A few weeks ago, when Jeff Harmon searched on Google for North Arkansas College, an ad appeared next to the results that offered information about the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. Clicking on the ad took Mr. Harmon to collegesurfing.com, where he filled out a form that promised to send him material about Fort Smith.
Mr. Harmon isn't really a prospective student—he's Fort Smith's director of marketing and communications. If the Web site with the form had been truthful, his information would have been sent to his admissions team.
Instead, he said he received a call 20 minutes later from an Argosy University counselor asking him if he would consider enrolling in the for-profit college.
Sites like the one Mr. Harmon found mislead students by advertising for one college and steering them toward another. The shell game, typically played by companies that sell names of prospective students to for-profits, makes it critical for colleges to carefully monitor how they appear on search engines.
At a time when many students start their college search online, brand confusion can cost a college students and tarnish its online reputation. Some of the ads that promise information about unaffiliated colleges clearly violate Google's advertising policies, and some legal experts have argued that they could be construed as false advertising. But the ads are also hard to track and to stop.
Mr. Harmon called the ad he clicked on "fraudulent" and said he would ask his college system to send a cease-and-desist letter to the owner of CollegeSurfing, the CollegeBound Network. "It's a real shame they have to stoop that low to generate enough leads," he said.
'We Didn't Know'
Colleges spend hundreds of millions of dollars per year on search-engine advertising, and most of it is legitimate. But the search-engine marketing industry has always had a dark side, and lead-generation Web sites like CollegeBound are under constant pressure to find ways to deliver prospective students to their clients, which can pay $25 or more per lead.
CollegeBound is no fly-by-night operation. It has been in business since 1988, claims to attract two million visitors per month, and is one of the top lead-generation firms in higher education. It maintains 14 directories of colleges—with names such as collegebound.net and advanced-degrees.com—that double as sources of leads.
Its founder and president, Luciano Rammairone, said the Fort Smith ad and dozens of similar ads were mistakes. "The truth is, we didn't know until you pointed it out," he said. The form that Mr. Harmon filled out should not have promised information from the college, but instead from "colleges in your area," Mr. Rammairone said, and it should not have used the college's logo without permission.
"There are some schools that are still live right now when they shouldn't be," he said. "We're auditing that today." He could not say how many such pages existed, but a search produced more than 100 pages that each promise information from a different college.
Mr. Rammairone said that "right now we're making them as compliant as we can. That's really the truth. We don't want to deceive anyone."
In response to questions, the owner of Argosy and the Art Institute chain, both of which received leads from the ads, said it had instructed CollegeBound to stop providing information about the colleges unless students request it. The parent company, Education Management Corporation, said in a statement that it had been told the practice was "due to incorrect coding within the vendor's lead response system" and had generated leads for other colleges as well.
"We do not condone, endorse, or tolerate any action that may be perceived as false advertising or misrepresentation to prospective students," the statement said. Use of any kind of "false lead" violates the contracts the corporation signs with lead-generation companies, it said.
Tiffin University placed an ad that showed up last week when users searched on Google for New River Community College, in Virginia. The ad says it leads to the "official site" of New River. But the link leads to a page encouraging students to sign up for IvyBridge College, Tiffin's online subsidiary.
"We understand how this can be misleading," Ronald M. Schumacher, Tiffin's vice president for enrollment management, wrote in an e-mailed response to questions about the ad. He said Tiffin was removing the words "official site" from ads that may feature the names of other colleges and had taken corrective measures to remove any potentially misleading ads.
The ad's wording was unintentional, Mr. Schumacher wrote. The title of the ad, "New River Community College," was generated automatically by Google on the basis of the search, while the words "official site" were originally meant to apply to IvyBridge. "Obviously that was not our intent, and that ad structure has been removed from our campaigns."
One lead-generation site, EducationStart, advertises with pages that promise visitors they will receive information from colleges like the University of California at Los Angeles. "Have the school contact you directly," says that ad. An ad showing a link to a page about Antelope Valley College says, "Contact the admissions department directly."
