Confessions of an AI Clickbait Kingpin

Confessions of an AI Clickbait Kingpin

“I’m not a fan of AI,” Nebojša Vujinović Vujo says. The admission surprises me: He has built a bustling business by snapping up abandoned news outlets and other websites and stuffing them full of algorithmically generated articles. Although he accepts that his model rankles writers and readers alike, he says he’s simply embracing an unstoppable new tool—large language models—in the same way people rationally swapped horse-drawn buggies for gas-powered vehicles. “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 connected with Vujo after digging into the strange afterlife of indie women’s blog The Hairpin, which shut down in 2018. Last month, its website reawakened. In place of the voicey, funny blog posts it was known for, the site began churning out AI-generated, search-engine-optimized pablum about dream interpretations and painfully generic relationship advice like “effective communication is vital.”

When I emailed an address listed on the zombie site’s About Us page, Vujo responded, claiming that it was just one of more than 2,000 sites he operates, in an AI-content-fueled fiefdom built by acquiring once-popular domains fallen on hard times. He’s the CEO of the digital marketing firm Shantel, which monetizes its AI-populated sites through programmatic ads, sponsored content, and selling the placement of “backlinks” to website owners trying to boost their credibility with search engines. He often targets distressed media sites because they have built-in audiences and a history of ranking highly in search results.

The foundation of that business is a long-established practice known as domain squatting—buying up web domains that once belonged to established brands and profiting off their reputations with Google and other search engines. Lily Ray, senior director of SEO at the marketing agency Ampsive, calls it “the underbelly of the SEO industry.” But Vujo is part of a wave of entrepreneurs giving this old trade a new twist by using generative AI.

It’s dusk where I live in Chicago when I talk via Zoom with Nebojša Vujinović Vujo. (Although that’s the name he gives me, he has sometimes gone by just Nebojša Vujinović, including on the registration information for some of his domains.) It’s midnight in Belgrade, Serbia, where he lives with his girlfriend and their toddler, but he’s wide awake and chatty. Vujo attributes his erratic sleep schedule to years of late nights working as a DJ and still makes music—he likes to mix pop with Balkan folk and is working on a new song called “Fat Lady.” But right now he’s eager to talk, human-to-human, about his AI-fueled hustle.

He gets why writers are unhappy that their work has been erased and replaced by clickbait. (The Hairpin’s founding editor, Edith Zimmerman, calls his version of the site “grim.”) But he defends his choices, pointing out that his life has been tougher than that of the average American blogger. Although ethnically Serbian, Vujo was born in what is now known as Bosnia and Herzegovina, and his family fled during 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 economic options have been limited, and this was simply a path available to him.

Vujo also insists that he does have editorial standards; although the majority of the blog posts he publishes are created with ChatGPT, he employs a staff of about a dozen human editors to check its work to avoid anything 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 big domain squatting victory came in 2017 when Italian chef Antonio Carluccio died, and it appears someone forgot to renew one of the websites associated with him. Vujo still talks about his good luck in scooping up the domain and turning it into a cooking-themed content mill. “It’s mine now,” he tells me cheerfully. “He almost invented carbonara—he’s a big celebrity!” Vujo has since also picked up, formerly an official Vatican website meant to connect Pope Benedict XVI with younger believers, and, named after residential towers in Jersey City, New Jersey, codeveloped by former President Trump.

Vujo says his most significant—and consistently profitable—purchase is women’s media outlet The Frisky, which he acquired not long after he scored the Carluccio 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 purchase in 2019.) Vujo says the site generated over $500,000 in the first year he bought the domain. In addition to healthy income from ads and clients willing to pay for backlinks, the brand was a magnet for companies willing to pay for sponsored posts. Because the outlet had long embraced risque topics, Vujo says sex toy companies are eager to do business with him.

Vujo initially hired human writers to create his SEO-optimized articles for The Frisky and his other site, sourcing from gig-economy platforms like Fiverr. In 2023, he saw that the advent of generative AI allowed him to shift his business into a higher, more people-efficient gear. Vujo estimates that his editorial staff is now around a tenth of what it once was. “We create the same amount of content, but my expenses are less,” he says, calling it “easy and fast and insane.”

To many in the media, that business model can feel offensive—especially when the AI-generated articles are posted at a domain where you used to write. For Vujo it’s not personal, though. “I’m just one guy who, yes, in business I am using AI to create shitty content on the internet to earn money or a fortune,” he says. He’s not a mustache-twirling supervillain, chortling as he spews journalism-killing AI slime. He’s an affable young dad who wants his kid to have a nicer childhood than he did.

