I’ve been making money online every year since my first affiliate commission from a web host in 2007. You never forget your first time! But now, I’m wondering, is it getting harder to make money online with Internet Marketing in 2020?
I need to backup and explain …
I’m talking about individuals and small businesses here. How easy is it for normal people – people like you and me – to make money with a laptop and an internet connection?
And, I’m making a comparison between the early years of this century and now because the landscape has changed massively since I started my entrepreneurial journey.
Making money online in the naughties
The Internet in the early 2000s was very different. It was a more democratic mix of inter-connected websites, some big, some small. It was comparatively easy to set up new websites and get traffic if your content fulfilled a demand.
There was no WordPress, virtually no social media, and Google was a cool new west coast start up.
Midway through the 2000s we had an explosion of blogging and micro-blogging – “web 2.0” or social media was born. But that was nothing …
2007-8 – not just a financial crisis
In many ways, 2007-8 marks the beginning of the modern age of the internet. Many seeds that were sown in this period that have caused cultural shifts that will have repercussions for years to come …
- 2007: iPhone first sold
- Having been bought by Google in 2006, YouTube launches advertising in 2007
- 2007: Twitter launched. GitHub, Android, and AirBnB appeared, and the “API era” started growing fast.
- 2008: Facebook goes worldwide
- 2008: Bitcoin invented
- Software, networking, and storage all melded together into what we call “the cloud.” Google Office/Drive starts up.
So the old distributed, accessible, open web is starting to be broken down into a series of centralized “walled gardens”. A few large monopolies are starting to dominate access to the world’s information while more and more people access the web via mobile devices.
2010s onward – further consolidation of monopolies
Amazon goes from selling books to selling everything to everybody. In 2010 the company had 12 fulfillment centers in the US and 8 in other countries. By the end of the decade, it has over 75 fulfillment centers in the US and 52 in India alone.
In 2011-2, Google, with their Panda and Penguin updates, moved from being a search engine for the democratic web and instead started favoring only big websites and themselves in search results. So much so that now less than half of all searches on Google result in a click away from Google.
In 2016, Glen Allsopp showed how Google returns sites from just 16 companies in all the most popular online searches.
During the 2010s, Facebook added more than 2 billion new users. It has over 2.45 billion monthly active users as of the third quarter of 2019. Very nearly one in every three human beings on earth has a Facebook account.
From a distributed, accessible web to walled gardens
The Internet goes from a more democratic, distributed collection of interconnected websites to a larger beast increasingly controlled by a few huge tech giants. You may think that this makes it harder for the independent entrepreneur to make money.
Twenty years ago, online marketing was a very young industry. With the advent of the Internet and social media, suddenly there were a plethora of new ways to reach a market.
When new industries are in their infancy, they provide the most fertile conditions for entrepreneurs.
Back then, larger companies didn’t understand the online world and it was easy for Internet-savvy smaller businesses to reach audiences and niches that traditional industries couldn’t.
Fast forward to 2020, and all the big brands now understand the Internet. They all have huge social media departments, online policies, and they’ve now got years of experience in researching and accessing their audiences online.
Whereas before, an entrepreneur could enter a market purely with good marketing. However, now, in 2020, the solo entrepreneur needs to compete with the big brands on all fronts. We need:
- Content marketing strategy: regular and consistent high quality textual and video content
- A social strategy that churns out that high quality content regularly and consistently throughout all the relevant social media channels
- Great customer relationship management: audience on-boarding, funnels, and sequences
- And if all that wasn’t enough, don’t forget we also need a great product!
In the past you could get away with not doing all of the above, as long as you did some of the above really well. Now you have to do everything really well: great marketing, great audience retention, great product, (and, hopefully, low competition!)
But all is not lost!
I’m the last person to be negative, particularly about entrepreneurship.
If you are an entrepreneur, you are positive. It’s impossible otherwise.
Everything changes. There will always be new industries, new media channels, new trends, new products, and new markets to provide opportunities for entrepreneurs.
However, it may be that at the moment, too many online entrepreneurs are looking at the same areas: print on demand, Amazon businesses, selling digital products online, drop shipping, SaaS, etc. All these businesses are being squeezed by the tech giants, leaving a smaller slice of the pie for a growing entrepreneurial class to fight over.
There will be new opportunities. They will be in emerging industries – just as Internet Marketing was in its infancy 15-20 years ago, other industries are in their infancy now: machine learning / AI, blockchain, big data, 5G, clean energy, etc. Unfortunately, I can’t see an “in” to these particular industries at the moment, they are too capital intensive and I don’t have any skills to help me.