After filling out a form, visitors are told they match well with several for-profit colleges, including the University of Phoenix, that pay EducationStart for leads. (A University of Phoenix spokesman did not respond to a request for comment).
Representatives at five colleges mentioned in the ads, including Antelope Valley, say their institutions did not agree to receive inquiries from EducationStart or its parent company, Vantage Media. None of the officials who were contacted by The Chronicle had ever heard of the company.
"It is disturbing," said Frank Steen, chief information officer of Hunter College, in New York, which appeared in an EducationStart ad that showed up with the Google search phrase cuny hunter. "If somebody applies and something goes wrong with their application, they think badly of us."
A Vantage Media spokeswoman, Wendy Barbour, said the company verifies that all inquiries are, indeed, e-mailed to the admissions departments of each college. She said colleges that request to be removed from the Web site are removed immediately, and that students' information is only shared if they check a box to allow it.
But Ms. Barbour could not say whether all of the colleges the company was advertising for had ever agreed to accept leads from the company, and she conceded that for some colleges, Vantage's e-mails might not be "top of mind."
A code of ethics released last year by the Education Marketing Council, a coalition that includes both Vantage and CollegeBound, prohibits misleading advertising, saying it could discredit the industry. "No one should make offers or solicitations in the guise of one purpose when the intent is a different purpose regardless of the marketing channel used," the ethics code says.
But the code is voluntary and hard to police. (The lead developer of the guidelines, Greg O'Brien, is the chief executive of CollegeBound.) Lead-generation Web sites bid on proprietary, ever-changing lists of search terms, which makes tracking the ads an expensive job. Colleges must decide how, and whether, to respond to problematic search ads when they appear.
The Department of Education recently approved rules that limit the conditions under which colleges can pay Web sites for information about prospective students. Experts say those regulations, which took effect on July 1, may drive out some low-quality Web sites that provide leads but will not stop many abuses.
Some colleges report success sending cease-and-desist letters to advertisers. They can also report ads to Google, which does not allow Web sites to post search ads that name a U.S. or Canadian trademark, unless they primarily exist to provide information about or sell goods and services related to the trademark. Ads that use a trademark but link to a page that promotes a competing product are explicitly prohibited.
But some observers say Google, which did not respond to a request for comment, is unlikely to systematically rein in problematic search-engine advertising in higher education. "I think the Department of Education has done a better job cleaning up search results than Google has," said Jerry Slavonia, chief executive of Campus Explorer, an online directory of colleges.
Some college officials said they did not see reason to be overly concerned. Patricia M. Jasper, a senior campus counsel at UCLA, said that although officials there spend a considerable amount of time combatting inappropriate use of UCLA's name, it is unlikely that someone seeing the EducationStart ads would be confused.
"I doubt that the Web content of these particular sites would cause anyone to think these sites were official UCLA sites or that they had our endorsement," Mr. Jasper wrote in an e-mail. "And the presence of ads on the Internet is so ubiquitous now as to be unremarkable."
In particular, some officials said, Internet users are sensitive to the difference between information and advertising. Students probably won't enroll in the wrong college by mistake, said Jay Walterreit, director of public information and marketing at Alpena Community College in Michigan. And there are time constraints.
"We don't even have a Webmaster right now," Mr. Walterreit said. "It's impossible to think we're going to start policing every place that's going to feature information about us." Nevertheless, Mr. Walterreit called the use of Alpena's logo in advertising by CollegeSurfing "misleading" and said he would contact a lawyer.
A college whose name has been used in vain can certainly suffer, added Mark J. Rosenberg, a lawyer at Sills, Cummis, & Gross whose clients include companies seeking to protect their trademarks in search advertising.
"With the Internet, people are lazy, and if they get to the wrong Web site, and it's good enough, they don't leave," he said. "They don't do another search to get to the right Web site, and that's where there's damage."