About the “50 Most Amazing Campuses” thing

UPDATE: Not only is the Times-News running this story, but I heard the News-Record ran it and then took the story down, and now News 14 Carolina has done a story on this, complete with interviews of students and staff. Unreal. It’s a fake web site. I could make one, you could make one. In fact, let’s all go make web sites now. Please, go do it. 50 Most Nutritious College Cafeterias. 50 Best Looking College Professors. 50 Hottest College Mascots. Whatever, it doesn’t matter. Watch the links roll in.

A link was going around Facebook today about how Elon was #1 on some web site’s list of 50 Most Beautiful Campuses. I took a look at the story and my BS detector went off. What is this site and who is writing this story? When the Times-News picked up this (non-)story, I knew I had to dig deeper.

Here’s what I learned after about 30 minutes of poking around on the web:

1. The original story is located here: http://www.thebestcolleges.org/most-beautiful-campuses and is titled The 50 Most Amazing College Campuses (I’m not linking to this site directly, you’ll see why later)

2. The Web site hosting this is http://www.thebestcolleges.org, and the Whois lookup for this domain states that the owner of this domain is a person called Ryan Caldwell of SeaWaves Technology, LLC. My first thought was that he was a former Elon student. But I have no way of knowing this.

3. Ryan has registered his domain (thebestcolleges.org) with the email of ryan@college-startup.com. The College-Startup (http://college-startup.com) tag line is “get rich from your dorm room” — how entrepreneurial! Perhaps too ironically, college-startup.com boasts that its #1 most popular article is something called “15 Successful Entrepreneurs Who Didn’t Need College”. Hmmm.

4. I find out through whois that the domain of college-startup.com is registered to Micah Sparacio of Morrisville, PA, and Micah’s email is listed as support@sea-waves.net and that company also appears to have a web site (but it’s boring and I declared it a dead end).

5. College-Startup.com states on the About page that “Ryan Caldwell is a graduate student focusing on Bioinformatics”. I tried not very hard to find him (used a giant link on his site called “places to find me”) and found his twitter feed most helpful: http://twitter.com/#!/RyanCaldwell. On Twitter, he says that he is part of rapidviralmedia.com “we make stuff people love to spread around”. Seems harmless, what’s the point? He also takes a moment to brag on the success of the 50 Most Beautiful Campuses thing (“organic” means the users were passing the link amongst themselves, as opposed to him buying paid ads to promote it):

6. Other domains that Ryan owns include dogguide, ridelust, and celebritycowboy. You can find out more about these domains here at Pho.to. Basically these are all sites with articles like “15 celebrities who are actually smart” or whatever. They’re designed to drive traffic.

7. As for the content on the rest of the original site, thebestcolleges.org, the vast majority of the content on the site is focused around online colleges. I’d link you there, but really that would only serve the purpose of further inflating his visitation numbers, thus raising the amount he is able to charge for advertising on the “degrees” and “colleges” sections of the site. (PS, look at how he seeds “Princeton, Stanford, Penn, Yale, and Harvard” into that list of 300 online university options. Classy.)

8. Smelling the money getting closer now… any time you click on any of the links to any of the universities on his “colleges” list, you are redirected to a branded subsite of “elearners.com”. Their site says that they are “Partnering with accredited colleges & universities offering online education since 1999”. Ah, the online connection. This is starting to make sense. But where’s Ryan’s money connection?

9. On the elearners site (http://www.elearners.com/help/faq-company.asp#1), they explain “The eLearners Affiliate Program pays you to send us qualified traffic and leads.” Clicking through to (http://www.shareresults.com/local_affiliate_desc.php?mid=2266), I learn that “The eLearners.com affiliate program accepts affiliates with high quality education-themed websites and traffic. The program has a lucrative payout of a maximum of $40 for each verified US or Canadian lead.

See screenshot of the FAQ page of elearners:

10. That’s it folks, follow the money. What happened here is a college kid ordered a domain name, put together a list of 50 colleges with photos, and went viral on Facebook. The traffic spiked like crazy and he gets $40 for everyone who fills out a “send me more info” form on one of his “colleges” links. Maybe Ryan was right — Who needs college when a million Facebookers already went to one and can declare their loyalty by clicking through to find their alma mater on some bogus list? Brilliant.

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29 thoughts on “About the “50 Most Amazing Campuses” thing

  1. I don’t have time to prove it, but I’ll bet the kid also just grabbed someone else’s top schools list and photos and repurposed it, not really doing any real work to get the list and photos together other than a bit of rearranging.

