The great ‘SEO heist’: how AI helped steal 3.6 million in traffic

The great ‘SEO heist’: how AI helped steal 3.6 million in traffic

By Colter Hettich

February 26, 2024
Decorative. Graphic image showing search bars being caught by net
What it means for the future of generative AI and search engine optimization

In case you missed it, X user @Jakezward recently sent shockwaves through the search engine optimization community when he posted this: “We pulled off an SEO heist that stole 3.6M total traffic from a competitor. We got 489,509 traffic in October alone. Here’s how we did it:”

This initial post garnered more than 7.6 million impressions, and sparked an intense debate: Is this allowed? Is it ethical? Is it the beginning of the end of SEO?!

Spoiler alert, the answer to these questions is “no,” but let’s start with the tactics they used.

How did they pull it off?

The user claiming responsibility used the word “we” repeatedly, so from here on we’ll refer to them as “the team.”

First, the team copied the sitemap, which is a publicly available “family tree” of URLs that shows how every page on is organized. While not required, site maps have become a best practice for SEO as they help search engine crawlers better understand a site and makes sure they find every page.

Optimized URLs typically includes a version of the page headline separated by hyphens, so the team parsed out the headlines from each URL and created slightly modified versions. They then fed those headlines to generative AI, which they claim created “1,800 articles in a few hours.”

Some grains of salt

It’s important to remember the source. This story comes almost exclusively from the perpetrators themselves, who have every reason to embellish the details. Also, the team never shared the URL of the site in question, so it’s impossible to independently verify the specific data with 100% certainty. The owners of the copied site did come forward, however, and say their traffic was wrecked for a time — so there is reason to believe the story is largely true.

Also, not long after the viral Twitter post, HubSpot claimed to have identified the team’s site and shared a screenshot of traffic dropping by more than 40%. It’s safe to assume Google got the news and acted accordingly.

What does this mean for the future of SEO?

From content generation to the user’s search experience to the algorithms themselves, AI is changing SEO. This heist should remind us to ignore these changes at our peril, and strategically incorporate AI technologies to achieve lasting results.

  • “Black hat” tactics remain incredibly risky and always end in ruin. In the early days of SEO, black hat entailed keyword stuffing or mass linking to dummy sites. Today, “using automation—including AI—to generate content with the primary purpose of manipulating ranking in search results is a violation of our spam policies,” according to Google. You might see success in the very short term using black hat tactics, but it won’t last — and your domain will pay a long-term price.
  • AI can help expedite foundational content. For now, 101 content is still important for building authority — and AI can help expedite the creation of that 101 content. Google has stated explicitly that it will not penalize content solely because it is AI-generated. Last year, Google updated its guidance to read: “Our focus on the quality of content, rather than how content is produced, is a useful guide that has helped us deliver reliable, high-quality results to users for years … however content is produced, those seeking success in Google Search should be looking to produce original, high-quality, people-first content …”
  • Long-term SEO success is rooted in differentiation and ownability. As we’ve written, “citeability” and a strong POV remain crucial to successful SEO content. They are the proprietary elements that cannot be copied without plagiarizing and ultimately experiencing severe ranking penalties. This is the best defense against SEO “attacks” like this heist.

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