So, what do you think?
Do you agree with me that Internet Marketing gives us less opportunities than before? Or do you think I’m being needlessly negative?
I don’t want to sound negative. There will always be amazing opportunities for people with either luck, time, or intelligence to find them.
So I’ll keep looking.
Anil Kumar says
Thank you for sharing the post.
Rob Cubbon says
Some shocking but probably not that surprising stats about how Google has undemocratized the web!
I really want to start making money online in 2020 (not from freelancing) but like you say, it seems like everything has moved on a lot over the last few years.
If you had to start from scratch today, and had to start making money online all over again, in a passive way (not freelancing) what would you do, Rob?
Would you try and build a platform via blogging to promote your personal brand and then sell off of that?
Or do a non-personal affiliate monetized blog?
Or try and learn the skills to make an app, saas, AI-powered drone seagull extermination service, etc?
Rob Cubbon says
Hey Joe, thank you for your comment again!
The last thing I want to do with this article is put people off. Yes, Google is a monopoly and therefore is a force for exclusion and dictatorship on the web. But that doesn’t mean the opportunities for online solo entrepreneurs are disappearing. But it does mean that they’re moving and we have to find new ones but they will be there because large monopolies will leave little niche markets alone in pursuit of bigger and bigger ones!
And, yes, a really good question about what I’d do now. This is another one of my problems. I have a good website with good links and good authority and I used to talk a lot about how other people can build a website like this now. I can’t say that anymore because I think it’s a lot harder to build an authority site now.
So, I would say that YouTube seems a bit easier now. When I look at my business, YouTube is almost as important to me as my website and it took less work. I’ve certainly seen lots of newbies on YouTube rack up impressive audiences in very little time. So, it’s my guess that YouTube would be easier to get off the ground than a site now. But I would still do both.
I was really taken with the explanations in this article: Credit cycles used to drive the economy – now it’s disruption by Simon Freakley, Chief Executive Officer, AlixPartners, in the World Economic Forum’s website.
“Consumers are bombarded by an overwhelming amount of information, much of it conflicting and seemingly irreconcilable. Individuals want clarity, ease, and certainty in filtering this overload of choice. Trust, built through perceived shared values, becomes a prerequisite to clarifying their options…”
Food for thought.
That’s an interesting take on YouTube. I couldn’t face getting in front of the camera though!
As it’s the start of the decade (a random point in time admittedly) I’ve been thinking about how I’d like to be making money in 10 years time.
I think I’m too stuck in the past though as all I can think of is building some sort of niche authority site with the goal of ranking in Google…..
Also, I take it you are in contact with other people that are making money online, earning good amounts, with established businesses.
What are they saying about the future? Especially those making money from websites, affiliate links, and selling products via their own websites?
Rob Cubbon says
Yes. And no. Some people are agreeing with me; others have whole other experiences. The situation is very fluid. My business has never been the same from one year to the next, I pivoted, made money from new ventures while money from other things dried up. Everyone else is like that. It’s difficult to generalise like this about online business from the last 15 years, so a lot of people will disagree with me. Rightly so.
Rob Cubbon says
Hi Joe, this is why I was kinda worried about writing this article. I haven’t actually shared it with the list yet because I’m a little embarrassed about it. Obviously, I’ve always tried to encourage entrepreneurs through my website and this goes against that somewhat. Who’s to say some sort of niche authority site isn’t the right thing for you? Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. It’s certainly harder to do but certainly still possible. If you were going to be enthusiastic about that niche for the next 10 years then that would be right for you. But other people have done it so why can’t you.
It’s tricky to think about, I know. I have these thoughts all the time! 🙂
A well written and thoughtful article. Thanks Rob.
One message remains true however : the large companies still need content to be created and more and more of them are turning to the entrepreneurs to provide that.
Take Skillshare and Udemy for example – their content is largely dependent upon individuals’ creativity (although Skillshare is somewhat disingenuous at times, favouring its own in-house content).
KDP, though saturated, still remains a platform for anyone to publish to and my hope is that the low-quality content creators will lose interest as their ROI becomes lower and lower. I’m going to continue to hone my niche selection skills to try to get an increased return this year, supported by marketing outside the platform.
More and more creatives are turning to Etsy and Gumroad to distribute their digital products (which is a route I’m investigating as a possible new venture in 2020).
Perhaps YouTube (sorry… Google, I know) offers the greatest opportunity right now? Creating enough content to build a subscriber base so that you can reach the monetising tier is a route many have taken and continue to take. Personally, I’ve started using it to support my blog and improve my image editing skills so I can build a quality Udemy course.
