The Confessions of a Clickbait Kingpin in the World of AI

“I’m not really a fan of artificial intelligence,” Nebojša Vujinović Vujo declares. I find the confession shocking: He has established a thriving enterprise by acquiring neglected news outlets and other websites and filling them with algorithmically created articles. Even though he understands that his model annoys writers and readers, he insists that he’s just adopting an unstoppable new tool—large language models—in the same manner that people logically traded in horse-drawn buggies for gas-powered vehicles. “I dislike cars. They’re harming our planet,” he argues. “But I’m no longer riding a horse, am I? I’m driving a car.”

I reached out to Vujo after investigating the curious second life of indie women’s blog The Hairpin, which ceased operation in 2018. Last month, its website was revived. Instead of the distinctive, amusing blog posts it was known for, the site began churning out AI-generated, search-engine-optimized drivel about dream interpretations and painfully generic relationship advice such as “effective communication is vital.”

When I sent an email to an address listed on the zombie site’s About Us page, Vujo replied, asserting that it was just one of more than 2,000 sites he manages, in an AI-content-fueled territory established 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 attempting to enhance their credibility with search engines. He frequently targets distressed media sites because they have established audiences and a history of ranking highly in search results.

The underpinning of that business is a well-established practice called domain squatting—purchasing 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, refers to it as “the underbelly of the SEO industry.” However, 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. (Even though that’s the name he provides, he has at times gone by just Nebojša Vujinović, including on the registration information for some of his domains.) It’s midnight in Belgrade, Serbia, where he resides with his girlfriend and their toddler, but he’s wide awake and talkative. 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 understands 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; even though 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.”

Effortless, Swift, and Insane

Vujo’s first major 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 fortune in snagging the domain and turning it into a cooking-themed content mill. “It’s mine now,” he tells me enthusiastically. “He almost invented carbonara—he’s a big celebrity!” Vujo has since also obtained, previously an official Vatican website meant to connect Pope Benedict XVI with younger believers, and, named after residential towers in Jersey City, New Jersey, co-developed by former President Trump.

Vujo says his most significant—and consistently profitable—purchase is women’s media outlet The Frisky, which he acquired shortly after getting the Carluccio site. “It cost a lot—all the money that I had—but that was my opportunity,” he says. “It was life-altering.” (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 substantial earnings 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.

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