LinkAdage Selling .EDU Blog Space: It’s Evil

Ian Lurie Apr 15 2008

Sure, I'm an edu. Sucker.LinkAdage Auctions and the Pickering Institute have teamed up to offer blog space on a .edu domain, for rent.
That’s right folks! You can now publish your very own .edu blog, without all the bother of actually being a school!!!
That’s not OK. In the words of my favorite Pulp Fiction character, it’s pretty @#$)(*! far from OK.
It’s like putting soda pop machines in grade schools, only more subtle.
Anyone with a shred of common sense understands that this practice:

  • Takes advantage of a vulnerable population…
  • …and search engine algorithms that expect educational information at .edu domains.
  • Is in poor taste.
  • And is generally bad for the community.

For those who don’t know: Links from EDU domains may get more authority in the search rankings. So a lot of folks prize links from .edu web sites. That’s why this could be a compelling offer to unscrupulous marketers.

The Offer

Linkadage Auctions sent me an e-mail today saying:
“LinkAdage is now offering the web’s first open to the public EDU blog community. This is a very unique opportunity for Webmasters and SEOs not affiliated with a university to control a personal EDU blog.
The opportunity that running one of these blogs presents is tremendous. Your blog will be a legitimate EDU blog that you can use to promote your business and increase revenues.”
Turns out they’re renting space on the domain blogs.pi.edu to all comers who promise not to publish porn, sell drugs, gamble or do other obviously bad stuff.
On the site itself, they introduce the service this way:
“PI.edu is now offering sub-domain blogs that will allow you to educate your potential customers on your field of expertise.”
Nice choice of words. Note how they slipped ‘educate’ in there.
Niiiccceeeee job, guyssssssss

Why LinkAdage and Pickering Aren’t (quite) Breaking The Rules

Only verified educational institutions can own a .edu domain. Pickering fits that description.
And, according to the rules around .edu domains, you can assign a third-level domain (makemoremoney.pi.edu, for example) to other parties.
Great. You guys found a good lawyer, and a nice loophole.
This still sucks.

Why This is Horrible

Oh, let me count the ways:

  1. This is lying, not marketing. This is a neat rules dodge someone found and is now exploiting. Visitors to a .edu domain will often trust that content more than what they find at a .com domain. That’s why search engines assign more authority to these domains. So this new .edu rental offer will let marketers take advantage of the fact that humans and search engines trust .edu domains more. It’s so cynical even I blinked.
  2. Lying (badly) is bad for your brand. When you publish on a .edu domain, you tell a story about your brand that’s totally false. More important, it’s a story that, when revealed, will enrage your customers. Read All Marketers are Liars if you don’t believe me. Seth Godin knows a thing or two.
  3. By littering the web with .edu blogs that have little or nothing to do with education, LinkAdage and Pickering will pollute the entire .edu community, and make it harder for folks to find content of real value.
  4. The search engines aren’t stupid. If this catches on, sometime in the next year or two Google and Micrahoo! (Moo! for short) will ding all third level .edu domains. Then we’ll get to hear SEOs who engaged in this practice whining about how they’re being bullied by the big bad search engines.
  5. Did I mention it’s lying?

Just have a look at the first few blogs opened up using the LinkAdage service:
“UK Mortgages”
“1031 Exchange”
“Handbags”
“Webhosting”
I had no idea I could major in handbags…
There are a few blogs that look like they may be OK, like:
“Blogging”
“Finance”
“Business”
So I’ll reserve judgment on them. But you have to wonder.

The Letter of the Law, or the Spirit?