There will always be ways.
Rob Cubbon says
A well-written and thoughtful comment as always, Phil. And, as you know, I’ve invested a considerable amount of time and content on all these platforms: Etsy, Gumroad, Udemy, Skillshare, KDP and Merch. And it’s true, these platforms all provide opportunities for the solo entrepreneur. But all these platforms have one thing in common: they hold all the data, and by contributing to them, we give them even more data that they’re not going to share with us.
And that’s not to say I’m gonna suddenly give up on KDP or Merch (I’ve given up on Udemy and Skillshare but that’s because I’m lucky I have a site and YouTube channel that’ll ensure organic sales of my courses).
Yes, as I explained to Joe above, I think YouTube represents a better opportunity nowadays to build an audience than a website does. And I’m sure YouTube would be a good move for you, Phil.
There will always be ways.
There will always be change.
Kevin LJ says
Good article, thanks.
I think the proliferation of individuals seeking to make money online also has an effect on how much more challenging it’s become to do so.
I started selling stock photos online in 2007. Back then there wasn’t that much competition. Not many people (by comparison to now) were uploading photos and there was only a handful of stock photo agencies. The market is now overstocked with photos and it’s much more difficult to make a buck out of because so many individuals now submit photos.
We know that earning money online is a great way of making a living. So do millions of others.
Rob Cubbon says
Hey Kevin, good to hear from you. Online business from 10 years ago looks easier from here. Again, I don’t want to be negative. There are still opportunities. We’ve just got to look for them elsewhere.
Phillip Dews says
Hi Rob, Interesting thoughts here fella, thanks for sharing.
I like to think that we are living in the greatest time of our lives (Although I loved the 90’s with Brit pop and a fresh new political party. What a time that was with the music and festivals). However now there is a greater disparity between different groups of people for instance lets take a look at Greta Thunberg and Donald Trump.
The disparity between the rich and the poor as well has grown further apart especially over the past twenty or so years, Walking round my home city of Birmingham it breaks my heart to see so many more homeless when there are so many more billionaires living at the same time. Anyway I digress.
Our standard of living is so much better now than say twenty, thirty and forty years ago. A side effect of that is that people have become lazy and believe they are owed a living. This generation I believe are less happy than say we was in the 90’s, just look at the difference between us attending raves in the 90’s and young adults today. Anyway I digress yet again.
Making money in the 2020’s, Yep its a lot more difficult and the advice a few years ago was to start a business about what your passionate about. for instance starting a blog about your passions and what you love.
The problem with that though I believe is that everyone is churning out the same stuff and the world wide web is getting diluted with the same crappy rubbish just being rehashed. For me though I still believe that blogging still has a future (as well as my main business of web design and development)
I think that people need to change the way they blog and write about things they like to change, maybe get angry about.
For instance, as a web developer of over a decade I have a love/hate relationship with web hosting companies. For years I have had to deal with the likes of Bluehost and EIG who overcharge and under deliver for their clients. Shared hosting is ok for small blogs and websites but for me who demand better hardware and software then a VPS is the way forward.
The problem with VPS and Dedicated is that those solutions cost a lot more than Shared hosting. There is however a solution and that is use Amazon AWS, but for that you need to build it yourself and there is no support.
When building my own for my blog it took me the best part of a week and now it’s finally working perfectly. I have to destroy the server four times and open and search for many different blog posts. There was no centralized blog or post that dealt with all of the aspects of building your own VPS on Amazon which is what i am now writing about.
Yes I made plenty of mistakes and I am sure I will make plenty more by building a CDN for the site but hey thats how we learn.
My main source of income is still web design and development and I am now dipping my toes into crypto.com (Just waiting on my card to arrive and am looking forward to that as have made seventy quid already from my investment). But writing about something that I want to change I think is a better way to blog and build a brand.
Destroying my server four times and having 8 different blog posts open in tabs to build the perfect server on Ubuntu 18.04, with the latest Apache web server software and php7.4 with HTTP/2, Using the complex VSFTPD is still causing me issues but hey thats how we learn and thats what i want to pass onto other blog and website owners who are fed up of paying over the odds for a crappy hosting service that underdeliver with degrading hardware and software and crappy customer service.
Phew that was a ramble hey mate? Was good to be here.
Rob Cubbon says
Wonderful stream of consciousness, Phil. I couldn’t add to that.
When you’ve been in business and working for a few decades, it gives you a different perspective. And it’s easy to see younger people make the same mistakes as you did.
