AI-written slop messing up your web shopping experience.

How publications get sloppy

A perfect storm of dodgy SEO, dodgier AI work and the desperate need to protect affiliate revenue is breeding a whole new type of web content slop.

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Futurism has been doing some great work tracking bad, manipulative uses of AI on publisher sites over the last year or so. Their latest piece is a bit of a doozy, showing how sites get infected by terrible SEO-optimised AI content just designed to extract affiliate revenue from unsuspecting searchers:

Basically, AdVon engages in what Google calls "site reputation abuse": it strikes deals with publishers in which it provides huge numbers of extremely low-quality product reviews — often for surprisingly prominent publications — intended to pull in traffic from people Googling things like "best ab roller." The idea seems to be that these visitors will be fooled into thinking the recommendations were made by the publication's actual journalists and click one of the articles' affiliate links, kicking back a little money if they make a purchase.

You can almost feel the business logic oozing out of the story. Affiliate revenue is as competitive and thin margined as any other form of web content. If you could, say, radically reduce the cost of the copy, while producing it in volume, suddenly the figures look a lot better. It's only a short step from there to paying an AI company to generate copy for you – if you lack any sort of ethical commitment to service journalism.

Publishers are incentivised to do this because the affiliate space is getting ever more competitive. Some publishers appear to be employing SEO tricks to eke out more revenue. It doesn't quite count as Black Hat SEO, but it's disturbingly close to it. And it rejoices in the name “keyword swarming”.

Now, regular readers should have alarm bells going off already. We live in the intent age of search, not the keyword age. So, already the name smacks of the declining past of SEO clinging onto strategy for as long as it can, before it slips into the abyss that consumed keyword stuffing and guest posting.

A new SEO threat: keyword swarming

But what is keyword swarming? This is how House Fresh, a self-declared victim of it, defines it:

Through this strategy, Dotdash Meredith allegedly identifies small sites that have cemented themselves in Google results for a specific (and valuable) term or in a specific topic, with the goal of pushing them down the rankings by publishing vast amounts of content of their own.  “Swarming is about drowning out a competitor,” said the person who reached out. The objective is to “swarm a smaller site’s foothold on one or two articles by essentially publishing 10 articles [on the topic] and beefing up [Dotdash Meredith sites’] authority.”

Reading between the lines here, the strategy seems to come down to this:

  • Identify a smaller publication that only has a couple of articles ranking well for an intent
  • Write lots of content about that subject, and publish it across multiple sites
  • Hope that the combination of freshness signals (this content is more recent than that other content) and existing authority will knock the small publication down the ranking
  • Profit.

(And, in theory, enhance profit by keeping costs down — through AI use…)

A woman horrified at the content slop she finds through search.
Affiliate content slop, courtesy of SEO tactics and AI!

There are ways of defending against this sort of behaviour. I do work with clients and trainees on strategic authority building through clusters of content around key topics. My assumption and experience is that this approach would make it harder for even a high-authority site to out-rank all of the content cluster, especially if it was well inter-linked.

(This is one of the reasons I don't link often to the many “a Google update killed our traffic” stories. If I open their site, and find two or three obvious SEO issues straight away, my sympathy sharply declines…)

I'm also curious as to how the big sites are over-whelming what should be the historic authority of the smaller site on the topic. This is a complex issue, and I'm not sure it's as simple as “a Google update killed our traffic”. It's more like “a mix of a brutally aggressive tactic from a bigger competitor, coupled with some weak practice on our part, and Google's shift towards bigger sites has come to a head".

To be fair, that works a lot less well as a headline.

The battle for affiliate crumbs

But what this clearly has in common with the behaviour Futurism found is that big publishers who have built significant revenue on affiliate sales are fighting extremely aggressively to keep those — to the point of steamrollering right thought anything that looks like journalism ethics. And, it appears, they're quite likely to destroy reader trust over time, if they continue with this process.

But I don't think they're worried about this, because I think they know this is just milking revenue from a dying content type. The Lawfully chaotic Ian Betteridge predicted a couple of months back:

For purchasing decisions, conversational interfaces will ultimately be better for users, as they allow them to hone down recommendations based on personal priorities. I could talk to Gemini and say, “OK, I have a mix of hard wood floor and carpets, what would you recommend?” I can change price ranges, asking if there’s a really outstanding model just above what I’m looking to spend.

Yes, it's AI time again. This area of search may well be one where conversational AI will be better than the conventional “list of links” approach, and if that proves to be true, publishers would be well-advised to heed Ian's suggestion:

If you have affiliate revenue now, I would strongly recommend you invest what you’re making in a long-term strategy of building more direct traffic, and more direct revenue from consumers (in whatever way is appropriate to your market).

Affiliate-led publishing strategies are looking like a doomed model. And when you're in a declining market with ever thinning margins, unethical behaviour — like casting an SEO net of AI-written slop — starts to look justifiable. It's a mistake, and, once Google either sorts out its lagroitym, or just hands all these kinds of search intent off to its Search Generative Experience, you're dead anyway. Don't take you reputation down with the business model.

Get your XCity here…

The latest edition of XCity, the magazine produced by MA Magazine Journalism students at City, is out. We've stacks of print copies in the office, but you can enjoy on online page turner version here:

As you can see from the subtle graphic above, I'm running a workshop about newsletters at the Publisher Podcast and Newsletter Summit next month. If you'd like to attend — and see some great panels throughout the day — you can book tickets now.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.