CNET publishes two stories about mortgage and refinance rates every day at 9 AM ET. These stories have a consistent template, include affiliate links for loans, and the rates fluctuate day by day. The tone and content of each article are consistent and repetitive, making it an ideal task to be automated with AI. As it turns out, it may very well be generated by AI.
CNET has been using AI to write articles and publish them under the byline ‘CNET Money Staff’, but it’s not clearly stated that the articles are generated by AI. This has resulted in extensive controversy and criticism. The Managing Editor of CNET Money, Justin Jaffe, has been at the center of this controversy. His author page only lists a select number of stories, not the suspected AI-generated ones. The fact that the articles are generated by AI is only visible if readers click around the articles and search the website.
Not only readers but also CNET’s own staff is unclear about which stories on the website are generated using AI. The staff at CNET is not aware of the specifics of the AI tools and the human workflow involved in the process. Anonymous current and former employees of CNET have reported that since the management of the company was taken over by Red Ventures, the editorial staff is often left wondering whether a story was written by AI or a co-worker. Even today, there is still a lack of clarity on this matter.
CNET was once a highly successful technology news website that commanded a $1.8 billion purchase price when it was bought by CBS in 2008. However, in recent years, it has faced the same challenges and changes in business models as the rest of the media industry. As a result, CBS sold the website to Red Ventures in 2020 for a much lower price of $500 million.
The lucrative nature of this kind of SEO farming
Red Ventures’ business model is focused on publishing content that ranks high in Google search results for specific keywords, and then monetizing that traffic with affiliate links. The company specializes in credit cards and financial products. Red Ventures owns several websites, such as Bankrate, CNET, CreditCards.com, and The Points Guy, all of which monetize through credit card affiliate fees.
The use of AI-generated articles by CNET is a straightforward example of this strategy, with articles like “Can You Buy a Gift Card With a Credit Card?” and “What Is Zelle and How Does It Work?” designed to rank high in searches for those specific topics. Similarly, CreditCards.com and Bankrate have also published AI-written articles about credit cards with ads for opening cards included. Both referred questions regarding using AI to the Vice President of Content at Red Ventures, Lance Davis. CNET’s disclosure also included Davis as a point of contact until recently.
This type of SEO farming, where the goal is to rank highly in Google search results for specific keywords and then monetize that traffic through affiliate links, can be extremely profitable. Digital marketers have built a whole industry around credit card affiliate links, earning significant profits from them. The bounty for a credit card signup is estimated to be around $250 by various affiliate industry sites, and as high as $900 per card, according to a 2021 New York Times story on Red Ventures.
It is understandable that Red Ventures would use AI as it reduces the cost of content creation and increases profits per click. However, from a cynical perspective, once a company starts using AI for SEO farming, there is no longer a need to fund actual tech news.