"It's just wrong to make money on that."
A website has found itself the victim of a pernicious new online scheme that its perpetrators are shamelessly bragging about: an "SEO heist," the latest example of how generative AI is being used to accelerate the deterioration of the search engines that form the backbone of the Internet.
The website in question is Exceljet, a hub on everything to know about Microsoft Excel. Its owner David Bruns started noticing a dip in its traffic starting last year. This fall, he found out why. Someone was using an AI to imitate nearly all of his website's articles with inferior and often error-riddled copies designed solely to please search engines, hijacking Exceljet's traffic.
"It's one thing to get outranked by an article that is arguably better than the article that you wrote, but it's something else to get outranked by an article that was written by a machine that no human ever reviewed," Bruns told Business Insider. "It's just wrong to make money on that."
Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, describes the tricks and tactics used to help rank websites higher in search results, which leads to more clicks. It serves a practical purpose, but the ruthless gaming of search engines, and of Google especially, has long taken a toll on the broader internet's functionality, ranking bogus results over useful ones.
Generative AI has further exacerbated the problem. By using large language models like ChatGPT, content strategists can quickly churn out a high volume of low-quality articles replete with all-important SEO keywords — the only part that matters if your bottom line is clicks.
This is exactly what one such content strategist Jake Ward took advantage of to hijack Exceljet's readers.
"We pulled off an SEO heist that stole 3.6M total traffic from a competitor," Ward boasted in an X thread explaining the feat last month. "We got 489,509 traffic in October alone."
As he explains it, Ward fed the URLs of Exceljet's some 1,800 pages into an "SEO-optimized" AI article writer called Byword. The bot automatically spat out articles based on Exceljet's successful headlines, and Ward then published these ersatz articles en masse, quickly diverting clicks to his own website and away from Exceljet. He doesn't believe he's done anything wrong.
"It's unusual that something acceptable, if done once, suddenly becomes unethical when reproduced at scale," Ward wrote on X, as spotted by BI.
The "heist" has hurt Bruns' website. But it's also potentially hurting readers who need real information. By his analysis, Bruns found that some of Ward's AI-generated articles contained blatant factual errors, in one case explaining an Excel feature that didn't exist.
"I started to look at the quality of the articles and realized that we're losing traffic to stuff that doesn't even make sense," he told BI.
Some of the onus is on Google, he argues, who haven't done enough to weed out SEO grifters.
"This is a big problem for Google," Bruns added. "If people keep finding crappy articles at the top of the search results, they're going to end up questioning whether Google's doing a good job, but the fact that the articles are near or they can be at the top of the result makes it seem like they're legitimate."
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