Beware of Wolves in Electronic Sheep’s Clothing

The requests look innocent enough.

“I’ve created a site to help students looking to enroll in {insert option: online colleges, night school, distance education, adult education, and so on and so forth}.  My goal is to help students who want to get a degree find the right {insert degree type} for them.  I came across your website and wanted to see if you’d take a look and would mind posting a link on your resources page.”

Or, “I stumbled upon your collection of college and career web resources for prospective students here http://wcet.wiche.edu/advance/wow-media-release-2007 and thought you might be interested in another authoritative online resource. My team and I have been working on an open-access resource to promote access to higher education in America. Our resource allows you to search for affordable colleges throughout the nation. Currently, many universities, such the University of Washington, Maryland and Houston have referenced our resource as a go-to for people who are not only looking to further their education but also to help finance it. I’d love to share it with you to see what you think as well?”

Or, “I’m impressed with your site’s unique informations (sic). I am a content writer for educational communities

and would the opportunity to guest post for your readers.  I won’t be charging a penny, but in return all I need is just one link in the article.”

At first glance, one might think, ‘free content, I could use a break from writing for a week.’ Or ‘additional links, that will be good for our search engine optimization.’  But look a little deeper.

  • Does the request have a full name? And does that name coordinate with the email address at all? Or is the email address jonhlennon@email.com and the name given in the signature “Jane”?
  • Is the ‘resource’ they mention actually a resource (note above, a media release for our 2007 WOW Awards was pegged as a ‘college and career web resource for prospective students.’)
  • Do they provide you with information or at least a link to their organization/website?  If they don’t, RUN.
    • If there is a link provided, dig into the site.  Click through the site, see where it takes you and what kind of information it provides.
    • And ask questions – what is your organization? How are you funded?  Where does the information and/or data on your site come from?
WolfSheep_Flickr_manitou2121

Photo by Pierre Tourigny on Flickr*

True story:  We get a lot of these at WCET.  One of these sites, in particular, has been contacting us nearly daily for weeks.  Each time we respond asking the questions mentioned above and each time we get a non-answer that primarily includes the same text from the original email.  We have even received a second request, with a link to a different page on our website FROM THE SAME “PERSON,” who makes no mention and when asked has no concept that we were contacted by them before.

Many of these requests are feeder sites for the larger lead generation sites and are looking for your link to create greater search engine optimization (SEO), which will in turn generate more leads for their advertisers. Possibly worst of all, these sites co-opt the good reputation of your organization by representing your link as an endorsement.

A word on lead generation sites

Many of your institutions use, have used or will possibly use lead generation sites to help find potential new students. To be objective, we’d like to remind you to be cognizant of how those sites are representing your institution and programs to students.  If the representatives from the lead generation sites are pushy, potential students may see your institution as pushy.  If they are ill-informed, then your institution could look ill-informed.

In our informal studies, of several of the big, to-remain-nameless lead generation sites, the shortest lag time between hitting ‘enter’ with our personal information and receiving the first recruiting call was a whopping 2 minutes.  120 seconds.  Not even time enough to refresh our coffee before the phone was ringing.  And the emails and calls proliferated during the first few days and strung out for a long while after.

To say the least, they were persistent.  To say the worst, they were often trying to sell us on a program we weren’t interested in.  In checking these out, we said were interested in a master’s in non-profit management.  We know such programs exist, but the majority of the recruiters we talked to were trying to steer us into a traditional MBA.  While these two programs are related, they are a different animal.    The point is, the persuasive manner of the callers could easily have directed a potential student into a program that didn’t match their career goals which could lead to future disappointment and resentment.  We encourage you to do your own testing and see the light in which your institution or program is cast by the lead generation sites.

Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing

And let us couch this all in the notion that what we are warning you against here is the wolf in sheep’s clothing – we don’t condemn for-profit activity or even for-profit recruiting.  We do question the less-than-open manner in which some of these entities seek to attract institutions and students.  There are enough reputable vendors who are candid with you about who they are and what they offer without having to guess at their motives.

The moral of the story here, when approached with the offer of free content in exchange for ‘just one link,’ remember the old adage, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

*Photo by Pierre Tourigny on Flickr at  http://www.flickr.com/photos/pierre_tourigny/367078204/
Photo of Cali MorrisonCali Morrison
Manager, Communications
cmorrison@wiche.edu
Twitter: @calimorrison

Photo of Russ PoulinRussell Poulin
Deputy Director, Research & Analysis
rpoulin@wiche.edu
Twitter:  @russpoulin

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