Call me old. Call me a wimp. But this entire deal leaves a really bad taste in my mouth.
Just because the rules barely allow you to do something doesn’t mean you should.
LinkAdage: I’m a customer. I like you. I’ve (gasp) bought links here and there. Please listen: Regulate this really carefully, or shut it down. If you don’t, you’re doing a bad thing, and the entire industry will end up paying for it.
Update: I’m keeping track of the quality educational content that goes up on the blogs.pi.edu domain. The best one so far is named “jwitham2002”. It links to pharmacy.pi.edu, which is titled “Online Prescriptions”. Niiicceeee….

tags : conversation marketing

45 Comments

  1. I heard about this earlier via twitter. Hopefully the SE’s won’t place much value on it, given the type of content they’ll be producing.
    The fact of the matter is, we’ve only begun to see the tip of the iceberg on authority BL tactics such as this. That’s because getting links the right way takes actual work and, although they obviously realize the importance, most are just too lazy to bother.

  2. Andy

    Andy

    That is ridiculous. Exploiting this loop-hole seems awfully greedy.

  3. Ian

    Ian

    @Melanie I agree, and I’m not naive about it at all, trust me. I am hoping that this particular instance might get a nice, public smackdown, and make others hesitate.
    I’ve certainly done my share of link grubbing. But not when it goes this far.

  4. “I had no idea I could major in handbags…”
    Me neither. Hell, I’d go back to school if I knew that sooner.

  5. It’s simply sleazy grey hat stuff that will ultimately hurt the people who try to exploit it. Google isn’t dumb and they’ll figure it out real quick.
    The old adage, if it seems too good to be true, applies here.
    Chris

  6. Ian

    Ian

    @Mike Duuuuuh. Thanks. I fixed the link.

  7. Google and other engines ought to send a strong message by delisting all .EDU domains which participate in this kind of practice. This just violates the very trust people have in the .EDU TLD because not everyone can get one.
    It would be like making available to the public such addresses as .GOV or .MIL among other reserved TLDs.

  8. matt

    matt

    clearly not a real school http://pi.edu/application/ “Registration Fee US$100
    P/S charge my credit card” … but still sucks

  9. RickRussellTX

    RickRussellTX

    Looks to me like somebody managed to slip a fake .edu application into the stream at EDUCAUSE (http://www.educause.edu/edudomain/). The site is obviously fake; the e-mail address for the organization is a hotmail account. And the “About Pickering” link RickRolls over to Youtube.
    RR

  10. Icheb

    Icheb

    “Links from EDU domains may get more authority in the search rankings.”
    No, they don’t. Stop posting bullshit. There is no reason search engines would give them preferential treatment.
    HOWEVER: Since those domains are only used by schools etc., they get a LOT of links. The same would happen if MIT had a .COM domain.

  11. illogic

    illogic

    Are we even sure Pickering is a “verified education institution”? Their web site is a joke.

  12. There are many .edu domains that reserve students and faculty space (under their respective .edu domains) to administer their own “mini-sites” for project and other student related activities. There’s nothing that I can think of that really prevents those students from slapping up ads or doing anything else on those folders other than actively discouraging such usage. However, I also don’t believe that any search engines rank folders or sub-domains on EDU domains over other search results unless the query is somehow relevant. So unless the parent domain (pi.edu in this case)is directly linking to them in order to give a more authoritative ranking, they’re not really collecting a higher status just by listing under the EDU domain space.
    A logical step for search engines here would be to devalue rankings for sub-domains and folders outside of the parent EDU domain name if they don’t already do so. In any case, I believe most search engines are already familiar with a comprehensive list of which EDU domains are actually schools and which are not. But if they’re not, then it would be high time for them to build and maintain a listing for schools if ranks are important to them.

  13. It would be like making available to the public such addresses as .GOV or .MIL among other reserved TLDs.

  14. Jane Q. Public

    Jane Q. Public

    WHY THIS IS EVEN MORE HORRIBLE:
    Especially if it is a .edu domain.
    Government organizations are restricted, under Federal guidelines, to not discriminate in the treatment of, or censor, content if it has legitimate educational value.
    Therefore, it is probably illegal for them to prevent their customers from offering certain kinds of “pornography” or other legitimate — no matter how non-mainstream — forms of “art”.
    They can’t have it both ways. Either they are a .edu – eligible organization or they are not. If they are, they probably cannot legally constrain their “customers” as they are trying to do. Federal anti-discrimination regulations are too sweeping.
    I would eat their lunch in court if they tried to restrict my use according to the standards mentioned in this article. Just to make a point, which they deserve to have someone drive home to them. The bastards.

