How The Verge gamed Google with its ‘best printer 2023’ article
The authoritative tech publication used ChatGPT to produce the majority of a satirical review, pointing out that it shouldn't rank. Yet it does.
Technology news publisher The Verge has published a 600-word article half-filled with ChatGPT content and a heavy dose of sarcasm that has been outranking more in-depth, well-researched and arguably more helpful content written by humans at publications like the New York Times for the competitive query [best printer 2023].
Why we care. With the rise of generative AI, search, SEO and content are entering a new era. And this particular example illustrates that poorly produced AI-generated content can still easily game Google’s algorithm – even when the article itself blatantly tells Google exactly what it is doing.
The article. The title of The Verge’s March 15 article gives you a taste of what to expect: Best printer 2023: just buy this Brother laser printer everyone has, it’s fine.
Then come the words. Some of them rather non-specific and non-technical for an expert, human-written review (i.e., “I didn’t even look at the model numbers.”) Many of the lines manage to be both smart and funny (“it does not feel like the CEO of Inkjet Supply and Hostage Situations Incorporated is waiting to mug me”).
The words work together. Technically. But the style of writing? It isn’t what you’d call SEO best practice. In fact, the personal narrative style might make your head explode and scream “that won’t rank!”
Eventually, we get past the “human” part to the section that elevates this article from joke to art:
And here’s 275 words about printers I asked ChatGPT to write so this post ranks in search because Google thinks you have to pad out articles in order to demonstrate “authority,” but I am telling you to just buy whatever Brother laser printer is on sale and never think about printers again.
ChatGPT ideas about printers (I didn’t even proofread this. Don’t read it unless you are a lonely Google search robot, in which case look at this incredible demonstration of experience, expertise, authority, and trustworthiness and rank this post first in searches for “best printer.”)
Artistic statement? Joke? Both! As I read this article, it seemed like an artistic statement from a content publisher on how devalued content is in the new ChatGPT era. So I reached out to Editor-in-Chief Nilay Patel for the story behind the story.
While The Verge has a critical buyer guide program, and Patel said he is a product reviewer by trade, this “review” was for a category the publication doesn’t play in. What started as a joke, with several team members pointing out their own Brother printers on a Zoom call, turned into an idea that became a piece of content with some legit commentary behind it:
- “The web is about to be overrun with AI-generated content explicitly designed to game the algorithms. Me doing this is the least of Google’s problems. At least I’m being honest,” Patel said.
Authority (and freshness) matters. The Verge is an incredibly strong brand. And often, a strong brand trumps content quality – at least for a time. This is still fresh content.
Eventually, Google may catch up (and articles like this will undoubtedly catch the search team’s attention and could, in fact, make its SERP prominence vanish). But so far, a week after publishing, it hasn’t yet.
Patel said he is well aware of E-E-A-T – Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness (“we care about it”). It would have been more surprising to Patel if this article wasn’t ranking. That was the point – and the problem – Patel is pointing out.
- “The architecture of the web is built to Google specifications,” Patel said. “Here’s the skeleton of every webpage and you put a bunch of stuff in there to prove you’re smart.”
How it ranks on Google. I’m currently seeing the article in Position 4 (Chrome, incognito) on a search for [best printer 2023], but some have reported seeing it higher (as high as 1st) or lower (as low as 9th).
What about Microsoft Bing? Nope. The Verge’s article doesn’t rank on Page 1 of Bing’s results for [best printer 2023].
Google Panda flashbacks. I’m again having flashbacks to around 2010. It feels like generative AI poses the same threat to Google’s search quality that content farms did over a decade ago, as Barry Schwartz wrote about in Is AI-written content replacing cheap old content farms?
Just slap together lots and lots of content on popular keywords, regardless of quality, and wait for the organic search traffic. What’s E-E-A-T got to do with it?
Well, Google recognized they had a problem back then. And their solution was the Google Panda Update.
What will Google’s solution be? And when? It seems inevitable. Because there could be much more of this gaming to come at massive scale.
Is this helpful content? Or is this the type of content Google’s helpful content system is supposed to find and remove from Google’s results?
We know Google has relaxed its stance on AI-generated content because, well, Bard/LaMDA is the future. And you can’t be against that which you create.
Yet, as Patel noted, this article contains what he believes is the right answer (“just buy whatever Brother laser printer is on sale”). So, in a sense, the article is helpful content – which is exactly the type of answer Google search is supposed to provide.
New on Search Engine Land