For prospective MBA students, the quest to identify the most suitable business schools culminates in a key decision with a lifetime of consequences for career and finances.
But peril awaits the soon-to-be student whose diligent and high-stakes search for useful information includes the obligatory trip through B-school rankings. A whole industry of so-called “prospect farms” has grown up around this nearly universal element of the search. And in this business, misinformation is money.
Your path to a decision about which schools you’ll apply to can take you through a minefield of deception in which a surprising number of schools — and the world’s biggest search engine — are complicit.
A FORMER CREATURE OF THE MBA RANKINGS NETHERWORLD OPENS UP
Use Google’s search service to look for rankings of B-schools and MBA programs and it’ll turn up large numbers. Most are flawed, often promoting online MBA programs. A few can be useful as part of a wide-ranging research effort.
Some are worse than worthless, even fraudulent, but still, you will find them toward the top of your results. How they get there has been a closely guarded secret among the opportunistic bottom-feeders of the B-school rankings industry.
But now, a former creature of the rankings netherworld has opened up a window into the shifty business of bringing eyeballs to bad B-school beta.
After Poets&Quants in April published an analysis of one company’s dubious online MBA ranking — a list that puts at No. 2 a school busted last year for submitting faked rankings data to U.S. News & World Report — and noted that such companies strike gold by gaming Google, a former industry insider reached out.
SHADY RANKINGS COMPANIES WORK WITH STUDENT-HUNGRY B-SCHOOLS
He called himself Jim Gomez. We agreed to keep his identity confidential for the sake of his career. We’ll call him Gomez. He told us how the game is played. In fact, he says he invented a crucial part of it.
First, a little context. The shady rankings companies work with student-hungry B-schools, getting paid each time someone goes to a ranking and clicks a link taking them to a business school’s website. As a business, it’s called “lead generation.”
Gomez spent about six years working for one of these companies on a rankings website, as a strategist in “search engine optimization” (SEO). The leads generated by the site brought in as much as $5 million a year, Gomez says, thanks, in large part, to the website’s prominence in Google search results. Google did not respond to a request for comment.
That’s where his innovation came in, he says. He discovered that among the many factors Google’s automated software uses to determine search-results placement, much weight is given to sites that get traffic from their links on schools’ websites, which end in “.edu,” he says.
‘.EDU LINKS HAVE ENORMOUS POWER WITH GOOGLE
“When determining search-results positions, Google places a huge value on high-quality inbound links from authoritative websites, especially government and school websites, thus ‘.edu’ and ‘.gov’ are the most valuable links for any websites, and ‘.edu’ links are even more powerful in the education niche,” Gomez says.
A rankings page on a website, if it’s getting hit via links from ‘.edu’ sites, can rise from “way out in search results, perhaps page seven or lower, to the No. 1 position on the first page of search results,” he says.
“I created this strategy of gathering ‘.edu’ links from colleges several years ago and our website quickly had huge success in Google search results, typically the first position on the first page. Most people, even many SEO people, do not know the enormous power ‘.edu’ links have with Google.”
Gomez says once he started contacting school PR staff and faculty to tell them they’d made the company’s ranking, and asking them to link back to the ranking, the ‘.edu’ hits began to come, driving much more traffic, generating many more leads, he says.
THE TACTIC IS NOW SPREADING
However, he says, the tactic is now spreading, and several websites have started deploying it, as well as energetically pursuing school staff and instructors, Gomez says.
“Their ranking articles began showing up on the first page of search results,” he says.
Although Gomez takes credit for unleashing a potent Google-gaming tool into the B-school marketing industry, he believes he was at least trying to produce helpful rankings, and he sneers at the major players in the game today.
“The degree ranking processes they actually use … they’re basically a joke,” he says. “When I ranked the schools I used a different process than these websites use, I think a better process and very time-consuming.”
‘THESE WEBSITES ARE FOOLING GOOGLE’
Top positioning on Google lends credibility to sketchy rankings sites, he says. “People think they’re authoritative web pages because they trust Google,” Gomez says. “These websites are fooling Google. These lead generating websites are manipulating the Google algorithm with the ‘.edu’ links.”
When dishing out blame for the rankings racket, Gomez goes easy on the schools. “The colleges are not in cahoots with these degree-ranking websites, they don’t pay for a ranking,” Gomez says. “I think college representatives, including department heads, at colleges offering the degree, actually think these websites have expertise and create high quality rankings.”
Or maybe the college reps just don’t care. When Poets&Quants probed a number of rankings websites five years ago, we discovered that highly regarded University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School’s online MBA program was paying a Tennessee goat farmer for links on his preposterous rankings website, which named the school’s online MBA No. 1 (see Why A Goat Farmer Ranks Business Schools).
‘WHETHER IT’S GOOD OR BAD INFORMATION, THAT DOESN’T HAVE MUCH TO DO WITH US’
We put it to Kenan-Flagler — “Really, rankings from a goat farmer?” — and former associate dean Susan Cates told us that people learned about the school’s online MBA program in a variety of ways, “and if we happen to have ads in places where they’re looking for information, whether it’s good information or bad information, that doesn’t have much to do with our program. I want to find great students.”
Gomez says that now, with the ‘.edu’ SEO tactic in broader use and aggressive pursuit of schools for links commonplace, school staff have become more selective in the links they provide, if they provide any at all.
Indeed, go to CollegeChoice.net, which put disgraced rankings-faker Temple University at No. 2 for an online MBA, and you’ll see it links to schools, but most of the institutions at the top of the list don’t link back. Move down, though, checking listed schools’ websites, and the links begin to sprout.