If you’ve ever decided to buy a puppy, you’ve surely encountered the scourge of ‘puppy mills’, whereby unscrupulous individuals breed litters of adorable puppies. These puppy mills are typically characterized by accelerated breeding and inhumane conditions. All in the name of making a quick buck. 

But have you heard of Research Mills? Well, they’re not all that different.

Except instead of churning out adorable puppies by the dozen every couple of months, Research Mills churn out market research reports. And not by the dozen, more like by the hundreds.

Market research firms have been around for more than a century now, serving practically every industry and providing a valuable service to business leaders who rely on such research to guide and support their decisions. In the realm of enterprise technology, firms like Gartner, Forrester, IDC, and dozens of smaller boutique firms employ industry analysts who typically have decades of hands-on experience and specific domain expertise, for which technology vendors pay hefty annual fees.

For reasons which I can only speculate – which of course, I will – about five years ago, dozens upon dozens of highly questionable ‘market research’ firms started appearing online, offering tech marketers market forecasts, market outlooks, and a bevy of other industry-specific reports in an a la carte fashion (unlike conventional research firms which require an annual subscription and typically don’t sell reports in a one-off fashion).

And then one day, something weird caught my eye on Google and down the rabbit hole I went…

Back to the Future: The Global Time Travel Market

If you regularly use Google News alerts as I do as a way to track topics and companies, you’ve no doubt seen these ‘research reports’ pop into your feed on an increasing basis. Usually, I’ll just glance at them, hit delete and forget all about it. However, a couple of months back, this oddly titled report came across my Google News feed for my former employer, iovation:

As iovation’s Director of Brand & Communications, I was quite familiar with their suite of fraud prevention and authentication solutions. So you can imagine my surprise (and delight!) when I saw that they had expanded their product line to include… TIME TRAVEL!

So, being the curious fellow that I am, I clicked through to the landing page for the “Global Time Travel Machine Market Forecast 2019 – 2025” and read the following report summary with an odd combination of befuddlement, bewilderment, and bemusement:

A speculative gadget known as a time machine? Uncommon relativity? Einstein-Rosen spans AND wormholes?

I. HAVE. SO. MANY. QUESTIONS!

So without a moment’s hesitation, I quickly dashed off an inquiry to The Research Insights alias asking if I might preview a sample from the Global Time Travel Machine Market report, and a gentleman named Pratik H. promptly wrote back:

$3,300 bucks. Yikes. I informed Pratik that I would need to see a sample from the report before biting the time machine bullet. A couple of days passed and it’s nothing but crickets from Pratik. I send a gentle nudge a week later and alas, I get this vapor-ific response:

As you might imagine, I was crestfallen upon receiving the news that there is neither a market for time travel machines nor do they actually exist. But rather than grow despondent about my inability to time travel through wormholes like Matthew McConaughey, I decided to instead soothe myself with some maniacal Googling.

Welcome to Pune, India: The Birthplace of ‘Research Mills’

In less than 20 minutes of furious Googling, I discovered a dozen separate websites that were eerily similar to The Research Insights. They all possessed generic names (Market Study Report, Market Research Future, and my personal favorite, Transparency Market Research), similar website design elements, identical a la carte pricing models, and, they were all headquartered in the sprawling city of Pune tucked away in the western Indian state of Maharashtra. Here’s the result of the first 12 firms that I found:

1. Advance Market Analytics

2. HTF Market Report

3. Market Study Report

4. Transparency Market Research

5. DEC Market Research

6. GMI Insights

7. Market Research Future

8. imarc Group

9.  Industry Research

10.  Marketing Insight Reports

11.  Quadrant Solutions

12.  Reports and Data

Via Wikipedia, I learned all sorts of fun facts about Pune. Pune is known for the grand Aga Khan Palace, built-in 1892 and is now a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi. It’s also globally famous – or notorious, for the ashram founded by the late guru/cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the subject of one of my all-time favorite documentaries, Wild Wild Country

And of greater relevance to this story, Pune has also become known as the ‘Oxford of the East’ due to the “presence of several well-known educational institutions has emerged as a major educational hub in recent decades.”

Whether there are indeed dozens of companies applying the identical strategy or just a handful replicating the same framework across numerous domains, one thing for certain is that they are effective in leveraging a variety of strategies to blanket the web with their reports. These Research Mill domains also appear to be connected to a number of dubious news aggregation sites that get indexed by Google News. 

Like the Research Mill sites referenced above, these “news” sites — InstantTechNews, Newsparent, NYSENASDAQLIVE, and this inexplicable gem,  JewishLifeNews — are cookie-cutter templatized sites that are built for the singular purpose of being indexed by Google in order to amplify organic search results. You would think Google would recognize this and be able to suppress these sites but for whatever reason, this shady ecosystem seems, like the universe itself, only to be expanding.

Decoding the Telltale Signs of a Research Mill

My first reaction when visiting one of these sites is to wonder who is actually buying these reports? But of course, enough people must be buying them for there to be so many of these sites.

So if you are seeking market research (or receive an inquiry from a suspect firm you’ve never heard of), what are some of the telltale signs you should look for to determine if it is, in fact, a research mill? Here are a few quick things to look out for as you do your due diligence:

  • Analyst Bios: Legitimate market research firms will include full bios for all their research analysts that demonstrate their respective areas of expertise and other bonafides. If you can’t find the name of a specific analyst, that should be a clear signal that something is amiss. 
  • Corporate Mailing Address: Legit market research firms will clearly list their corporate mailing address on their site. If something seems off about the address, do a quick Google search to see if the address matches a real corporate address.
  • Business Model: If the entire site revolves around individual reports available for purchase, that’s also a pretty good indicator that both the content and the firm itself is highly questionable.
  • No Industry Focus: Does the firm in question list research reports for every industry imaginable — from cosmetic skincare and crockpots to heavy machinery? If so, move along. 
  • Social Presence: It’s always a good idea to cross-reference the firm’s LinkedIn page with what’s on their site to see if basic information matches up. 

Market research can be an incredibly valuable source of intelligence for tech marketers and business leaders. But what these Research Mills are peddling should not be conflated with what most business leaders would qualify as independent, rigorous, and analytically driven market research. 

And if you have purchased research from one of these firms, I’d love to hear from you so drop me a line!

Evan balances his time between scheming up client service initiatives, talking hacks and zero days with cybersecurity clients and serving as the agency's de facto CISO.

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