Two weeks ago, The Verge profiled scams and schemes that pitch “Internet Marketing” as a fast way to make money online. Its Scamworld article is well worth reading by anyone, a warning that many need. I’m sorry that I didn’t focus on this important message initially rather than spark a debate over what exactly “Internet Marketing” is, when the story first came out.
I was wrong in doing that, and I regret if it somehow added legitimacy to the types of programs that The Verge’s article highlighted. That was never my intent.
There is indeed a long-standing practice of “Internet Marketing” that has nothing to do with the “make money online” programs covered in Scamworld. I sought to defend those doing this type of internet marketing from being mischaracterized as scammers. But that shouldn’t have been what I led with, when I initially wrote about The Verge’s profile. Spreading warnings about the scams that are out there is much more important.
In this post, I’ll try to make up for that initial error. I’ll cover more about what The Verge focused on, adding some of my own thoughts. I’ll also explain a bit more about why I had the initial reaction I did, not to defend that but to give some perspective and perhaps ways forward for those involved with internet marketing as a profession, rather than as a make-money-fast scheme.
The Scamworld Article
The Verge’s article by Joseph Flatley came out on May 10. It’s long, and if you can’t take the time to read it, I’d encourage at least watching the 15 minutes video that goes along with it. It’ll help educate anyone about some of the warning signs to consider, if they believe there’s some program on the internet that will magically allow them to make huge piles of money by working from home:
In the video, Jason Jones serves as a guide through the murkiness of these programs. He runs The Salty Droid, a blog that chronicles these types of schemes and scams.
The big takeaway message — and one I agree with — is this. Anything promising that you’ll make hundreds, thousands or millions of dollars easily on the internet, by performing “Internet Marketing,” is to be avoided. Chances are, you’re going to spend money on a program that simply helps someone else earn hundreds or thousands of dollars off of you.
This should be common sense advice. Schemes and scams of this nature aren’t new. When I was a kid 40 years ago, “pyramid schemes” where all the rage and what people warned against. I’m not sure when the term “multilevel marketing” came into being, but those types of programs today offering to make people money by recruiting others have all the same type of cautions. Indeed, I was just reading a Mother Jones article profiling various MLM programs out there that reminded me of the “Internet Marketing” schemes that Scamworld documents.
You Don’t Get Rich Quick
Unfortunately, avoiding get-rich-schemes clearly isn’t common sense. If it were, these types of programs on-and-off the internet wouldn’t have been gathering victims for decades. There are vulnerable people. Desperate people. People who even when they know they should know better still make dumb mistakes. So spreading the warnings far-and-wide always remains worthwhile. No one’s going to make you get rich quick. If it were that easy, we’d all be rich.
Yes, people can earn money from the internet. Major companies do it, because they’ve taken their real companies with real products and services online. Small companies can do it for the same reason: they’ve got real products and services. Some companies have started entirely off the internet, the Zappos or the Amazons or yes, even the Facebooks out there. But these internet-based companies don’t have stories where the founders got their start by plunking down $2,000 for some work-from-home course.
Yes, some people earn money from the internet working from home. Amazon wouldn’t have gotten California to drop its demands to collect sales tax (at least temporarily) without the pressure of pulling the plug on those 10,000 or more affiliates, some of whom earned by running blogs with affiliate links or carrying ads or affiliate offers from other companies.
However, the Amazon move showed just how vulnerable these same people can be, if they build a business of selling other people’s products and services rather than their own, rather than being a “real” business.
Complaints about small businesses being hard-hit after Google’s Penguin Update illustrate the same. If you’re not offering a product and service that’s unique, that has real value, that is actually your original work rather than the repurposed content of someone else, that’s a dangerous ground to trod.
If it were that easy, everyone would be rich, working the 4-hour work week from home. If it were that easy, no one would be asking you to put money down. They wouldn’t need your money in the first place. So be wary of any program pitching you “Internet Marketing” as some type of easy-way-to-riches or work-at-home solution.
The Other Internet Marketing
What about “Internet Marketing” as a profession, as a legitimate industry that I was worried would be hurt because The Verge’s article didn’t initially acknowledge that it even existed?
It does exist, but it’s tied to real products or services. This type of Internet Marketing goes back at least to 1994, long before some of the schemes that Scamworld profiles seemed to have begun using the term “Internet Marketing.”
Case in point: Glenn Fleishman’s “Internet Marketing Mailing List,” a free email list that ran from 1994-1996. Subscribers (I was one of them) tried to figure out how to market actual businesses on the then new internet. Questions on web design, handling credit card transactions, dealing with ads, should URLs be promoted with or without a WWW prefix were among some of the topics.
Since that time, plenty of people and companies have used “Internet Marketing” as an umbrella term for marketing real companies, products and services via the internet, through methods that range from SEO to display advertising. eBay currently seeks an internet marketing manager, for instance, and that position has nothing to do with trying to pitch people through a boiler-room type of operation.
How Did Internet Marketing Get Co-opted?
If there’s a legitimate internet marketing space, how did all these schemes turn up to seemingly take over the search results for that term? And more important, how can people distinguish between the two, so they don’t become vulnerable to some scam?
I’m not sure when the type of programs that Scamworld describes began positioning themselves as “Internet Marketing.” It seems to date from 2008 onward. There’s no doubt that many of these programs do use that term. But that they do was news to me, something I learned from the Scamworld article.
How could I not have known, as one person asked after my initial article? I really didn’t, and my best explanation is that it’s probably for the same reason why Flatley, who wrote the Scamworld article, didn’t mention anything at all about the type of internet marketing that I am familiar with, the legit kind. These are two completely different spaces that don’t necessarily cross-over.
