll conducted by Lily Ray on Twitter, the overwhelming majority of SEO experts are not impressed with what SGE has to offer:

When excluding people willing to learn the survey results, only 12% of the respondents consider SGE to be a significant improvement to Google search.

Reported bugs and concerns

The new search functionality is seen as a potential threat to websites that invested a lot into increasing their visibility. However, this is only one among many reasons why SEO professionals are not that excited about the new search. An even bigger problem is the current functioning of the system in general.

Surely, in every AI snippet it generates, SGE clearly emphasizes: “Generative AI is experimental, data quality may vary.” And we should bear that in mind while hoping that many of the things that are obviously faulty now will be fixed in the near future. 

Still, it’s important to highlight the many areas where SGE is currently struggling.

Poor source attribution

We already mentioned that unlike Bing, SGE doesn’t consistently or clearly attribute each statement to its rightful source. It also frequently fails to include the quoted article in the link carousel.

This case reported by Brodie Clark was eventually rectified:

Example of a false source attribution by SGE
Source: https://brodieclark.com/generative-ai-google/

But rectified or not, SGE using expert quotes and presenting them as general truth with no reference to the author isn’t a good look for SGE. This is not a right way to present information.

In response to user tweets, Google claimed that SGE was an experiment and that they appreciated the feedback. They also noted that in the expanded view, source attribution becomes clearer.

Missing links that lead to poor UX and lost traffic

Despite the importance of links on the Internet, SGE doesn’t link back to the websites, products, and services that it mentions in its AI responses.

In the examples below, links to the suggested rank tracking tools and websites that offer SEO training are not clickable, which contributes to a poor experience for users. What concerns SEO specialists even more is that even if their website makes it to the AI snippet, they may not receive a fair share of traffic. This is because users have no option to click on the link and explore the suggested solutions in more detail.

Rank tacking tools no links
Place to learn SEO with no links

In the following example, you’ll notice that SGE not only fails to link back to the brand website, but even recommends buying a product from resellers instead:

SGE snippet with no links to a brand
Source: https://twitter.com/lilyraynyc/status/1663561663189245952?cxt=HHwWgIDTxZmhlJYuAAAA

Including clickable links to the products in the snippets, as demonstrated in the example below, would be way more user-friendly. After all, providing easy access to specific products is one of the main reasons why we place anchor links to website pages.

No links to products in SGE snippet
Source: https://twitter.com/lilyraynyc/status/1663729663783456769?cxt=HHwWgsC-wY_U4JYuAAAA

Confusing or false information

You cannot fully trust AI, and Google’s AI-powered responses are no exception. 

For example, at one point, it recommended boiling the eggs for up to 60 minutes total:

SGE's bad advice on boiling eggs
Source: https://twitter.com/CyrusShepard/status/1663423752863109121 

Oftentimes, SGE struggles to align the AI snippet with the user’s intent, such as offering basic info about Caribbean cruises instead of presenting specific cruise options. 

SGE showing info snippet for commercial query
Source: https://www.aleydasolis.com/en/search-engine-optimization/a-few-thoughts-on-my-initial-google-sge-experience/

In the next example, instead of offering recognized management training programs, SGE came up with a list of random local businesses, including one that offers CPR training:

SGE showing local snippet for informational  query
Source: https://twitter.com/lilyraynyc/status/1663556738900193283?cxt=HHwWhsDT3ciCkpYuAAAA

And even though SGE is not supposed to handle sensitive YMYL questions, it sometimes attempts to do so, as shown in the example below:

On the bright side, Google’s white paper on SGE clearly states its dedication to providing “reliable, helpful and high-quality information,” with extra attention given to YMYL queries. So, let’s hope that once the model is better trained, there will be fewer instances of AI snippets spreading misleading information.

When will the search generative experience go live?

Google has not disclosed the exact date for the full-scale rollout of SGE. Still, as noted by Barry Schwartz, based on the information from Search Labs, it is speculated that the SGE experiment will be finished by December 2023.