    Do you like how the info blurb alters reality by saying that Elon started out as a botanical garden before there was a university here? In the future we will have to assume first that everything is fiction because nobody is going to let the facts get in the way of a good story.

    • That is a misunderstanding. I am an Elon Alum well versed in the whole painted grass, dyed water in the lakes schtick. Elon has put so much funding and effort into their landscaping, importation of lovely exotic botanical species, and near OCD upkeep of all the aesthetics, that the campus has been officially recognized as a botanical garden, the only one in the state, and this happened many years ago. I can honestly say I attended college at a botanical garden for four years. People can think what they may, but I love it and everyone has they’re opinion about which school is #1, but Elon is truly a beautiful and inviting campus.

  2. This is more proof that Elon is the prettiest…’pretty damned smart.’

    Still, I appreciate the thought.

  3. So what? He makes money just like most other online media sites do? How do you think CNN.com or foxnews.com generates revenue since they aren’t charging people to read their articles? Maybe we should go to usnews.com and pay a fee to see what their opinion of the “best” schools are?

  4. Thumbs up on the detective work! Loved reading this thread. Most interesting thing this Boomer read all day!

  5. Do you think US News and World Report does their rankings out of the goodness of their heart? Most media is advertising supported. This does seem like an amateur effort, but it doesn’t seem like the site is hiding that they have advertising.

  6. to Ted and Matt: I guess you’ve got a point that online media are usually ad-supported. My disappointment came from two things:

    (1) established media outlets covering this as though it were a “real” news story. (Times-News and TV14 Carolina, to name two.) We have a lot of real news, no need to cover non-stories like this, that are specifically designed to attract viewers, and not really disseminate information (and the information that is passed along is incorrect — for instance, Elon was not a botanical garden before it was a campus. That doesn’t even make sense.)

    (2) There was no methodology given by the “news outlet” (read: thebestcolleges.com) in producing this “ranking”. When USNews publishes their rankings, there is at least a formula that is used, and though they’ve tried to keep it secret, one does exist. You can Google for “US News Law School Ranking Methodology” or “US News College Ranking Methodology” and read about how they do it, or you can skip right to wikipedia article about it here.

    So yeah, I agree, everyone is out to make a buck, apparently, but some people are a little more adept at making it look methodologically sound. What Ryan is doing here is pretty lame in its methods and relies on suspect data to begin with.

    • First paragraph from Elon’s about page on their website:

      “Elon University is a selective, independent university renowned as a national model for engaged learning, along with excellence in the liberal arts and sciences and professional programs. Elon’s beautiful and historic campus in central North Carolina is designated as a botanical garden.”

      http://www.elon.edu/e-web/about/default.xhtml

  7. Fair enough, although I will say worrying about local news (and national in many cases) is unproductive and bound to lead to frustration. This is a group that just spent a week breathlessly covering a man’s belief that the world was going to end.

    Also, I wonder what methodology would be sound when discussing a question of aesthetics?

    • Maybe we should ask an art historian or art critic or urban planner what methods they would use to compile lists of “good architecture” or “notable architecture” or whatever, and what criteria they would use. I suppose that’s the sensible thing to do. I’ll see if I can get an Elon art person over here.

  8. Pingback: Update on the “50 Most Amazing Colleges” Story | Megan @ Elon

  9. Pingback: Another update on the story that would not die | Megan @ Elon

  10. How sad you have nothing better to do with you life than to waste an hour of it seeing if a website is fake or not. I mean, who cares? …besides you? Get a hobby….really.

  11. Megan—A terrific job at sleuthing. I was on a “reply all” from an alumna, who like me, did not “grow up” dealing with cyber space so while I thought it might be possible because of all the money Elon has put into “foliage” recently; I also took it lightly citing a World War II checkpoint to make sure visitors were “beautiful” enough to visit. But you have earned cudos for not letting us be suckers for too long. 🙂

  12. I saw another wave of these links floating around Facebook today (not sure why people keep re-posting this old link). Fortunately, another friend and alumni posted the link to your fine detective work. I felt compelled to share the information with my friends too. Excellent digging.

  13. Does just clicking on the link generate the guy money, or is it when you click through and fill out a form? Honestly, people should know by now to not fill out forms online that they don’t necessarily trust unless they want spam mail… and Elon is definitely still the prettiest in my book! Also – not sure how accurate this still is, but the blurb said Elon was designated a botanical garden in 2005, not before it was a campus…

  14. Pingback: Why You Shouldn't Share That Awesome Infographic - Journalism for Brands

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