  15. Dudibob

    Dudibob

    If they don’t monitor this, or the big G gets pissy, Google will just delist everything to do with pi.edu

  16. Daniel

    Daniel

    I agree completely and feel this is wrong. What’s more it looks as something dodgy is going on – The blog http://blogs.pi.edu/ has been hacked as they were stupid enough to leave the default administrator login details.
    Same as pi.edu itself: http://pi.edu/
    Smells like some kind of scam to me!

  17. I’m sure Google will take into consideration that these are being sold and will carry through with the same policies they have about text link ads.

  18. Indeed, if you read the story on the front page of pi.edu (which is in rot13 for some reason), it really REALLY makes them sound an *awful* lot like a diploma mill. Each student’s program is custom-built with whatever combination of “practical experience”, “independent study”, and formal study best fits the “needs” of the “working adult attempting to juggle responsibilities at the office and at home”. To me that sounds almost exactly like “If you don’t have time to study, we can sell you a degree anyway.”

  19. Matt

    Matt

    Dude, way to lay the smack down on these bozos. Congrats on hitting the home page of Slashdot, nice!

  20. Nick B.

    Nick B.

    Search engines should (and probably will) place an immediate negative score on any URL for simply being in the *.pi.edu domain. If that happens, it will surely discourage this practice with less that scrupulous .edu domain holders.

  21. You’re on the right trail, but you haven’t dug enough yet. Compare “Pickering Institute” to “Palmer University”:
    http://pi.edu/academics/seminarystudies.htm
    vs.
    http://www.palmeruniversity.us/academics/seminarystudies.htm
    Dig a little deeper and the two “schools” also have the same address and phone number listed on their “contact us” page. Also notice that to contact pi.edu on that seminary studies page, the school suggests emailing them at a Hotmail address. By the way, pi.edu used to claim to be Palmer University.
    Also notice the front page of pi.edu is a blog with commercial links on the right-hand side. And that they’ll take your credit card with no SSL protection. So my advice would be to continue digging. Why not pick up the phone and investigate by calling the phone number listed in the whois entry for pi.edu and ask them about it, or how many students they have on-campus? :)
    Let me know what you find out about .edu that Linkadage has partnered with.

  22. Bazkaz

    Bazkaz

    After further review it doesn’t seem that Pickering Institute is even a real school. They do not show up on the accreditation pace of the ACCS (tracs.org). They also do not answer any calls, despite multiple attempts, and their primary contact email address is from Hotmail.
    It really looks like they made up a school to somehow get a .edu domain and start selling blogs. I’m sure they are running some of their own marketing activities off of it as well, but that is just my own opinion at this point.

  23. Ian

    Ian

    @Jane I’m not totally sure that those restrictions apply to .edu’s. In fact I’m pretty sure they don’t. A private organization can get an EDU domain. Pickering is, as many have observed, only barely an educational institution (even saying that much makes me shudder).
    So they can control their content. Not that they’re bothering.

  24. Ian

    Ian

    @Bazkaz I believe they’re what you’d call a diploma mill. Which makes this somehow even worse. Even the institution is a fabrication.

  25. Ian

    Ian

    @Matt thanks, but something tells me they won’t take my call now :)
    I’m pretty confident that Pickering doesn’t actually exist as a physical university. I looked at Palmer, too, and there’s no mention of a campus. Not even beer. Sheesh.

  26. Ian

    Ian

    @Jonadab check out Palmeruniversity.us, which appears to be closely affiliated (if not a duplicate). I love their blinking left-hand nav.

