How much money are you really worth to that lead gen site? More than you think.

In Part II of this series, TY4NS dives into the murky waters of Web lead generators and reveals who's behind all those spammy infographics.

$50 billThinkstock
$50 bill. Up close.

In our last episode of TY4NS, I descended into the murky world of for-profit online universities and the anonymous intermediaries they use to lure potential students. Who was behind the infographic-happy OnlineSchools.org, I wondered, and why did they so desperately want to sell me an online degree of dubious value?

[Online degrees with the greatest of sleaze and Beware of fancy infographics–spammers may be lurking behind them]

In today’s post I’ll answer those questions. I have to admit getting these answers wasn’t easy. OnlineSchools.org was doing everything it could to mask its identity. But then I got a tip from an industry insider: Look at CollegeDegrees.com, a lead-generation site owned by Houston-based Consumer Media Network (CMN).

Sure enough, the forms for both sites were almost pixel-for-pixel copies of each other. Checking the HTML source code for OnlineSchools.org, I noted that it pulls its forms directly from the CollegeDegrees.com site via Javascript.

onlineschools dot org left collegedegrees right.png

I know it’s hard to see this, but: OnlineSchools is on the left, CollegeDegrees on the right.

Just to be sure, I filled out a few forms at CollegeDegrees.com, whereupon I was quickly deluged with phone calls and emails from the same call centers that harangued me earlier. Connection confirmed.

This is how it goes: Once you’ve finished filling out the forms, your data is sent immediately to the universities where you’ve expressed an interest. Within minutes someone calls you to “answer any questions you might have.” If the initial caller determines you’re a serious candidate, he or she transfers you to an admissions representative who can sign you up on the spot and direct you to financial aid and other sources of payment.

What is each lead worth to these guys? More than you might think. Just by filling out a form and agreeing to receive calls, I put $50 into the pocket of whatever site was referring me, says a source within the industry who asked to remain anonymous. Had I stayed on the line and been transferred to the closer, I might have been worth from $75 to $250, depending on the type of degree I was pursuing and other factors, says Tom Ferrara, publisher of ForProfitEdu.com and CEO/co-founder of Edufficient, a consulting firm that hopes to increase transparency and ethical behavior in educational lead gen.

In a phone conversation, CMN CEO Patrick Gavin admitted that OnlineSchools.org was an affiliate of his company, but declined to provide further details. In fact, it’s just one of many lead gen sites affiliated with CMN that operate in exactly this fashion. (Others include CollegeAthome, BestCollegesOnline, ZenCollegeLife, and dozens more.) Even then, though, CMN is still a small fish in a very large and brackish pond.

Take OnlineSchools.com – not to be confused with OnlineSchools.org – for example. That dotcom is not affiliated with CMN; it’s owned by QuinStreet Inc., one of the largest lead-generation firms in the educational space and the only publicly traded one.

Last year QuinStreet took in more than $370 million in revenues, just over $155 million of that from the online education market. (Full disclosure: Earlier this year QuinStreet purchased some properties from Ziff Davis Enterprise Media, thus making it a direct competitor to International Data Group, which owns ITworld and about 300 other tech publications.)

The routine at OnlineSchools.com is nearly identical to what I experienced at OnlineSchools.org. You fill out a series of forms for different schools, and then your phone starts ringing and doesn’t stop. OnlineSchools.com also cranks out its share of SEO-enhancing infographics, and like its .org competitor, it masks its DNS listing.

But there are two key differences. One is that OnlineSchools.com isn’t hiding its identity – the About page clearly shows who’s behind it. The second is that QuinStreet offers a real privacy policy, if not a particularly friendly one. (The company will share your personal data with unaffiliated third party companies until you tell them not to.)

But QuinStreet itself is not without its own problems. Last June it agreed to hand over one of its sites, GIbill.com, to the US Department of Veterans Affairs. That was part of deal with attorneys general from 15 states, who had accused QuinStreet of deceiving consumers into thinking GIbill.com was operated by the US government. The company also agreed to pay legal fees of $2.5 million to the states and issued the following statement:

QuinStreet, long a leader in ethical marketing practices online, does not engage in deceptive marketing practices and does not believe that its websites were misleading prior to the Agreement.

Here’s a cached copy of GIbill.com as it looked in late May 2012, courtesy of Archive.org.  What do you think?

gibill archive copy cropped 600p.png

I asked Ferrara why lead-generation companies engage in this massive game of hide and seek. He said it might be because they’re afraid of being punished by Google; if the search giant discovered just how many identical sites they were using and linking together to boost their SEO, these companies might find their page rank reduced – and take a huge financial hit in the process.

“The lack of disclosure to schools in particular can be troublesome,” he adds. “If a school or their agency doesn’t know the school is being displayed on a site, they’ll be unable to monitor its placement or confirm that the site’s information is current and compliant. We require full disclosure of all placement locations for our clients, so they can be regularly policed. Failure to do so is grounds for termination.”

Personally, I have a problem with giving away tons of highly personal information to companies that insist on being anonymous – especially those that don’t offer even the barest minimum of privacy protections. If some company is going to great lengths to mask its identity, there’s a 99.999 percent chance it isn’t doing it to benefit you. Do yourself a favor and avoid doing business with them.

In the third and final part of this series, I’ll talk about the immensely lucrative world of for-profit schools and what’s wrong with it. Look for that one early next week.

See also: 

Part I: Beware of fancy infographics -- spammers may be lurking behind them

Part III: Online degrees with the greatest of sleaze

Got a question about social media? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blog eSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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