Sunday, July 22, 2012

Are for-profit online schools gaming Google (and me)?

This is something of a long story, and a pretty trivial one, but it gets curiouser and curiouser, so I think it’s worth telling.

Last year, I got an email from a Justin Birch, asking if he could write a guest post for this blog. He identified himself as a writer for, and proposed to write on a topic that seemed to fit the blog. I had never had anyone ask to write a guest post before, and I told him I was open to the idea, but that I would have to see the post before I decided whether to accept it.

I should have paid more attention to his connection to That site prominently advertises for-profit online schools such as the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University. In 2010, federal investigators revealed that for-profit schools, including Phoenix and Kaplan, had engaged in “deceptive or questionable” practices to recruit students. As the Times reported, “recruiters would lure students — often members of minorities, veterans, the homeless and low-income people — with promises of quick degrees and post-graduation jobs but often leave them poorly prepared and burdened with staggering federal loans.” Some of the schools were accused of misleading applicants, or of encouraging applicants to commit fraud on their federal loan applications. (Video here.) The picture that emerged, in the words of InsideHigherEd, was of “an industry aggressively and universally going after ‘leads’ and ‘starts’ with the institutional objective of securing federal financial aid dollars.” Picture a school run by the characters of Glengarry Glen Ross.

I briefly wondered about Birch’s connection to online schools, but I didn’t discern any ulterior motive in his guest post. I figured he was just wanted to be able to say he had some online publications. His proposed post didn’t promote online schools, though it did mention them in passing, with a link to I wasn’t surprised that he threw in a link to his employer, and didn’t give it a second thought. I agreed with the thrust of the post, which is what I most cared about. So I went ahead and posted it.

Weeks went by and the post eventually slipped down off the front page. Meanwhile, though, I began to get emails from other people – “freelance writers” – wanting to write guest posts. Some of them mentioned that all they wanted in exchange was a link to their website. Some of the writers cited websites such as,, and, again, One person wrote, “I am a freelancer and so for your posting of this original article I would be able to pay you.” There was obviously something fishy going on, so I declined these offers, when I responded at all.

Then, about a month ago, I got an email from a Kyle Howard at “A while back we had a writer create a guest post for you and include a link back to our site,” he wrote. “We are currently removing many links from our guest posts due because they may be irrelevant where they’re placed and disrupting the content.” He then asked me to remove the link to in the Justin Birch post. This seemed odd to me, so I ignored his message.

I soon got another message from him, making the same request. Again I ignored it. In his third email, he offered to pay me twenty-five dollars (via Paypal) if I would remove the link. This, of course, just created a greater incentive for me to ignore his email, and see how high he might go.

Sure enough, his fourth message offered fifty dollars if I would remove the link. But this message contained a different reason for the request: “We believe this link may have been compensated by a marketer and no longer want them pointing to the site.” He pointed out that paid links violate Google Webmaster guidelines, and linked to the Google page on the issue. Google ranks sites based on how many other sites link to them, and buying links is an illegitimate way of making your site appear higher in Google’s search results.

As curious as I was to see how high he might go, I was even more curious to follow up on the question of paid links. After all, his initial message said that “had a writer create a guest post for you and include a link back to our site.” Who would have paid that writer to include the link, if not ... I wrote back:
Hi -- I certainly wasn’t paid for including that link, and I have no reason to think the writer of the post was. I’m happy to take it down (without any financial inducement) if it was a paid link, but I’d need more than just an unsupported assertion that it was a paid link. What reason do you have to think the writer was paid? And who did the paying?
His response was a complete non-sequitur:
You’re right it’s a guest post. Can you still remove the link? We decided to remove many old links built this way. We only want to focus on very on-topic, relevant links about online education.
I responded, “But you must have some reason for thinking that it was a paid link -- so what’s up?” His response:
We are taking a very tight approach to removing as many links that could be suspicious or built in an unnatural way. Many links in the past have been placed in guest posts and they were actually compensated. We’d rather not get penalized by Google by leaving links up that could be seen as manipulated -- like over-using guest posts to build links to a site. We’d rather play it safe than sorry right now.
Six passive voice constructions in four short sentences provoked me to ask, “Compensated by whom? I'm having a hard time understanding who would pay for a link to, other than” Meanwhile, I emailed Justin Birch, asking if he had been paid to include the link, and if so, by whom and how much. (I couldn’t help noticing, now, that he had published guest posts on several other sites that also linked to or, for example, here, here, and here. Kudos to commenter Doris for asking him how the post was related to his work – a question he never responded to.) I’m still waiting for replies.

Of course, even if someone bought links to illegitimately inflate a site’s Google ranking, it’s hardly a high crime, and it pales in comparison with other things that for-profit schools have been accused of doing. But it does raise the question: Are these people capable of doing anything that doesn’t look shady?


Chris said...

I continue to get solicitations from strangers who want to write guest posts. In fact, I received two within one hour today. Though they ostensibly came from two different people, the emails were worded identically. One came from a person (or at least a name) whose previous email to me had mentioned I can only wonder what kind of operation is being run that churns out identical emails about placing guest posts on blogs. If is genuinely concerned about not gaming Google's rankings with manufactured links, they've apparently got a lot more work to do, to say the least.

I'm going to go ahead and remove the link to from the original post, even though I never received an adequate explanation of who, other than itself, would have paid to generate such a link. I don't want anything to do with these people.

Anonymous said...

I received a similar post today from an Eric Bergstrom at My website does indeed have a link to an Infographic they produced.

Strangely, the email said they had received an email from Google that my link may be a paid link (it isn't), but the URL Bergstrom included in the email was not one of my sites - instead it pointed to a Chinese site.

Chris said...

Anonymous -- Thanks for commenting. I, too, received an email from "Eric Bergstrom" asking me to remove the link to from my post -- a week after I had already removed it!

Chris said...

Dan Tynan at IT World is writing on the topic here.

Chris said...

Part II of Dan Tynan's analysis is here.

Chris said...

Fun fact: Tynan, with some work and an insider tip, traces (which he says "was doing everything it could to mask its identity") to a Houston-based corporation whose CEO is . . . a guy who lives a block away from me in Iowa City.

Chris said...

In Part III of the series, "Online Degrees with the Greatest of Sleaze," Tynan examines the taxpayer-funded world of for-profit education.