  27. D.W.

    D.W.

    Someone, please stop these people! This is horrible, especially because it dilutes the quality of the edu domain, and firstly, because it deceives prospective students and their family members.
    Notice how the blogs.pi.edu site turned off the comments on the April 25 “opening day” post. Can’t take the criticism, huh?

  28. Wow, it seems like I grabbed everyone’s attention and stirred up a hornets’ nest. I haven’t had a project receive this much Buzz and hate mail since I started LinkAdage Auctions in 2003.
    It’s no secret that http://WWW.PI.EDU not a major university – no surprise there. However, they do have an online certification program. Before I came involved, PI.edu spoke with SEOs and Link Brokers who advised them to sell links and basically become a paid link farm to monetize the site.
    Sure they would make money in the short run selling links, but creating a large blog community offers them a much greater opportunity to capture a large web presence and traffic. Also, paid blogs are not against any of the search engine terms of service – no matter what the TLD.
    With the blog community PI can achieve the high standards of an edu while at the same time improving their core product with revenues earned. Whether you agree or not with online certification programs, this is a different issue.
    What I am helping PI.edu do is create a blog community with a strong educational slant. Our TOS requires us to be very strict as to the quality of our member blogs – and yes, the TOS will be enforced. Since we are charging very little per blog, it is not a big deal for us to refund and delete a garbage/link spam type blogs.
    Blogs.pi.edu just launched yesterday and there was an unexpected surge in blog sign ups. Thus we have not filtered many blogs out yet. Also, many people bought sub-domain place holders and have not posted yet so we cannot make a judgment on quality of many blogs. Rest assured, blogs that are not up to standard will be given a warning, and deleted and refunded if they do not meet our TOS.
    There are many paid blog communities out there; the only difference is our bloggers will have an EDU after their domain and all blogs will need to meet certain quality requirements. The grand plan is to build the blog community into a high traffic blog community – the fact that it is an EDU will help speed the process. But first we are taking baby steps and hopefully people will not continue to pass judgment based on a TDL or before we get a chance to get the site of the ground.
    I also hope that the search engines will judge and rank each blog and the PI.EDU blog community on the quality of content rather than the fact that the domain TLD is EDU. Believe me, if I didn’t do this project, someone else would be turning this site into an under the radar EDU link farm.
    People are being naive if they don’t know that many of the top universities have 100% commercial blogs and blog posts for sale by students and faculty alike. Many major universities also have entire sections of their domain for sale to those willing to pay the price. I guess they are under the radar because their size and the search engines have trouble sorting the wheat from the chafe. From what I seen, people that own these underground EDU pages seem to be getting a nice rankings boost.
    The Blog.PI.EDU difference is that nothing is hidden, we have higher standards, and we are in the open for all to see and grow. Sure, we may have some growing pains, and will not be perfect but what website is?

  29. Ian

    Ian

    @John I appreciate the reply. And as I said in my post, I am one of your customers.
    However, I’d find it easier to believe in your good intent in this if the blogs.pi.edu blog list didn’t include “studentloanconsolidation”, “collegeloans”, “1031exchange”, “domainparking”, “vegasdeals”, a 100% marketing site for an unidentified SEO firm and a page lifted from Wikipedia about jewelry.
    If you want to stick to your TOS, then make sure that you do not publish a blog until it’s clear the blog does comply. Why publish them before you review them?
    As far as other EDUs, yes, many have made pretty big mistakes as far as selling pages within their domains. I’m not sure how that justifies your company’s actions.
    You’re a leader in the industry. Arguing someone else would do it if you didn’t doesn’t work, because folks are looking to you to see what’s right and what’s not.

