In a story that seems all-too-familiar in the era of “fake news,” an admissions consultant is accusing long-time test prep site Beat The GMAT of creating fake user accounts and fabricating community discussion. In fact, says Daniel Morgan, while BTG’s forums are designed to appear as a marketplace of ideas for curious would-be MBA seekers, the exchange of information is manipulated by fake users that post high volumes of repetitive questions and generic comments, and that don’t interact or respond to questions. Beat The GMAT, responding to Morgan’s accusations, says it’s just trying to keep up with the competition by employing common tactics that actually serve users well by, among other things, regenerating old content.
Beat The GMAT styles itself as “The MBA Social Network” and “the largest aggregation of GMAT prep and MBA admissions advice/resources in the world.” It is, according to language used on the site, “a social network where MBA applicants, students, admissions officers, GMAT teachers, and MBA consultants openly collaborate and share free advice.” But Morgan, who earned an MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business in 2012 and who now runs his own boutique consultancy from London, tells Poets&Quants that BTG is being run in a “fundamentally dishonest way” through the use of what its team refers to as “moderators” but who are actually paid content creators. And the end goal, Morgan says, is to inflate the site’s forum activity and therefore its value.
“I do think this stuff happens a lot (around the web),” says Morgan, a former derivatives trader for Susquehanna International Group and equity analyst for Albert Bridge Capital. “I really feel that it’s something that needs to be brought to light. In my mind creating fake profiles to populate a forum with a view of profiting from it is an unethical practice.”
TROUBLED BY USER PATTERNS
Morgan founded MBA Wisdom, an admissions consultancy, in 2014. Earlier this year, looking to interact with MBA seekers “in a way that promoted my skills,” he explored roles with Beat The GMAT and GMAT Club, another community forum site. In March, Morgan decided he’d prefer to work with BTG, becoming a “Featured Expert” by paying a $250 monthly fee, for which he received his own page on the site.
As someone who “throws myself right into everything I do,” Morgan says in the early days of his “Expert” status at BTG he had “bundles of enthusiasm” as he began answering questions and offering advice. His efforts did not go unnoticed. “My responses even caught the attention of the Beat The GMAT team, who reached out to me on numerous occasions to thank me for the quality and volume of my posts,” Morgan writes.
But he also noticed a trend in the questions he was receiving. The accounts only posted questions, and always in a high volume; in fact they posted the same number per day and per forum, at the same time each day. All the questions were easy and repetitive, and all included generic one-line comments at the end, never indicating where the questioners got stuck.
‘IF EVERYBODY’S DOING IT, WHY CAN’T I DO IT?’
There were other troubling signs. Morgan says that none of the accounts asking questions answered private messages, and none followed any of BTG’s Featured Experts, of which the site boasts dozens. None responded to questions regarding their posts. Morgan concluded that the majority — in fact, he says, “probably 99%, close to all” — of the initial questions posted in the BTG forums came from fake accounts. Dismayed, he contacted Justin Doff, Beat The GMAT director, and aired his concerns.
“When I spoke to Justin about it, he seemed to think that GMAT Club was doing exactly the same, and maybe that entitled him to do it,” Morgan says. “‘If everyone’s doing it, why can’t I do it?’ I said, ‘It’s unethical. It’s a very dishonest practice.’ I tried to explain to him that deliberately creating fake profiles with pictures, with fake names, with personalities, it’s a dishonest practice. If you didn’t have anything to hide, you would actually say, these people are Beat The GMAT representatives.
“But they don’t care. Justin doesn’t care about anyone getting a good GMAT score. He just cares about having X number of questions and whether he can market the crap out of the site. He just wants to make money. And when you take that equation out, you’ve just got a low-level forum with posts that are so low level, why would anyone come there?”
MODERATORS MAKING CONTENT: ‘STANDARD PRACTICE’?
Doff, speaking to Poets&Quants, says Beat The GMAT isn’t hiding anything about its practices. In fact, he says, BTG is “trumpeting” its hiring and training of “moderator staff” as an enhancement to the site that has been underway for about half a year. Among the key tasks performed by moderators: post activity that “provides the community and our partners an opportunity to gain new exposure by responding to these GMAT questions that contain either dormant questions from our treasure trove of past posts, or new questions that have not yet been posted in the forums.”
Traditionally, of course, website moderators have been tasked with things like watching out for spam and inflammatory posts. But Doff says now, moderators contributing new content “is standard practice here and in other similar forums. For example, on GMAT Club, you might be aware that they have about a dozen or so moderators and ‘bumpbots’ to stimulate discussion and maintain an orderly forum. This is not a secret, and in fact, this is something we’re openly excited to add to the (BTG) forum.”
It’s all part of an ongoing upgrade, he adds, which includes a redesign and new features in addition to the new approach to content. And the changes have met with overwhelmingly positive response, he claims. “Beat The GMAT site partners and users are happy with the added content since it provides many obvious benefits. It provides experts a greater opportunity to showcase their approaches with curated content, and it offers the visiting community a larger pool of material to practice from.”
FAR FROM A ONE-TO-ONE VISITOR-TO-POST RATIO
That doesn’t convince Daniel Morgan, who says, “I don’t view the practice of paying users to post questions under fake accounts as a ‘site upgrade.’ I view it as an unethical practice that is deceptive. It is for this reason that I felt compelled to write my blog post and part ways with Beat The GMAT.”
Beat The GMAT was founded in 2005 as a blog in a dorm room at Stanford Graduate School of Business by MBA student Eric Bahn. In addition to its forums, where there are dozens of “Featured Experts” that answer GMAT-related questions, the site compiles reviews of GMAT courses and admissions consultancies, and links to resources for other services. In 2012, Bahn sold the company to Hobsons, an Oakland, California-based digital media education company.
By the time Hobsons decided to shop the company in the summer of 2016, traffic to the site had fallen by nearly 25% to roughly 207,000 monthly users, with nearly a quarter of the 598,000 monthly page views from users in India. An investment company ultimately purchased BTG from Hobsons in 2016. In February of 2017, Doff was brought on board as director of BTGI LLC, “the person in charge of making the macro decisions of everything from the aesthetic upgrades to the site to the HR side.” A 2000 graduate of the NYU Stern School of Business, he is also currently managing director at Kenter Canyon Capital LLC, a Los Angeles-based investment adviser, according to his LinkedIn profile.
BEAT THE GMAT BOASTS OVER 80,000 FOLLOWERS ON FACEBOOK
Beat The GMAT boasts more than 80,000 followers on its Facebook page and claims nearly 600,000 unique page views per month. But in all that traffic, Doff says, it’s important to note that “while you would think more people would post in the forums, they don’t. If you’re looking for a ballpark number, I would guess that 1,000 people Google a question and just read it for the one person who actually posts something about it. And you can check our stats to find a similar ratio. Most people who are confused about a question, they Google it, they read the explanation, and they leave.”
Doff says as far as he’s concerned, Daniel Morgan’s “factually inaccurate claims” are the result of “misinterpretation rather than malice,” and that Morgan “seems to be under the impression that there’s a one-to-one visitor-to-post ratio of who’s posting. But that’s absolutely incorrect. And you have to understand that the value of Beat The GMAT is in our active community of people, most of whom merely visit the site. So it’s really incumbent upon us to basically serve new content. And that’s really all it is — something that we see as a necessary feature and addition to the site.”