The Verge has a piece up today named Inside CNET’s AI-powered SEO money machine. It covers much of what we reported in Google search responds to BankRate, more brands using AI to write content last week. It also dives more into how the company has been using machines to replace low-cost humans to generate low-quality content designed to rank well in search.
Google’s algorithms. All of this reminds me of the Google Panda update days, where Google built algorithms to detect content farms and content written with the purpose of generating search traffic. Now, with the helpful content update, that specifically aims to discount content written for search rankings (and not for users) – this strategy deployed by the Red Ventures websites seems like it is set up to fail ultimately – that is, if Google’s algorithms do what they say they will do.
Red Ventures goal. According to The Verge:
“Red Ventures’ business model is straightforward and explicit: it publishes content designed to rank highly in Google search for “high-intent” queries and then monetizes that traffic with lucrative affiliate links.”
That specifically goes against Google’s latest helpful content update algorithm, which aims to downgrade sites where content is written for search engines first (i.e. content written to rank in search and not help people).
The article goes on to explain how these sites are trying to rank well in the credit card space, and turn that traffic into clicks to affiliate revenue. “Red Ventures has found a major niche in credit cards and other finance products,” the article explains.
This goes beyond just CNET. Red Ventures also owns The Points Guy, Bankrate, and CreditCards.com, “all of which monetize through credit card affiliate fees,” they add.
“The CNET AI stories at the center of the controversy are straightforward examples of this strategy: ‘Can You Buy a Gift Card With a Credit Card?’ and ‘What Is Zelle and How Does It Work?’ are obviously designed to rank highly in searches for those topics. Like CNET, Bankrate and CreditCards.com have also published AI-written articles about credit cards with ads for opening cards nestled within.”
Content farms. Replace humans with AI to build content farms, content that is aimed to rank well in search, generate traffic, clicks on ads, revenue from affiliates and other publishing goals.
The article goes on to say:
“Viewed cynically, it makes perfect sense for Red Ventures to deploy AI: it is flooding the Google search algorithm with content, attempting to rank highly for various valuable searches, and then collecting fees when visitors click through to a credit card or mortgage application. AI lowers the cost of content creation, increasing the profit for each click. There is not a private equity company in the world that can resist this temptation.”
Didn’t Google already tackle such efforts with Panda with the downfall of content farms? I guess not. Not yet.
Wordsmith. The tool being used to generate this content is Wordsmith, something they have been using for well over a year now, and something other companies have been using as well.
“A former CNET employee says that Red Ventures was using automated technology for content long before the AI byline began cropping up in November. They say a tool called Wordsmith — nicknamed “Mortgotron” internally because of its use in mortgage stories — has been used for at least a year and a half.”
Not new. Yes, for a year and a half, this has been going on. But it has been going on longer.
You see it a lot with financial earnings news analysis, sports scores news stories and anything that can be somewhat templated. Machines can pull out the metrics and then write up a sensible article using the revised data.
It is cheap and serves the purpose. But is this the type of content that Google wants to rank?
Here is a tweet from Glenn Gabe showing how it worked years ago:
I know a lot of people have focused on AI content recently based on ChatGPT, but many forget that Wordsmith, and others like Heliograf, have been doing this forever. Here’s a tweet of mine from 2017 showing AI articles ranking well at the time 🙂 https://t.co/qFgZknMEgX
— Glenn Gabe (@glenngabe) January 20, 2023
Good enough to rank. So with the layoffs at these publishing companies, they came up with more and more ways to have machines write content that ranks in search. The Verge wrote that it just needs to be good enough to rank,
“But the robot articles published on CNET don’t need to be ‘good’ — they need to rank highly in Google searches so lots of people open them and click the lucrative affiliate marketing links they contain.”
It can’t last. I mean, it can’t last, it can’t continue to work in the long run, right?
If Google has their say, and they do, Google wants content written in a way that is designed to help users. If The Verge is accurate in saying the intent of this content that AI writes is to just rank well in search, then Google’s new helpful content update should tackle that. It might not tackle it today but it should in the future.
Why we care. It is tempting to find low-cost ways to generate endless content that can rank well in Google Search. I mean, who doesn’t want to make a lot of money fast, for very little cost? But how long will those efforts last? Is this a long-term strategy? Will we look back at these efforts and say this is why Google rolled out the helpful content update?
Time will tell, but it is super interesting to watch this all play out, just like we did with the Panda, Penguin and other Google Search algorithm updates over the years.
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About the author
Barry Schwartz a Contributing Editor to IXLCenter.io and a member of the programming team for SMX events. He owns RustyBrick, a NY based web consulting firm. He also runs Search Engine Roundtable, a popular search blog on very advanced SEM topics. Barry can be followed on Twitter here.