  30. Pickering, in my opinion, shouldn’t be able to have an EDU. EDUs should be reserved strictly for accredited Universities and Colleges for educational uses only. I think so long as Google’s algorithm boosts rankings for EDUs, the process for getting one and the rules behind their usage should be more stringent.
    Black hat SEMs will always find ways to exploit the engines to make money, that’s true, but somebody should be making an active effort to thwart (or in Google’s case, ding) shady practices like this.
    And John, you’re right. We’re naive about the practices of universities farming our their server space to the highest bidders. It still doesn’t make what they’re doing or what you’re doing any less unscrupulous.

  31. Ian, we’ve taken steps to ensure that blog links placed on pi.edu will not affect Google.

  32. Jess

    Jess

    I am personally torn about this issue.
    Readers who don’t know the history of the .EDU TLD should do some research.
    On one side this could spell deregulation of .EDU since it is still controlled by the US Department of Commerce. Simply making no more important than .COM, .NET, etc.
    The other side is that .EDU is protected space, so this is basically like putting up billboards along a scenic road on National Park property. So in the future that majestic view may be gone.
    John should point to examples of established .EDU domains that are reselling sub-domains specifically for profit.

  33. Ian

    Ian

    @Jess To me this is not a legal/legislative issue. It’s an ethical one.
    EDU is protected space. It was created for educational institutions. Using it for other purposes is wrong, because it’s deceptive.
    The guiding principle of modern marketing is authenticity. This violates that. As such it’s bad marketing, bad strategy and overall a bad idea.

  34. Folks here might find this page fun to read:
    http://hawaii.gov/dcca/areas/ocp/udgi/lawsuits/pickering/
    Click on the third PDF link. It looks like the state of Hawaii took legal action against Pickering University and Robert W. Keller in 2003. Here’s just a short excerpt:
    “IT IS FURTHER ORDERED, ADJUDGED AND DECREED that Defendants Pickering University The United Congregational Church “Society of Friends Group” and Robert W. Keller … are hereby permanently enjoined from:
    a. Providing any post-secondary instructional programs or courses leading to a degree;
    b. Acting as or holding themselves out as a “college, academy, institute, institution, university” or anything similar thereto”
    The whole legal judgment is pretty interesting reading.

  35. Ian

    Ian

    @Matt Yowsa. That’s quite a read.
    Nice to see they’ve moved into more ethical pursuits. Cough.

  36. Matt

    Matt

    Holy crap.. Talk about getting your hand caught in a mousetrap.

  37. c’mon people did anybody really think this was going to work?
    “Hey world (and blogs where Matt reads) we’re selling blog space on a .edu…”
    doesn’t even pass the sniff test.
    Let’s all say these next few words together, in unison a remember them for all time….
    UNDER THE RADAR

  38. This whole .edu myth is just stupid. Look at other countries where the universities don’t have .edu domains and are still among the strongest websites. It’s because of all their authority backlinks, not because of the tld!
    And by the way: Is has been possible to buy a .edu-blog for at least half a year (might be much longer, I never cared), so this offer is nothing “really f*ing shocking horrible new”.

  39. Ian

    Ian

    @Todd sound advice

  40. It’s not that hard to get a link from a .edu anyway. As long as you leave an on-topic, relevant and educated comment. The Trackback spammers also have a field day.

  41. It really is a shame to see this sort of thing taking place. Unfortunately, I think we’ll only see more cases of this sort of exploitation so long as the .EDU extension carries extra weight in search engines. Fortunately it looks like in this particular case they are getting in hot water.

  42. Thomas

    Thomas

    “…I’m sure Google will take into consideration that these are being sold and will carry through with the same policies they have about text link ads…”
    Thats my opinion too. In this moment, somebody make a public offer for .edu Domains, they lost their value.
    Internet business is a hard business, and everyone tries to get an advantage.

  43. Hey,
    Just FYI: AFAIK Google has never ever confirmed that .edu domains get a higher weighting than other domains. I think the only reason for those domains generally having a higher PR is that they’ve been around for so long. Remember, universities were the first to use the Internet. That may explain their comparative strength.

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