CNet’s AI-Powered Search-Optimized Money Machine

Mia Sato and James Vincent, the Verge, expanding upon last week’s story about titles owned by Red Ventures — including CNet — publishing computer-generated articles:

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. Specifically, Red Ventures has found a major niche in credit cards and other finance products. In addition to CNET, Red Ventures owns The Points Guy, Bankrate, and, all of which monetize through credit card affiliate fees. 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 have also published AI-written articles about credit cards with ads for opening cards nestled within. Both Bankrate and directed questions about the use of AI to Lance Davis, the vice president of content at Red Ventures; CNET’s disclosure also included Davis as a point of contact until last week.

This type of SEO farming can be massively lucrative. Digital marketers have built an entire industry on top of credit card affiliate links, from which they then earn a generous profit. Various affiliate industry sites estimate the bounty for a credit card signup to be around $250 each. A 2021 New York Times story on Red Ventures pegged it even higher, at up to $900 per card.

It seems to me there are actually two controversies here. The first is the publication of miserable articles generated by some computer program, but these are all bland crappy articles that nobody should be reading. The second concern is, I think, much worse: these are financial articles often presented as advice — on a technology news website, no less — which are designed to exploit search engines to get extraordinary kickbacks. Search engines are becoming worse and fundraising efforts like these and the Amazon Prime Day nonsense are contributing to their ruination.

It is unquestionably a hard time to be a publisher, online or in print. But it is bizarre to see credit card affiliate links and duplicates of the Wirecutter’s business model appear on seemingly every media outlet’s website. Why would I go to CNet to learn what the best engine oil is? Who at Red Ventures feels good about encouraging people to take on more debt so they can get a $250–900 kickback? It is offensive to me for that to be one of the currently reliable ways to keep the lights on at even respected news sites.