02 November 2010

Topical Tuesday: Beware of Strangers Bearing Awards

Apparently, our blog has been singled out to receive an award for being informative, helpful, and "great in content".

Emphasis on "apparently".

This is the email we received a few days ago, offering said award (portions are censored to protect the devious from undeserved publicity):
Dear The Burrow,

Congratulations! Jen here, and your blog, Burrowers, Books, & Balderdash, is a Master Fiction Writing Blog!

We've scoured the web looking for amazing blogs that not only are great in content, but informative and helpful when needed. And we've determined your blog to be such! We like to call it a Master of its category!

You can see your blog and others at:

As a winner, we honor you by presenting you with an awards badge. You can get your badge here:

If you choose to accept or decline to be recognized, please let me know.

Please do not hesitate to call or email if you have any questions. Again, Congratulations, and keep up the awesome work!

The URL goes to a page that lists several dozen fiction-writing blogs, and I begin to feel a little less special. Curious, I decided to visit yyy.dubioussite.net, which claimed to offer online degree programs. Dubious_site.net's home page is topped with this gem:

Ah, nothing like a few big-name logos, carefully reduced according to legal department recommendations! Let's declare mutual topicality and thus imply some measure of legitimacy and/or downright endorsement. I think that's a good plan for our blog. What do you think? Should our header include something like this?

Scrolling down... Dubious_site.net is a list of online universities, which (they claim) have been "vetted by our team of experts across over 500 factors". Holy cow, five hundred? Not a smart claim. If Sir Francis the privateer sailed into an English port and swore on a stack of bibles that he'd "sunk over 500 Spanish Galleons", then it wouldn't take an eight-year-old very long to realize that Francis couldn't have sank 500 ships, and conclude that it's a bit of trickery justified by the fact that Sir Francis dropped 500 one-galleon Spanish coins into his bathtub.

I imagine Dubious_site.net's list of "factors" looks something like this:
1) Does the school offer a course in A____?
2) Does the school accept financial aid for A_____?
3) Does the school offer a course in B____?
4) Does the school accept financial aid for B_____?
5) Has the school been convicted of war crimes?
6) Do their course materials use vowels?

Okay, enough speculation. I decide to take the red pill and see how deep the rabbit hole goes by actually clicking on one of their online university listings. Unsurprisingly, there is no evaluation data, no review, and no rating (but their experts have vetted it, right?). Also, the link does not go directly to the listed university. In fact, every single link that I checked went to the same site.

Let's call that "Site#2". The rabbit hole goes deeper.


You can arrive at one of several pages on Site#2, but they're all pretty much the same. Each page incorporates the referral source (Dubious_site), and includes a form with which you can request information from the online school in question. Looks like a revenue portal. It's also a secure page (https), which (I'm sure) uses an RSA public key exchange to avoid counting repeat visitors twice. Smells like a revenue portal.

I crawl back to the home page of Site#2, and it quickly becomes obvious that I was right all along:
[Site#2].com is an Internet media company that acquires and develops high-quality Web sites in the online education vertical. We combine our proprietary technology, processes and high quality content to create sites that are both highly profitable and highly valuable to visitors....
We are now accepting new affiliates! [Site#2].com affiliate program features industry leading payouts and support.

Their seven-member staff combines for an adequate résumé of web development, finance, business management, and marketing. They have no expertise in education (online or otherwise), and no staff to actually evaluate any online schools.

Putting it Together (in case you already hadn't)

Online education has become a lucrative, for-profit business, thanks to the massive funds available through government financial aid to students. One can grab a few pages from Wikipedia, copy some older textbooks, and put together an online course that operates at very little cost, leaving the bulk of resources to be invested in advertising and accreditation.

Site#2 is in the "online education vertical" business, which means they earn money by driving referrals to those online schools. Thanks to automation and per-referral payment schedules, Site#2 and the various universities don't have to know jack about each other, do not require exclusive or committment-laden contracts, and don't even have to like each other.