I write about — and Marketing Land covers — news relating to internet marketing for those who do it as a profession, either for themselves or on an agency relationship with real businesses.
We have some limited coverage of affiliate marketing, but the focus of this site and my writing in general isn’t for people who are seeking a home-based business to make money fast. It’s for people who are involved in actual businesses that generally don’t entirely depend on the internet. Internet marketing is just part of what they do.
Internet Marketing as a get-rich-quick type of activity just hasn’t registered for me. It also hasn’t registered in my search results, and it still doesn’t. Consider these results from today when I searched on Google for internet marketing:
There are two results with big arrows that are directly pitching internet marketing as some money making exercise. A third site with a smaller arrow is the same type of pitch, but you don’t know this from the description itself. The vast majority of these results are about internet marketing at some type of general activity. You’ve even got the University Of California’s Irvine campus offering a certificate in internet marketing, a certificate that has nothing to do with boiler-room operations.
I think some people see their results seemingly dominated by Internet Marketing schemes because Google’s personalized search is in operation. Even if you’re not signed-in, as long as you haven’t cleared your cookies, Google will boost some sites to the top of your results if you’ve been to them before.
What I’m showing above are unpersonalized results, with the exception that they’re tailored to my geographic location. My personalized results are very similar, not dominated by money-making schemes, and that’s because I don’t go to those types of sites. But those who do, they’re going to come away with the perspective that everyone sees listings with those schemes, if they don’t understand that their results are personalized.
However It Happened, What’s Next?
I hope the above explains why I and some others who have been involved with internet marketing would have been surprised to read of these programs calling themselves “Internet Marketing” in The Verge article. When I saw that, as I said, my reaction was a mistake. I ran to defend the type of internet marketing that I know, rather than more appropriately sounding the alarm that there’s a type of internet marketing that should be avoided.
In part, my reaction may have come from having had so many scars trying to defend SEO against being positioned as snake-oil. When mainstream sources from Fox News to BusinessWeek to even Dexter slam SEO as crap, when it’s not, seeing The Verge article initially suggest that all Internet Marketing was snake-oil gave me a “Oh no, here we go again” feeling.
But given that these types of programs are out there, have clearly assumed the “Internet Marketing” name, what can be done? That’s something Joshua Topolsky, editor-in-chief of The Verge, asked me when I talked on the Vergecast podcast after Scamworld came out.
As I said at the time, I was still digesting that this term had even been co-opted at all. But having had time to think, one way that those involved with internet marketing as a profession fight back against the problem is through education. That involves reaching out to places like The Verge itself, just doing it in a far less hostile manner as I did and shouldn’t have done.
Lessons From SEO
But believe me, as someone who has tried to fight the good fight for good SEO, education as a fix for a reputation mess is probably a losing battle.
I’ve largely given up trying to correct mainstream misconceptions about SEO these days. I don’t have the energy. It sad that SEOs who do the best practice things that even Google advises have to take the heat for every crappy blog spammer out there who bought some program and wants to claim that they’re an SEO too.
In the end, I figure those seeking good SEOs will find them, and the good SEOs who have survived the constant cries that SEO is dead for nearly two decades now will carry on doing good work.
Nor is there any unified SEO industry that can just rise up to magically fix things, any more than there’s some unified blogging industry that’s can rise us to stop all those splogs that steal content. SEO does have one major industry body, SEMPO. But I’ve never seen it to anything significant to counter misconceptions of SEO that are out there.
With those lessons from the SEO space, when I look to the broader internet marketing space, I’m not filled with optimism that there’s going to be any industry effort to fight back against the co-opting of the term “internet marketing” by the types of programs Scamworld profiled.
I don’t think universities teaching internet marketing even understand the type of programs that Scamworld covered exist or should be addressed.
I don’t think those who practice internet marketing as I know it see a problem, because they are serving completely different people — their own companies or clients, stakeholders who didn’t engage them believing they were going to get-rich-quick.
I don’t think there’s any strong Internet Marketing industry body to help. Consider those search results above. The Internet Marketing Association was listed fifth, an organization apparently founded in 2001 to promote internet marketing.
That site lists member companies and sponsors ranging from Panasonic, Adobe, HP, Costco, Disneyland and Google. But if they’ve done anything to fight internet marketing scams like Scamworld profiled, I’m not finding it. Nor am I expecting much from that group after reading the IMA’s article on reputation management, telling people to use “spinning” software that I know Google would recommend against.
No, I’m not optimistic there’s going to be some industry-wide effort to stamp things out. But that’s not to say that there aren’t things that can and should be done.
For one, I’m going to shift away from using “internet marketing” as a term. It’s one of three nearly co-equal umbrella terms for a range of marketing activities, along with “online marketing” and “digital marketing.”
I like digital marketing myself and intend to use that more and more going forward. Perhaps that will escape being co-opted and distinguish that work from the type of “Internet Marketing” programs described in the Scamworld article.
Also, in the Scamworld video, Jones says:
If legit people on the internet banded together and tried to do something, try to help stop all these old ladies from getting screwed, it would make a huge differnce, probably even a bigger difference than the government getting involved.
People can band together. If you’re considering pitching one of these programs to others, think hard. Is that really how you want to earn your money?
As for those not involved with these programs, but who are involved with the traditional internet marketing, spread the word. It’s simple. There’s no get-rich-quick way to making money online, any more than there’s any get-rich way of making money offline. If someone gets a pitch like that, they should walk in the opposite direction. Fast.
- The Name Game: Does SEM = Paid Search? Does Search + Social = Inbound Marketing?
- Thoughts On Web Developers, SEO & Reputation Problems
- SEO Is Here To Stay, It Will Never Die