Internet marketing and the gold rush mentality

Ian Lurie

I’m a huge fan of the now-defunct HBO series Deadwood. It offers a pretty good picture of the gold rush mentality then, and a great comparison to the internet marketing gold rush mentality we’ve got now.
During any gold rush, 6 things happen:

  1. Someone finds gold.
  2. Everyone suddenly believes that which was previously unreachable (unbelievable wealth) is now attainable.
  3. Everyone rushes for the shiny stuff, without learning what’s really involved.
  4. Except for a few people, who aspire to become either Al Swearengen or Seth Bullock (both real people, by the way).
  5. The Al Swearengens make a lot of money, fast, by ripping off one hapless prospector after another. Eventually they die of a massive head wound (historical fact).
  6. The Seth Bullocks make money slowly but steadily, by selling people the tools they need. They become friends with people like Teddy Roosevelt. They die at 70 of horrible wasting diseases. Scratch that last. No connection. Although again, historical fact.

You can pretty much apply this to any ‘gold’ rush, no matter what the ‘gold’ is. And now, 10-15 years after ‘internet’ became a common term, we still have that gold rush mentality.

The internet looks like a gold mine

To most people, the internet looks like a freaking gold mine. Set up a web site and money just starts pouring in – it’ll literally fall out of your computer. No effort required.
And we all think we know someone who struck gold: The friend of a friend who’s independently wealthy after she sold her blog about chia pets; the guy who made a million bucks because he owned “”; your cousin’s wife’s sister who made $10 million selling cialis from her web site.

That which was unattainable is now within reach

Everyone starts to think: Thanks to the internet, I can finally make my millions! Businesses used to have to pay lots of money to place ads in magazines. They had to do silly stuff like have plans and do marketing and write decent copy! But now, I can just put up a web site!

We all rush towards it

So we all run out, buy a copy of FrontPage or Expression Web or whatever the latest web building ‘system’ is. Then we dive in.
A month later, reality starts to set in. Holy crap, this is hard work. What do I do now?

Enter the Al’s and Seth’s

Now everyone has a choice: They can go over to Seth Bullock’s hardware store and buy a solid shovel, a good pickaxe and some gloves. Then they can learn how to look for gold, how to mine it, and how to make money doing it. Step by step. It’s hard work, it’s risky, and it will cost money. No gold lying on the ground, sorry. In internet marketing, this is the equivalent of either learning internet marketing yourself (count on 5 years) or hiring someone who already knows how to do it.
Or, they can go over to Al Swearengen’s place. It looks like a hell of a lot more fun. There’s booze, naughty-looking ladies, music playing, and good old Al will help you out because he likes you. He knows where there’s a huge gold deposit, right over there. In internet marketing, this is the equivalent of hiring someone who guarantees a top 10 result within 30 days, or has a system they call the Google Beater, or something similar. They generally have a lot of big, red letters on their web site.

Internet marketing: The gold rush that ain’t

Most folks hed over to Al’s place, by the way. The SuperNetastic marketing program only costs $300, so why not try it? Beats reading a lot or spending $20,000 on marketing.
Here’s the thing, guys: The internet has lowered the barrier to entry for businesses.
The internet has not lowered the requirements for success.
Get it? Yeah, launching a web site is a lot cheaper than buying space in a magazine. But simply building the site won’t get customers to your door, or establish you as a leader in your industry. Nor will it get you search rankings.
You still have to do the marketing.
You have to write. Test. Research. Network.
You have to pan for gold. For a long time. There are exceptions, of course. There are always exceptions. For every Shoemoney there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, who fell flat on their faces.

I’m not saying ‘give up’

By all means, give it a shot. Just think it through, first. Understand that you’re not going to launch a web site one day and wake up rich the next. You need to understand SEO, PPC, social media, copywriting, design, analytics and basic marketing principles. If you don’t, then you need to find those who do.
The good news: If you keep at it, work with the right people and learn as you go, you’ve got far better odds of success than the average prospector did.

