Confessions of an AI Clickbait Kingpin

AI SaaS

“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 Amsive, 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 Pope2you.net, formerly an official Vatican website meant to connect Pope Benedict XVI with younger believers, and TrumpPlaza.com, 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.

AI SaaS

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