And because Site#2 is good with their web technology (specifically, the ability to verify unique referrals) they can make more money by opening the door to "affiliates", which is anybody with a useful domain name and/or marketing strategy-- like our original Dubious_site.net. Again, the two parties don't require exclusive contracts, commitments, or mutual knowledge, thanks to the automated per-referral payment system. It's a lot like "ads by google", except they put up a non-advertisement façade.

Now about that "Award"

I did a few creative searches for the text in the email we received. Again, no surprise: It's a form letter that's been sent out dozens, probably thousands, of other bloggers.

I also examined the home page of Dubious_site.net. There is no link to their blog awards.

I examined what appeared to be the main awards page, yyy.dubious_site.net/top-blogs/. There were about 45 categories listed & linked, but writing fiction was not included.

Finally, I went to the specific award page, which looked something like this:

You see those little arrows and the blue text? That's what I call a load of B.S. The text is style-coded to look like a link, but, in fact, it is not. If someone links to your site, and you link back to theirs, it's called a "reciprocal link", and it doesn't help your search engine rankings nearly as much as a one-way link pointing at you.

Nice, huh? Dubious_site.net "selects" your blog for an award, but instead of posting a link to your blog, they expect you to post an advertisement link to them.

"What a prick!"

And that's the whole point of their deceptive campaign. They want to spawn ads and jack up their search engine rankings. So if you've been the lucky recipient of such an award, I don't recommend following their instructions. If you really want to keep the badge, you can stop rewarding deception by changing the link in the badge code provided. The last line looks like this:

<a style="border-bottom:none;text-decoration:underline;font-weight:550;color:#9999cc; "href="htpp://yyy.dubious_site.net">Online Masters Degree Programs</a>

Change those "a" tags to "p" tags and remove everything between href and the last quotation mark... OR you can simply change the URL to your own blog or a dummy URL (the badge will still show up).



Jessica Bell said...

hahah! I got that exact same 'award'! And I almost fell for it until I realised, um ... everything you just wrote about, after spending WAYYY to long checking if it was legit. What a waste of my freaking time ...

Rayna M. Iyer said...

Jason, the day you decide to cross over to the dark side, the world better beware!!!!

Cruella Collett said...

Oh, my - I had no idea our topics were discussed by NASA and the White House... Perhaps I should apply for an online degree to enlighten me!

Cold As Heaven said...

Online universities, offering PhD's by mail order (and you credit card number) are suspect stuff.

Liked your new proposed heading. Add links to The Vatican and The EU too, to get the full span >:)))

Cold As Heaven

The Burrow said...

"Online universities, offering PhD's by mail order (and you credit card number) are suspect stuff."

Indeed. My brief research suggests that the bulk of 'suspect' activity is not anything so simple as credit card fraud, though. Rather, the for-profit online schools are taking advantage of huge increases in education costs and the resultant (aka causal) increase in government financial aid. The only thing they have to put resources into are accreditation and advertising. They can run a huge profit margin with high costs because their students get Student Loans. But the degrees are generally worthless, or at least much less valuable than degrees from schools in meatspace.

"Add links to The Vatican and The EU too..."

Ha! Good idea. Maybe we should have cover shots of the Bible, Quran, and Torah.

By the way, I found about a dozen other blogs that were showing the badge, and invited them all to read my post (or at least tweak their badge to remove the link).

Puff said...

Good news about the Internet - it's all out there. Bad news about the Internet - it's all out there, including the deceptive unethical sites that send out this electronic junk. Thanks.

Hart Johnson said...

Jason, excellent research! And I love how to bring the point home--I, too, am impressed our topics are discussed by NASA and the white house! *snort* The longer I am on line the more I think you want to investigate yourself, find who you want to trust on your own, and don't buy into ANYTHING else.

WickedLilPixie said...

Thanks for the warning Jason. I did think it was a bit scamish, but saw a few authors post it & figured what the hell...lol Glad you looked into it more then I did!

Medeia Sharif said...

I got this, too, but didn't investigate it like you did. I made the badge into a pic rather than using the code.