Maybe kids are less satisfied today that we were. I don’t know because I was dissatisfied in the 90s. I was working for other people and aimless, I don’t have the same memories as you did interestingly enough. I was dissatisfied then.
The gap between rich and poor is now wider than it was at any point since the 1930s so we’re going to experience some upheavals in the next few years that will have impacts upon our businesses and lives. We’ve got to be ready for that.
I’m now interested in not taking sides. Not apportioning blame or looking for a right and wrong. I’m interested in getting as objective as possible a viewpoint on history as it unfolds. It’s bloody difficult, though!
IP Media says
Thanks for sharing this post, I want to earn money from social media like instagram but i don’t think it will be easy in this competitive phase, Can you give me some better tips on that so that i can start
Rob Cubbon says
Hi, I always say it’s good to start with what you are good at and/or interested in. But I’m getting a lot of questions from people asking, really the same as you, what to do. I’m going to do a post and a video on this shortly.
J Burgess says
This is absolutely spot on! I’ve been an author/marketer of digital products and downloads since about 2006. I can say, hand on heart it’s about 100% harder now than back then. Amazon, eBay, and Facebooks dominance of Googles search engines is absolutely atrocious!!!
Before, they presented opportunities for anyone to make regular sales. NOW, their once accessible, FAIR business models have changed so dramatically: they have become massively greedy parasitical machines, who will pull the plug on your business for any reason they see fit. Their customer service is awful/often robot related answers for vendors!
They are not content anymore for users to pay fees/commissions on sales of their products. They want us all to pay for exposure of our products through extortionate advertising budgets, which means low priced products are no longer viable to sell. For example – Amazon in 2006 had 300,000 eBooks on their site, now it’s 6,000,000. Authors who made it back 2006 really did have it SO MUCH EASIER! Now, without spending huge amounts on Amazons ad programs, visibility is extremely hard to achieve.
Ebay are very SADLY going the same way, and copying Amazons model. They won’t give you exposure unless you pay for it, with regulatory programs and trust badges and monitoring etc. Yet they have, and still do provide a place for unscrupulous FRAUDULENT sellers and dodgy manufactures from the east to flood any market with faulty crap products, that outbid and out-price UK and US based vendors. It is absolutely hypocritical!
Call me a negative conspiracy theorist, but unless you are extremely hardy indeed most people will fail with these platforms, as they are not set up for everyone to achieve, even modest success. In fact, they are now designed to extract huge sums of ad revenue from a hand full of huge spenders.
I’ve done a ton of research and testing on this, and spoken to a lot of fellow authors and product sellers on Ebay: most have operated successful businesses on these platforms for years, and are now struggling; even after making the necessary changes.
Ultimately, it was never a level playing field in the first place, now, there is huge bias towards high budget ad spenders just to gain product discoverability!
It’s the machine that is globalisation taking an even bigger hold. Sellers, vendors and the self-employed can rent a tiny piece of their real estate, but THEY won’t give you exposure unless you pay high price for it!!!
There is a niche for other sites with ethical business practices, that will still make them money whilst facilitating their clients. When they will emerge I just don’t know! But at present, self employed people using any of these platforms that dominate all Googles traffic, are mearly employees by proxy!!!
Rob Cubbon says
I agree with you 110%! Ever larger, greedier, anti-competitive, monopolistic tech giants shape our world. We’re going to have to wait a long time before this situation improves. In fact, it’ll get worse before it gets better.
Jonathan Burgess says
Thanks for the reply Rob. Google should take them in hand! But being equally as corrupt I can see that happening.
The one constant among all of this which never went away is email marketing (Thank god!). They haven’t got their greedy hands on that – YET!
No one wants to admit the out-and-out greed of the aforementioned companies has destroyed hundreds of thousands of businesses. A friend and I were discussing the top issue…
They all want us to pay to be seen, add to that, higher commissions and other costs and it has now become almost impossible to sell a product, be it physical or digital below a certain price. The market for said product dictates the price. If large companies are stacking high/selling cheap we can’t compete.
As an author of info products, I have seen most of the platforms changed beyond recognition in a very negative way towards their own customers. They are literally biting the hand that feeds them and it’s getting worse each year on year.
Artisan and other small businesses are only able to compete in a climate that actually recognises that people, on the whole, are not greedy they just want to make a living. Yet the out-and-out greed of these companies has become so aggressive they were actually called to Capitol Hill a few weeks ago, to discuss their underhand monopolizing corrupt business practices. I’ve had friends who’ve run highly profitable businesses for years wiped out overnight by a combination of Chinese undercutting them beyond profitability on eBay and Amazon actually stealing their supplier and cutting them dead.
