In the endless hunt to gain credibility for token products, founders are resorting to some shady – and ridiculous – tactics. After researching the weird world of pay-for-play recently and taking part in this expose on the space, I stumbled on another corner of the Internet that is a bit disturbing. It seems the habit of trying to bribe writers for big sites and providing access to those sites to marketers is still alive and well.
Every few days I get a request to post something on TechCrunch. Let me make this clear: you cannot buy a post here. You simply cannot. There are some sponsored advertorial things on here but you cannot purchase a real post from any writer. Anyone who is selling you one is lying and if someone is trying to sell you one please email me (email@example.com).
The easiest way to get coverage is to cultivate a relationship with a writer and make a cool product or service. That’s it. That’s the magic formula.
Usually I’m on the receiving end of these pitches to post junk content. Today, however I received a note on Facebook offering me a guest post on Harvard’s website. That’s right: Harvard.edu. Confused, I asked for an example. I got what you see above. I won’t post the URL here but I will put it on my Twitter if someone asks. I don’t want to publicize such blatant junk.
Having a post on a prestigious website is a goldmine for scammers. Investors, who are often too busy to do much due diligence, look for a few important markers before signing checks. Does the company have a good team? Does the company have what appears to be a product? Do they have press mentions? In this particular case you can imagine the chain of events: a scammer approaches investors with a token sale or some other product. They ask for bonafides. The scammer produces a poorly-written post on Harvard.edu by someone we assume is from Harvard. Bingo. Instant credibility.
Further, a link on a highly-regarded website is often perceived as an SEO boost for marketers. And you can’t get more prestigious than Harvard.edu.
What’s going on here? The scammer I spoke to is posting to blogs.harvard.edu, a free service created in 2011 by a Harvard professor that lets anyone create a WordPress blog. From the page:
The blogs.harvard.edu WordPress platform is a free service for the Harvard community. Anyone with an email address at harvard.edu, radcliffe.edu, or hbs.edu can sign up.
It’s difficult to find an administrator for the site but it’s clear that the poster, hassam540, has one of those email addresses. The Facebook user who approached me, HassAm, claims to be CEO at Cheap Seo deals. He said that he can sell me a Harvard.edu email address for “10 bitcoin,” which sounds a bit high. I could probably enroll at Harvard for that much.
The entire blogs.harvard.edu ecosystem looks poisoned as well. For example, this page, which is linked from the front page, is full of SEO junk including a thrilling post on “Latest Washing Machine Technologies in India.”
Sources of purely user-generated content, no matter how philosophically pure, are easy to ruin. In fact the worst offender, Forbes, is now fixing its contributor network and will be paying top contributors and kicking out the worst. Perhaps this recent sale of Harvard.edu URLs is a reaction to that.
Curation of these things is key and it’s nearly impossible. For every heartfelt post by a learned thinker on Forbes or Huffington Post there are 50 posts advertising washing machines. In this case for every blog on Harvard.edu dedicated to actual research or thought you get, well, 50 posts advertising washing machines.
I’ve dropped a line to the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication to ask about these posts. I’ll update when I hear back.