One of the defining technologies of the last 18 months, is the rise of AI generated content. There are now a plethora of AIs to generate images, text, and even code.
This post isn’t going to consider the moral, or legal arguments for or against AI derived content. That is a huge can of worms that I’m definitely not qualified to comment on. I’m also not really going to get too in the weeds on the code “helper” tools, or the generated “art” stuff. I want to talk to you about AI generated written content and why it’s making my head hurt.
Writing is hard. A blank page is a daunting thing, even when you have a clear idea of what you want to talk about. Good writing takes time, effort, and practice, and not everyone wants to do it.
However, if you have any kind of business or organisation that needs to be known about, the world of the web and social necessitates creating written content. You need to put stuff out there so people know who you are, where you are, what you do, how you do it, and why someone else should care. The best way to be found is to write content that people want to read, or so the general advice goes. But is that still relevant?
Our robot overlords
Since search engines started algorithmically analysing your website’s copy to determine its relevance to a potential visitor, web businesses have been in a war to make their content the most relevant. Initially stuffing keywords, then removing them, then ensuring regular updates, then writing content to match people’s searches... Often this is not to make the content the most useful to a person, but to ensure that the page is shown in search results. Climbing the Google ladder and getting those clicks.
Think how often you’ve searched for something, and how often the top results are listicles, often seemingly just made up by piecing together other articles. I see it all the time (but maybe I can just see the joins because it's kind of my job). This race to be the most promoted by the algorithm and therefore the most viewed/clicked has meant the AI content generators are the natural end point.
Writing a modern article
From an agency perspective, what makes a good post? Ideally, the person would be a potential client. They’d be searching for something to do with one of our key skill sets, or preferred technologies. It should also position us as an expert and a trusted provider of some kind of related service.
A classic blog post to get some clicks, and build some credibility would be “ X Technology vs Y Technology”. For us, it would be something about “Why choose Craft CMS over Wordpress” (we’ve all done it, folks). There are probably millions of posts like this on the internet, and frankly it can be a bit hack, but it works! It’s the kind of thing a client might search for, we can promote our preferred technology, we can position ourselves as experts (or even Thought Leaders if we say some controversial stuff). Further, this kind of post is pretty easy to get links to from other sites or mailing list. It also associates us with some good keywords, improving our SEO.
To do a good version of this post is difficult. You need to offer some kind of insight, or perspective that is new and useful. Most of these kind of posts just tend to be rehashed opinions or copy pasting content and key features from the Technology’s website. If most of these kind of posts are written this way, why bother writing it? For example, here is a listicle I’ve generated using Canva’s MagicWrite tool:
Firstly, I asked it to generate 10 reasons (everyone loves on odd numbered listicle though, so I deleted one), then when I got a list, I asked it to give me some text about each point. For example, the first item for me was about Craft CMS having a simpler interface, so I asked it to “tell me about Craft CMS’ user interface”. Boom! A generic paragraph*.
This article is basically pap. The actual arguments (if you can call them that) are debatable at best. However, is it honestly worse than 90% of similar articles on the web? No. Its got quite high keyword density for “Craft” and “CMS” but that would be easily tweaked to improve it. It was easy to make (it took about 5 mins). To a lay person, it would probably seem quite authoritative and sensible. Would it be helpful for someone? Not in my opinion. Why? This page does not exist for a person. It exists for an algorithm to find, and for a business to be seen.
It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it
I am aware that as someone who works on the web, the idea of robots taking my job (dem took our jebbbs!!) leaves me open to being called a luddite. I’m genuinely ambivalent about AI generated stuff in general. I can see some positives in this world too (automated translations, code hinting, etc).
I think the crux of my dissatisfaction with AI generated content (written content in particular), is that all this content is being written for robots. The robots prioritise sources of content that generate as much content as possible. That content will soon be written by robots.
Soon we won’t even need to tell a robot to write the content, we’ll just schedule a bunch of topics and the robot can auto publish some posts. They’ll probably even automatically optimise the content for search terms you want to rank for. Eventually, I’m sure we’ll build robots to amalgamate, review, and interpret all of the content on particular subjects so we don’t even need to read all the terrible articles they’ve created.
Search engines are already in an arms race with content generators to penalise AI generated content and make it rank less favourably. Tools are already springing up for you to check your content to make sure it doesn't sound too AI generated-y. How long until the AI content generators run these scores as part of their process?
It’s not the robots’ fault. It was inevitable that humans would write the tools to make our jobs easier. Firstly to help us find the content we need, now to write the content for the robots to find, soon to filter the important content from the noise. My issue is humans have solved the wrong problem. We don’t need more content. We need better content. Written by people who understand a subject, for people who have an actual need! Unfortunately, the robots might already be in charge now.
*Its worth noting, Canva don’t suggest just using the AI generated copy as is, but using it as a starting point. I’m sure thats exactly how all these generators will be used…