- Linkbait. (Photo: Health Care Management Degree)
Bicyclists, I've got a fancy infographic for you. Have you seen this yet? In bold letters, the infographic title proclaims: "How Bikes Can Save Us," courtesy of ... wait, say, this can't be right. It's from the folks at ... Health Care Management Degree? Let's say that again. ...Health Care Management Degree... Jesus, that sounds awfully strange.
Yes, the splashy infographic, which trumpets the sustainability of biking, has all the appearances of a scam, and you, America's bicyclists, just fell for it.
The legitimately pretty and well-done infographic has made the rounds of several news sites and blogs in the last two weeks. People saw the visual, loved it, published and commented on it, all the while linking to and supporting what would seem to be a link farm, a spammer, a farce of a website called HealthCareManagementDegree.com, which exists to game the Internet. The bare-bones, purposeless Health Care Management Degree website was created in 2004 and registered to Mascot Media Circle LLC, based out of Austin, Texas. This shadowy entity also created OnlineBachelorDegreePrograms.com in that same year, RatedColleges.com in 2004, and Computer-Colleges.com in 2002, among what I would imagine are many other bogus web addresses likely meant to take advantage of Google's search engine selection and enjoy a little SEO payoff. Anyone still arguing for the site's legitimacy? Some publications and bloggers pulled the infographic once they realized what happened — here's the now-dead link to Bike Portland's piece. Others ran with it: The Huffington Post, Fast Company's Co.Design blog and Co.Exist blog, Midwest Sports Fan, Design Taxi, Bike Commute News, and several other blogs as well as scores of tweets. The infographic went viral and spread like wildfire. But every single media outlet should pull the link to the origin site because my bet is that they've been duped ... and Google search results will be even more scrambled in favor of bullshit scamming as a result. The creators of Health Care Management Degree wanted to take advantage of the fact that bicyclists like to feel good about their mode of transportation, and as the terrific infographic passed through the Internet, it continually linked back to the Management Degree site and elevated its status in the Google webpage rankings, making the site all the likelier to show up in searches. But go to the site and examine. There's no real content there.
The man who most notably points out the infographic farce is DL Byron, the publisher and blogger behind Bike Hugger, in his Dec. 15 Google+ post "Social and Gullible."
"So what's going on is social-sourced link farming," DL Byron writes. "By putting out a cool graphic that illustrates a popular topic, they're getting juice from bloggers blogging it and twitter users' retweets — also the comments you'd expect on their posts. How Google search results are returned is determined, in part, but how many incoming links a site has. If you're linking to it, you're getting gamed."
The bike data collected and displayed in the infographic is hardly new but it's rarely presented quite so slickly and in such a common-sense way. What we have here is a visual representation of all these transportation statistics that hover at the edge of every discussion: the expensive cost of transportation to American households (1/5 of their income), the health pitfalls of a sedentary lifestyle, that fossil fuels aren't good for the environment, that most Americans' car trips are shorter than two miles. If you don't like bikes, I doubt this will convince you to hop on one — the infographic revels in "The European Way" and suggests Portland be "A Model for the U.S.," in firmly pro-bike spirit not likely to resonate as well outside cyclist circles — but it's a well-assembled collection of facts designed to appeal to bicyclist sensibilities. Does it even come from the people at Health Care Management Degree though? I doubt it. I've observed some insidious Internet trickery in the past, and this infographic stinks of it. Before I began covering transportation, I investigated diploma mills for a brief period — here's a Fortune piece I wrote on a notorious online mill that sends people fake college degrees within two weeks for a few hundred dollars. The Internet can be a monstrous place.
As for the visual itself, I like the underlying attitude and fundamentally agree with the brunt of the data and the pro-bike message. America's cars are killing us, and we do need to be more active. The solution will involve a mix of alternative fuels and more walking, more and better public transit and options like biking, with appropriate infrastructure. I probably don't have to explain to anyone reading this the many leaps and bounds forward D.C. biking has made in the last few years. We've got new bike lanes coming in 2012. Women are mobilizing to help close any sort of biking gender gap that exists. Our city is home to several excellent trails and several bike advocacy groups. No wonder bicyclists clicked on and spread this message, one pegged with the laughably linkbait title "How Bikes Can Save Us."
But please don't spread this infographic, at least not with any link to Health Care Management Degree. You're falling for some bad tricks out there on the Internet. I've included the visual below for your review but have consciously excluded any link to the bogus site itself. The slew of other sites that are featuring "How Bikes Can Save Us" link directly back to Management Degree when you click it and include a prominent link below it, too. The transportation angle is genius in how well it lends itself to going viral, which is the greatest tragedy of this whole mess.
"As a blogger that works very hard to make his own Google juice, I occasionally speak out about Black Hat SEO mischief like this," DL Byron remarks in his Google+ post. "You've probably noticed how irrelevant, at times, Google's search is. That's because of sites and tricks like this."