Google Appears to Have Partnered With the Company Behind Sports Illustrated’s Fake, AI-Generated Writers

In a bewildering turn of events, Google appears to have quietly struck a deal with one of the most controversial companies using AI to produce content online: AdVon Commerce, the contractor linked to Sports Illustrated's explosive AI scandal.

As we reported in November, Sports Illustrated had been quietly publishing large numbers of strangely-written articles by writers that didn't actually exist. The bylines were furnished with detailed fictional biographies, like an ersatz author named Drew Ortiz whose author page claimed he frequently spent weekends "back on his parents' farm" — but whose profile picture we found listed on a site that sold AI-generated headshots, where he was described as a "neutral white young-adult male with short brown hair and blue eyes."


Sports Illustrated's publisher at the time, a company called The Arena Group — which subsequently fired its CEO and then lost the rights to publish Sports Illustrated entirely — responded by deleting all the fake writers' articles and blaming them on AdVon, with which it said it was cutting all ties. (AdVon didn't dispute that the bylines were fake or that their profile pictures had been created with AI, but insisted the Sports Illustrated articles had been written by real humans; however, it conceded that it had created AI-generated material for other clients.)

In the wake of the Sports Illustrated scandal, Google announced a crackdown on the AI-generated slime flooding its search results, calling it "scaled content abuse" and decrying the use of "generative AI tools or other similar tools to generate many pages without adding value for users."

The search giant's new guidelines even prohibited a practice it called "site reputation abuse" — and included an example of forbidden behavior that appeared to specifically allude to AdVon's work for Sports Illustrated:

"A sports site hosting a page written by a third-party about 'workout supplements reviews,' where the sports site's editorial staff had little to no involvement in the content and the main purpose of hosting the page is to manipulate search rankings."

It felt as though Google was acknowledging the public's outraged response to the Sports Illustrated revelations: that using AI to cook up fake writers was dishonest, and shouldn't be rewarded by powerful tech platforms like its search engine. 

Or at least, it felt that way until AdVon issued a press release last week — less than a month after Google's AI crackdown — announcing that it had entered into a "close working partnership with Google Cloud" to launch a product called AdVonAI.

"Bringing AdVonAI to Google Cloud Marketplace will help customers quickly deploy, manage, and grow the solution on Google Cloud's trusted, global infrastructure," gushed a Google director named Dai Vu in the release. "AdVon Commerce can now securely scale and support customers on their digital transformation journeys."

The idea that Google would partner with AdVon seemed so bizarre that it was difficult to believe it was real. Adding to the confusion, the release went out on April 1, giving the whole thing a fishy aura.

But if the AdVon partnership is a joke, it's a very peculiar one. It's true that Google has engaged in April Fools pranks in the past, but they've been light and unambiguous in tone — like a "Toilet Internet Service Provider" that supposedly delivered free broadband via sewage lines — rather than "gotcha" type press releases claiming the company was doing something embarrassing in hopes of tricking journalists. It also canceled its tradition of April Fool jokes in 2020 as the pandemic surged, and hasn't visibly restarted it since.

Additionally, Google declined to dispute the accuracy of the release. The search giant had been eager to talk to us when it announced the crackdown on AI content in March, but when we reached out multiple times asking if the partnership with AdVon was legit, we received nothing but silence. 

Another sign that the partnership appears to be genuine: Vu, the Google director quoted in the release, reposted the news on his LinkedIn account.

The press release itself is written in thick jargon, but it sounds a lot like the idea is to help businesses do pretty much what Google claimed to be cracking down on last month: use AI to flood search results with hugely scaled quantities of automatically produced material.

"Leveraging Google Cloud's Vertex AI platform, AdVon has developed a tool that scales product content while optimizing for conversion," the release reads, using the same word — "scale" — that Google had warned against in its March missive against "scaled content abuse."

AdVon also explicitly says in the release that the goal is to improve search rankings, advising that AdVonAI can help customers "generate product attributes to enhance on and off-site SEO."

Strikingly, the release leans heavily on Google's endorsement.

"Integrated quality control ensured by a close working partnership with Google Cloud," it reads.

AdVonAI's Google Cloud page further claims that the company has already generated enormous quantities of content on behalf of large corporate clients.

"We've already helped large retail customers like Target and Walmart enrich millions of products across thousands of Product Types containing over 40 attributes per PT helping them increase their overall sales volumes to those products," it reads.

We reached out to AdVon with detailed questions about this story, including specifics about what AdVonAI does and the extent of its use across online retail websites, but haven't heard back. Messages to Walmart and Target also went unanswered.

The lowest tier of AdVonAI costs businesses $500 per month plus a usage fee, according to its Google Cloud page — money from which Google takes a cut.

As outlandish as the apparent partnership is, in a sense it perfectly illustrates the strange position in which Google now finds itself in the era of AI.

Basically, the company's leadership panicked when OpenAI's ChatGPT went viral in late 2022, declaring a "code red" and devoting massive resources to developing its own AI offerings, which now include both text and image generators. But at the same time, the content that AI can produce at incredible scale represents a deep threat to Google's core product, which is a search engine that surfaces useful material on the web.

In other words, Google is trying to have it both ways: modifying its algorithms to suppress AI sludge while actively supporting attempts to create vastly more of it.

The hypocrisy is galling. Nobody would know that better than the journalists at Sports Illustrated, which suffered mass layoffs in the wake of the AI debacle — while AdVon, apparently, was rewarded with a contract and endorsement by none other than Google itself.

Disclosure: Futurism's parent company, Recurrent Ventures, previously worked with AdVon in 2022 via its partnership to distribute select content on third-party e-commerce platforms. This content was written by Recurrent’s contributors. Presently, Recurrent maintains a business relationship with them to test Commerce content internationally for select brands (of which Futurism is not one). AdVon content has never been published on Futurism or any of Recurrent’s websites.

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