Confessions of an AI Clickbait Kingpin

“I’m not a fan of AI,” Nebojša Vujinović Vujo says. The admission surprises me: He has constructed a bustling enterprise by snapping up deserted information retailers and different web sites and stuffing them stuffed with algorithmically generated articles. Although he accepts that his mannequin rankles writers and readers alike, he says he’s merely embracing an unstoppable new instrument—giant language fashions—in the identical means folks rationally swapped horse-drawn buggies for gas-powered automobiles. “I hate cars. They’re making my planet bad,” he says. “But I’m not riding a horse anymore, right? I’m driving a car.”

I linked with Vujo after digging into the unusual afterlife of indie ladies’s weblog The Hairpin, which shut down in 2018. Last month, its web site reawakened. In place of the voicey, humorous weblog posts it was identified for, the positioning started churning out AI-generated, search-engine-optimized pablum about dream interpretations and painfully generic relationship recommendation like “effective communication is vital.”

When I emailed an deal with listed on the zombie web site’s About Us web page, Vujo responded, claiming that it was simply one in every of greater than 2,000 websites he operates, in an AI-content-fueled fiefdom constructed by buying once-popular domains fallen on onerous instances. He’s the CEO of the digital advertising agency Shantel, which monetizes its AI-populated websites by programmatic adverts, sponsored content material, and promoting the location of “backlinks” to web site house owners making an attempt to spice up their credibility with serps. He usually targets distressed media websites as a result of they’ve built-in audiences and a historical past of rating extremely in search outcomes.

The basis of that enterprise is a long-established apply often called area squatting—shopping for up net domains that when belonged to established manufacturers and profiting off their reputations with Google and different serps. Lily Ray, senior director of web optimization on the advertising company Ampsive, calls it “the underbelly of the SEO industry.” But Vujo is a part of a wave of entrepreneurs giving this outdated commerce a brand new twist by utilizing generative AI.

It’s nightfall the place I reside in Chicago once I discuss by way of Zoom with Nebojša Vujinović Vujo. (Although that’s the title he provides me, he has generally passed by simply Nebojša Vujinović, together with on the registration data for a few of his domains.) It’s midnight in Belgrade, Serbia, the place he lives together with his girlfriend and their toddler, however he’s unsleeping and chatty. Vujo attributes his erratic sleep schedule to years of late nights working as a DJ and nonetheless makes music—he likes to combine pop with Balkan folks and is engaged on a brand new track referred to as “Fat Lady.” But proper now he’s keen to speak, human-to-human, about his AI-fueled hustle.

He will get why writers are sad that their work has been erased and changed by clickbait. (The Hairpin’s founding editor, Edith Zimmerman, calls his model of the positioning “grim.”) But he defends his decisions, stating that his life has been harder than that of the common American blogger. Although ethnically Serbian, Vujo was born in what’s now often called Bosnia and Herzegovina, and his household fled throughout the breakup of Yugoslavia. “I had two wars I escaped. I changed nine elementary schools because we were moving. We were migrants,” he says. “It was terrible to grow up in this part of the world.” He says his financial choices have been restricted, and this was merely a path out there to him.

Vujo additionally insists that he does have editorial requirements; though the vast majority of the weblog posts he publishes are created with ChatGPT, he employs a employees of a couple of dozen human editors to examine its work to keep away from something outright offensive. “Maybe it would be better for you that I’m a bad guy,” he tells me. “Better for your story. But I’m just an ordinary guy.”

Easy, Fast, and Insane

Vujo’s first massive area squatting victory got here in 2017 when Italian chef Antonio Carluccio died, and it seems somebody forgot to resume one of many web sites related to him. Vujo nonetheless talks about his good luck in scooping up the area and turning it right into a cooking-themed content material mill. “It’s mine now,” he tells me cheerfully. “He almost invented carbonara—he’s a big celebrity!” Vujo has since additionally picked up Pope2you.web, previously an official Vatican web site meant to attach Pope Benedict XVI with youthful believers, and TrumpPlaza.com, named after residential towers in Jersey City, New Jersey, codeveloped by former President Trump.

Vujo says his most vital—and persistently worthwhile—buy is ladies’s media outlet The Frisky, which he acquired not lengthy after he scored the Carluccio web site. “It cost a lot—all the money that I had—but that was my opportunity,” he says. “It was life-changing.” (BuzzFeed News reported on the acquisition in 2019.) Vujo says the positioning generated over $500,000 within the first yr he purchased the area. In addition to wholesome revenue from adverts and purchasers prepared to pay for backlinks, the model was a magnet for corporations prepared to pay for sponsored posts. Because the outlet had lengthy embraced risque matters, Vujo says intercourse toy corporations are wanting to do enterprise with him.