They all have websites and mailing lists. Again Amazon and eBay set the price, and they buy for less than anyone else.
Jeff Bezos actually had a (10 billion pound day) recently during the global lockdown. His company, along with Facebooks steal everyone’s data and monopolize the market with other black-hat tactics that have set about destroying destroyed e-commerce.
Anyone who doesn’t find that offensive needs a reality check!
As you state in the above article: it’s not a free market where anyone can compete. It’s a piece of real estate the parasites, on the whole produce nothing, are slicing up a re-distributing a tiny slice of to millions of people.
I’m reasonably savvy and have a background in product creation, and marketing. However, I would now warn people off trying to make a living online as it has become probably the most uneven playing field I have ever seen.
I find it extremely sad that we have come to this point in time. Please someone with ethics, build platform sellers of products can trust to treat them fairly.
Rob Cubbon says
Hello Jonathan, all this is undoubtedly true but I also have to say this has all happened before and will happen again. There have never been perfectly free markets with perfect competition. There has always been rich parasitic monopolies…
John D. Rockefeller was the richest man of his time due to his interests in oil and gas, His companies were eventually broken up by the US government into smaller companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron Corporation, which in turn now will be suffering from competition from renewable energy companies.
The US government is seeking to curtail the monopolistic practices of the tech giants and, yes, the tech giants will lobby, fight back, and do deals with American secret services but they will hopefully be broken up as well. Or they will eventually grow too big and cumbersome and be overtaken by younger more agile companies who will win over their disgruntled customers. And then they in turn will get big and greedy.
OK, so this is the way I see it. And through these cycles there will be opportunities for the solo entrepreneur. Big companies are concentrated on large markets and there should be some opportunities in smaller niches during certain periods. We have to be alert and nimble.
Yes, we agree, basically. But I try not to get too downhearted about it. 🙂
You are soooo right, Mr. Cubbon! Maybe it’s time someone like you, or anyone reading this, to setup and market an onliner like Amazon but undercut. Give them the competition they too need. Lower rates, equal or better service, and with the right advertising which will take a little work and time, hmmm…could we name it “the greaterest internet business takeover of the Century”? Anyway, thank you for the honest insight and I say, let’s put all the timber companies back to work in the paper arena rather than trying to “save” the planet which only, and I mean ONLY, allows the internet companies to prosper while continuing to further reduce the incomes of the paper bussiness ones. The trickery and deceipt, it has to stop!
Rob Cubbon says
Thank you, Kim. There is a solution to this issue. And the solution should be a win-win for all parties involved. I agree with you. But I’m not the right person to set up an Amazon competitor right now.
The main reason for failure to make money online? Very few people have the nessasary skills. The 99% that fail, are cannon fodder for the 1% that do succeed., with guru after internet guru telling them to buy this and that course. They don’t understand sales. Traffic, Funnels, Websites, SEO, and various other techno jargon associated with affiliate marketing. They have no idea what online digital stores are. When you ask someone would they like to make a living online, the answer is yes. When you ask what they would like to do. For the vast majority, they have no idea. That’s the first hurdle. Most don’t get beyond that point. So why not try affiliate marketing? Huhhh. No idea what that is.
It’s a vicious circle. They now have to learn skills that most don’t understand, and if they do. Don’t know how to implement them.
And yes. There is a time issue. People with families can’t just drop whatever they’re doing to go off and make money online. Anyone that thinks that is not living in reality.
Skills are not transferable to the internet as made out. I know plenty of mechanics. I don’t know one who would know how to write an Ebook on the subject in a coherent and interesting way, so people would want to buy their Ebook.
It’s a joke. “Take action” Action to what, when you don’t know how, or what you want to do.
As stated. It is virtually impossible to make money online. Apart from the 99%. Who are the product for the 1%.
I’ve yet to find anyone prepared to put their money where their mouth is, and show me where the 99% make the majority, and the 1% don’t.
Thank you. This is what i need, a realistic look on current reality instead of endless talks of dreams. I had a monetized YouTube account once, i just got approved by YouTube because i met the minimum watch hours and viewers. Shortly, however, YouTube changed their rules than creators must at least have 1K subscribers. It was so much more difficult for me to build subscribers rather than viewers and i know the channel was in its infancy. But that move by YouTube was enough to destroy my will to create and so to this day i no longer see the point in making YouTube content. The competition is just too much for me, so this is a very personal take on the matter. I also see the change in blogging. I used to simply create great content and people would read my works. Now, I need to constantly promote my works online because the niche has already been taken by big media…