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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 email@example.com 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.”
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.