Related: Friday money grubbing edition

Ian Lurie
CEO & Founder

Ian Lurie is CEO and founder of Portent and the EVP of Marketing Services at Clearlink. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). He's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Follow him on Twitter at portentint, and on LinkedIn at

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  1. I’m in a unique position to comment on this blog post because I am a 5th gen Californian whose great-Grandfather x3 got ripped off by John Sutter ( ) in the Gold Rush. Seem like ancient history? It’s not. I’ve got family members who are still pissed off about getting ripped off by John Sutter.
    As an internet marketer, I use the Gold Rush as an analogy all the time to describe the state of the industry.
    Lesson #1: Beware the Snake Oil Salesman
    In the real Gold Rush, the “Al Swearengens” of the world were happy to sell booze. The people you had to look out for were the snake oil salesmen who went house to house selling their “tonic” -mostly made of alcohol – (Ah! The connection to All is complete!) which would cure all kinds of ailments. The lesson here? There is no “one size (or bottle) fits all” cure.
    Lesson #2: Sell Tools to the Miners
    The real money in a gold rush is selling picks and shovels to the gold miners. All the big houses in San Francisco? The people who financed those homes didn’t find gold. They sold picks and shovels to the poor slobs who thought they’d find gold in them thar hills.
    Lesson #3: How to REALLY make Money Mining for Gold
    Move to Alaska. That’s where the gold is…
    Seriously. That’s where the gold is. You just need big bucks capital to invest. Then you can pull the little tiny bits of gold out of the ground. Then you need to build relationships with people you can trust who will buy it and pay their bill. (Not sure where the analogy is in this point but it’s the truth.)

  2. I have to agree with this article – there are so many people who rush in believing they will be rich overnight, like they are being promised by the “Al Swearengens”.
    And, I am sad to admit that I was one of those in the beginning who thought I could just jump into it and I would be doing it too.
    I didn’t even know how to build a website, never mind market it – and yet I STILL fell victim to those who were selling the “get rich quick, with no knowledge required!”
    It is now 4 years later, and I have spent the time learning everything I could – and I know I still have a lot further to go. But at least now, I know that I have the knowledge needed – and I am starting to see it paying off.
    Might not have been the original plan – but I stuck with it long enough that the results are definately worth it.
    I still feel sad when I see the new people who are coming in and feeling that excitement for the “finding gold” right away, knowing that most of them are going to find out the hard way.
    Great article – and you did a good job of tying both gold mining and Internet Marketing together!

  3. I just stumbled on this blog
    Hands down the best article I have read this year. I have been full-time on the Internet for 10 years now and everything you said is 100% correct.
    Talking like this won’t make you popular but it will demonstrate that you have integrity.
    Well done mate!
    Best Regards
    Chris Bloor

  4. Ian it’s so true than many come to the internet to make fast money thinking there is some magic formula where the money just appears in your bank account with no effort on their part.
    They would even rather pay for it than think for themselves and take the road less traveled. They are like sheep all going in the same direction.
    Great post and a good read too.

  5. This is an excellent post! I love the analogy. I’d never thought of the internet that way but it definitely is a gold rush. You can see the herd flocking to the latest hot offer or vertical too… Time to go start creating some new shovels.

  6. This post is pure gold. Unbiased, actual information. I love it.
    Ian, usually with these types of posts I skim through, but this had me from beginning till end. Thanks, and get this out there!

  7. What a fantastic way to look at the internet marketing mentality that has become all too prevalent these days. There are new $2k “Gold Mine” courses coming out every week that do nothing but confuse new internet marketers even more because now they have the “new” hot thing to learn. I urge people to stick to one thing and buy the tools to make it work. Until you can make one thing work, don’t buy anymore “gold mines”.

  8. Ian, I stumbled upon this post after some resentment searching towards crap designers. Being in the business over 12 years I can only hope that they sift out and the experts reign supreme.
    Nice read, now I need to watch Deadwood on Netflix!

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