"We spread organically across the Web, we don't heavily advertise," Aaron said. "Unlike most Web sites, we aren't aggressive in our ad placement."
Another way in which they are unusual: GoCollege.com and CollegeScholarships.org don't collect any information from their users. In January 2009, the Villanuevas will launch a free scholarship search site that also does not require that users submit personal information. The two have vowed to never bombard students with offers from advertisers, such as student loan companies.
"We're Internet junkies -- we see a lot of junk on the Web," Giovanna said. "It's hard for a student to distinguish what is authentic information or what is something that's useful versus a marketing message. We want to keep it real."
Eric Velez, winner of April's $5,000 CollegeNET.com scholarship, earned enough to cover the cost of one semester's tuition at the University of Phoenix where he takes classes online. By posting discussion forums on CollegeNET and commenting in other people's online discussions, Velez received enough votes from his peers to win the top prize, which was dispersed into his financial aid account at college. The second- through fifth-place winners also walked away with money.
These scholarships funds came in particularly handy for Velez, whose family was not only supporting his four other siblings but also paying for Velez's medical bills. About four years ago he was diagnosed with Wegener's granulomatosis, a rare disease that typically affects white people between the ages of 30 and 50. Those who suffer from the condition have inflamed blood vessels that restrict blood flow to the respiratory system, kidneys and lungs.
He took steroids and chemotherapy drugs, and worried about losing his hair.
"That was my first thought," he said. "I'm not going to lose my hair."
He didn't, but paying for school became the next hurdle as he set his sights on a degree in counseling psychology.
"The cost of my medical treatment for my condition has wreaked havoc on my personal finances," Velez said.
He received hospital aid to pay for the $100,000 in medical bills, but was still more than $40,000 in debt and had to declare bankruptcy.
After Velez discovered CollegeNET, he became a regular commentator on the site, essentially creating miniblog posts. Other CollegeNET users voted for his posts, with only one vote allowed for each contestant per month. Velez tried hard to develop a positive reputation, and, as Velez said, "make people realize that you are dynamic."
"When I was competing, I was generating a topic every day," he said of his April win. In one of his most popular posts, called "Pagan Jesus," he suggested that there were Jesus-like figures present throughout mythology. In addition to thinking up captivating discussion topics, Velez began using a smiley face logo with his posts to further distinguish himself from his competitors.
The 24-year-old from Lake Geneva, Wis., figured out early on that the site drew a diverse group. "You have to use a wide net to catch as many fish as possible," he said.
He says the CollegeNET scholarship brought "peace of mind that while, medically, I can be almost financially devastated at any time ... my education is at least protected and aided to prevent it from being affected."