That doesn’t make the collateral damage of the AI clickbait business any less unsettling. In April 2021, Jimmy Lai—a strident critic of the Chinese government—was sentenced to 14 months in prison in Hong Kong for participating in protests. A few months later police raided the headquarters of his pro-democracy tabloid newspaper Apple Daily, arresting several top editors. “Shutting down Apple Daily was an attack on the free press; closing and then confiscating the newspaper was an attack on the free market and property rights,” says Mark Simon, a former executive at the newspaper, via email.

Vujo snapped up the Apple Daily domain in 2023. The site no longer offers anything resembling news or that might be perceived as a threat to the Chinese government. It’s now a catchall SEO-bait website proffering headlines such as “45+ Happy Birthday Wishes for Teacher” and “40+ Romantic Happy Birthday Wishes for Lover- Happy Birthday Jaan.”

The aggressive banality of this new Apple Daily is no accident. Vujo, scavenger of dead journalism sites, has an editorial vision of his own and sees himself as apolitical. “War in Yugoslavia destroyed my childhood,” he says. “Because of all that, plus a hundred more reasons, I hate politics and all stupid things that separate people. We will not publish anything against anyone on Apple Daily, especially. I love and respect China too.”

Can Be Considered Spam

The way Apple Daily was so thoroughly emptied of the qualities that defined it makes the weak spot in this scheme immediately apparent. A plum domain’s initial benefit—a strong reputation with Google and a built-in audience—dwindles quickly as Vujo populates it with content primarily designed to snare search engines rather than interest people. AI content is successful not because it is replacing the work of human writers but because it coasts on the value created by their past labor.

“A lot of companies that have tried this did really well recently with AI content. They’d get crazy amounts of traffic, but then a few months later everything dropped down and died,” says SEO expert Barry Schwartz. “Google’s getting better at figuring out a lot of these techniques.”

Google’s role in directing traffic to AI-generated content is currently under intense scrutiny. 404 Media recently reported how automated knockoffs of its articles can be highly ranked in Google News. When asked about operations like Vujo’s, company spokesperson Jennifer Kutz maintains that Google has policies to combat them. “The tactics described as used with these sites are largely in violation of Search’s spam policies, and we have systems in place that specifically address this vector of abuse,” she says. “Our systems understand changes in ownership for a domain, and we take that into account when ranking pages. Automatically generated content produced primarily for ranking purposes can be considered spam.”

Whether it was because Google registered that the domain changed ownership or humans on the internet did, The Frisky’s readership has declined under Vujo’s stewardship. According to web-traffic analytics firm Semrush, the site could reach over a million pageviews per month in 2016. Now, it has been under 20,000 pageviews for the past two months. One of the top search terms currently drawing clicks is the seemingly mispelled phrase “a cup tities.” Vujo says The Frisky creates revenue of between $30,000 and $50,000 a year. Perhaps it will stabilize at that level, but to score another soaring success, he has to keep hunting for other distressed media properties with lapsed domains. “It’s like a drug,” Vujo says of the adrenaline rush of scouting potential squatting sites. “You never know what’s waiting.”

As he hunts, Vujo may find a more competitive field as the AI boom continues. While many people in the world of SEO loathe domain squatting and AI-generated content, others are embracing it. An emerging cottage industry of hustlers who make money coaching other people on how to squat and prosper with AI content appears to be expanding fast, says Lily Ray of Ampsive. “It’s going to get exponentially worse.”

As AI text, image, and video generation improve and get much cheaper, can anything stop the internet from becoming carpeted with this content? Ray is hopeful that Google will eventually find a way to stifle the growth. “It’s going to take them a minute, but they’re working on it.” If Google can choke off the traffic that feeds operations like Vujo’s, what media outlets remain would face less competition in search results and other feeds from AI-generated rivals. Making a living, or a business, out of journalism would still be tough, but the fight might be fairer.

When I email back-and-forth with Vujo after our talk, he doubles down on insisting that his business model represents the internet’s inevitable future, like it or not. “I understand your position, AI is the biggest problem for content writers and journalists” he writes. “But just imagine how big a problem for the radio host was TV. Give up or UPGRADE, right?” It’s a punchy line but not a particularly convincing one. What feels like the evolution of the internet to a guy like Vujo looks to others like a loss, deterioration disguised as progress.

Kate Knibbs

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