SGE ends December 2023
Source: https://www.seroundtable.com/google-search-generative-experience-ends-december-2023-35463.html

Which industries/types of websites may benefit from the SGE rollout?

It’s still too early to draw definitive conclusions about how exactly the SGE rollout will impact different SEO players. Many features are still in progress, and things are changing at a fast pace. 

According to Lily Ray, SGE is yet too unstable to make definite predictions, though some queries are evidently more affected than others.

Lily Ray
SEO & Head of Organic Research at Amsive Digital
Almost every category may be affected, but it’s impossible to know because SGE changes in appearance every day. Some days, it shows for almost all queries, including YMYL queries. Other days, it hardly shows up at all. But as it stands, it appears that SGE shows for most informational queries, most local/travel/restaurant queries, products and product reviews, many health and medical topics, wellness and relationships, tech, news, and much more. So far, it doesn’t appear to show consistently for recipes, controversial topics, highly political topics, weather or lyrics.

That being said, based on what we can currently see, we can make some tentative assessments about how the future looks so far.

Local businesses may get more traction

According to Kevin Indig’s article on 11 realizations from testing SGE, “local reviews might actually get more traffic from Google based on the SGE beta.”

Barry Schwartz, also mentioned local businesses as potential winners, stating:

Barry Schwartz
CEO of RustyBrick and News Editor at SEL
So it is early but it seems like the local pack results went from 3 listings in the traditional Google search results to 5 listings in the new Google Search Generative Experience. So local businesses may get more visibility with this new experience.

Ecommerce retailers can get more traffic from free product listings

Brodie Clark suggests that ecommerce businesses proficient in managing their product feeds and using structured data have a chance to be featured in the free product listings within AI snapshots. An important observation by Kevin Indig is that these businesses should prioritize product, local and brand reviews, as AI heavily relies on user feedback.

On the other hand, Aleyda Solis projects that product listing pages of established brand retailers may experience a decline in traffic, Google AI snippets take over that role. Moreover, big brands like Nike or North Face may also lose traffic to retailers selling their products since SGE doesn’t seem to favor brand manufacturer websites.

Blogs covering informational queries may lose the lion’s share of traffic

Anastasia Kotsiubynska believes that informational queries are the most vulnerable, especially queries answering who, what, and where questions. With SGE, a lot of users will get the necessary information directly from the SERP’s AI snippet without having to click on any links. Whenever the snippet provides insufficient information to users, the three visible websites in the top-right corner of the snippet may still get some organic traffic. 

Anastasia Kotsiubynska
Head of SEO at SE Ranking
Additionally, the top three websites located within the snippet are not the same as the top three ones from a regular organic search–and some of them aren’t even ranking in the top 10 or top 30 regular results. This spells new challenges for SEOs in understanding the new ranking principles, making it harder for them to get into the clickable space of SERPs.

Finally, Anastasia notes that we don’t yet know how much space paid ads will occupy, which can further limit the site’s opportunities to get traffic.

What SEO specialists can start doing now to prepare for the upcoming changes

During the experiment phase of the search experience, gaining first-hand experience with it is crucial. This is expressed clearly in the following quote by Barry Schwartz:

Barry Schwartz
CEO of RustyBrick and News Editor at SEL
Figure out a way to gain access to SGE, even if you are not in a supported country, maybe by using a proxy or VPN. You must play with it and see how it changes over time, because we all think at one point in time, this will replace the main Google.com transitional search results. So I recommend you play with it, if not daily, at least weekly, to see how your client queries will be impacted and what opportunities you can find there to rank well in the AI generative response.

Anastasia Kotsiubynska suggests taking it one step further and to begin preparing your sites for the update:

Anastasia Kotsiubynska
Head of SEO at SE Ranking
We can already check how the new SERPs for our focus queries will look, and analyze patterns like the structure of the snippet, including content structure of the top websites from the snippet. We can even start implementing some of the changes on our websites. Moreover, we should probably reconsider our goals in terms of organic traffic, aiming even more for highly relevant traffic that cannot be easily replaced by the snippet.
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