Could Using AI for Content Creation Lead to Negative SEO Consequences for Your Website?

It might seem strange to think about, but generative AI as we know it only became mainstream less than three years ago. Yet, in this short period of time, virtually every sector of the global economy has adopted generative AI in some form. Almost every business these days uses generative AI to build visual assets and assist in the creation of other forms of content.

It’s rare that any new technology gets so much buy-in so soon after it’s rolled out. Even with the considerable pushback that generative AI got from creatives and content creators, it will be challenging to see anyone create purely ‘organic’ content these days. Virtually every business that produces content at scale now uses generative AI in some way. However, some believe that the use of generative AI is already leading to serious consequences, not just for content creators but for businesses in general.

Futuristic Artificial Intelligence Concept with Human Finger Pointing

Is AI-Generated Content Harming Your Website Rankings?

As early as ChatGPT 3.5’s launch back in November 2022, a lot of digital marketers have been speculating that Google would eventually clamp down on AI-generated content like it previously did with other low-quality articles. After all, generative AI’s potential for creating an endless torrent of link spam was obvious from the get-go.

But as we all found out, the content being produced by ChatGPT frequently exceeded Google’s quality threshold. Indeed, it was apparent that articles generated by ChatGPT were consistently ‘better’ in some respects than those produced by human writers working in content mills. Soon after ChatGPT’s release, Google released a statement that it would “[reward] high-quality content, however it is produced”—something that has been interpreted by some marketers as a sign of resignation by the search engine giant.

However, it appears that things may have changed following Google’s March 2024 update, which announced measures to clamp down on low-quality AI content. In a LinkedIn post published soon after the update, Mark Williams-Cook, Director at the UK-based marketing agency Candour, suggested his client’s use of AI-generated content—irrespective of its quality—was the reason why a website went from having 1 million visitors to zero. If this assertion was true, then a lot of bad times may follow, given the near-universal adoption of generative AI for content marketing.

Predictably, the post created a spirited discussion on other potential causes of the downgrade, with a popular search engine optimisation (SEO) consultant pointing out that such downgrades can be caused by factors that Williams-Cook ultimately never recognised or revealed. The author largely based his assertions on Google stating that they will be “taking action against ‘content at scale sites’, even when human oversight of AI is involved” on the blog post announcing the update.

Of course, Google’s statement could be interpreted to mean that the search engine giant is going after all low-quality article spam content. It just so happens that generative AI is the fastest way to create a large volume of articles, most of which are going to be low-quality—just like any typical collection of articles written by humans.

Causal Attribution Is Rarely Simple in Digital Marketing

Ask yourself which scenario is more likely:

  • Google is punishing a majority of its users for using an epoch-defining technology that they and everyone else use.
  • Digital marketers caught in the AI hype and are failing to do their due diligence to produce good content, causing Google to downgrade their websites.

Whatever you believe, the whole episode following Google’s latest update highlights a longstanding challenge all marketers face when attributing effects to specific causes. Unfortunately, Williams-Cook did not disclose who their client was, so we can’t see for ourselves what other potential causes may be at play.

Not that a disclosure would necessarily help us get to the bottom of the AI content downgrade question. Google’s bots have long used hundreds of different touchpoints for assessing web content quality. If AI use is shown to be a factor, it’s still going hard to say whether AI-generated content is getting downgraded simply because of what it is or because a few content marketers have become sloppier at delivering good user experiences because of how easy AI makes things. That nuance matters because digital marketers will have to come up with radically different solutions depending on which is true.

More likely, it’s also possible that Google is using AI detection technology to presort sites that use a high percentage of AI-generated content. From there, it may trigger manual reviews or other such processes. Whether or not this hypothetical screening technology is any better than widely available AI detectors is another question altogether. In any case, unless someone at Google actually comes out and tells us that they’re specifically targeting AI content just because it’s made with AI, we may just have to accept their original statement about rewarding all high-quality content at face value.

Not All AI Use is Equal

When discussing AI use, we have to remember that businesses use generative AI in dramatically different ways. There is a world of difference between using AI to tighten up original writing and using it as a sophisticated article spinner. Likewise, putting AI-generated content through multi-stage revisions overseen by professional editors and subject matter experts is objectively different from publishing an algorithmically produced piece after switching around a few words. It’s hard to believe that Google does not know or care about the differences.

What’s more, intent matters. Investing in generative AI solely as a cost-effective shortcut is probably not going to give you the same results as adopting it to provide tangible value to your audience. Even this early in the generative AI revolution, it’s fairly obvious that treating all uses of AI as equivalent is probably not how Google and other search engine developers will proceed.

After all is said and done, as a website owner, you probably won’t be remiss in sticking with the basics. Whether you believe Google is punishing AI use or has a more nuanced approach to it, keeping what’s best for your audience in mind is probably the best thing anyone can do. This is a useful rule of thumb, whether you’re creating content yourself or hiring a freelancer or an experienced digital marketing agency to do it for your business.

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