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Make Money Online: Documenting 10 Years of Failure (johnathanward.com)
480 points by johnward on March 20, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 168 comments

The general online audience has matured over the past 10 years, and most people have an excellent filter to avoid clicking ads, which includes affiliate links. You can still monetize a site these days, and make some money while not being sketchy, but it requires approaching it as a service to your users, not as an exploit of your users.

What I mean by this is that whatever your site is, if your audience has a legit interest in specific products, and the next logical step in their personal workflow would be to buy something, go ahead and put in some affiliate links. It makes sense, and everyone gets what they need/desire.

But if you are adding links and talking about products solely because you want those nickels from someone clicking it, you are not helping your audience, and they know it, and they will react accordingly.

I'm somewhat surprised that anyone would have spent 10 years flailing in this arena and not learned that.

> The general online audience has matured over the past 10 years, and most people have an excellent filter to avoid clicking ads, which includes affiliate links.

I would disagree. I've found a lot of people - especially in tech - have this mindset. The opposite is true, most notably due to the success of giants like Facebook (for people clicking on ads) and huge affiliates like RetailMeNot (a public company).

The difference is that the most successful affiliates have realized the right call to action is _value_ (for white hat) or that they can use the "magic pill" (for black hat), and as such the market has changed drastically.

> But if you are adding links and talking about products solely because you want those nickels from someone clicking it, you are not helping your audience, and they know it, and they will react accordingly.

Why does wanting the commission also entail not helping your audience? You're making a conclusion that isn't valid here because you assume that 100% of affiliate links (because they are placed to earn money) add no value for the visitor. Smart affiliates know that if you want the commission, you have to make it valuable.

> Why does wanting the commission also entail not helping your audience? You're making a conclusion that isn't valid here because you assume that 100% of affiliate links (because they are placed to earn money) add no value for the visitor. Smart affiliates know that if you want the commission, you have to make it valuable.

I think you may have accidentally skipped this part from codingdave's comment:

>>> What I mean by this is that whatever your site is, if your audience has a legit interest in specific products, and the next logical step in their personal workflow would be to buy something, go ahead and put in some affiliate links. It makes sense, and everyone gets what they need/desire.

Good point. I didn't read that right. Thanks!

I'm one of those people who has approached content creation strictly "as a service to your users, not as an exploit of your users." All of my blog posts are very carefully researched, in-depth guides, sometimes literally taking over 100 hours of research and writing for a single post.

I made very little money for years and had just about given up until Panda 4.1 and Penguin 3.0. Since then, when I write well, Google is sending traffic my way, and my traffic and income have been steadily increasing by 20%-30%/month. I now have the incentive to keep adding more high quality content to my blog.

Prior to these Panda/Penguin updates (Sep/Oct 2014), I can totally understand why so many attempted to do what the author did. It made more money. Even if Google algorithm changes or Affiliate changes shut you down, jumping to the next thing seemed to work.

Hopefully Google is ahead of the curve once and for all, providing greater incentive to create great content than game the system.

I've had the opposite experience with my blog; as I've increased the amount of original research and writing in my posts, I've seen traffic steadily decline over roughly the same period.

The conventional wisdom with blogs has always been that the way to success is more frequent short posts rather than less frequent long ones, and that still seems to be the case. I don't really care much, since I don't run ads and my goal for my blog has never been to capture a large audience anyway, but more readers would always feel better than less.

Out of curiosity I poked around on your site and did some test searches using words similar but not identical to some of your titles. I did this just on articles I thought people might actually be looking for and that are over 1500 words. For example:

heartbleed bug what you need to know

Your post (http://jasonlefkowitz.net/2014/04/the-heartbleed-bug-what-no...) was buried. I gave up looking for it after the first 6 pages of google results.

I'm not sure why you're ranking so badly for this article. The only idea I have off the top of my head is that you have a very wide variety of content. Google tends to prefer sites focused on one topic, or perhaps just a few.

I never wrote about youth baseball on my blog until last year. The first 2 articles I wrote got virtually no traffic from Google for 8 months. A couple months ago I started writing more in depth articles about baseball. I'm now getting a significant amount of Google traffic for those same two articles - one of them is over 10 visits a day. That's still pretty small compared to my blockbuster posts (my top post on best browsers gets hundreds of visits per day). But baseball is growing, because Google is (algorithmically) beginning to believe that I'm some kind of authority on youth baseball, based on a growing concentration of quality content.

So - my guess is that you would get more traffic if you wrote about fewer topics - or perhaps split into several blogs, each with different topics. I should probably do that as my various tech topics have nothing to do with baseball.

Yeah, it's the curse of the generalist. My interests are so catholic that my blog ends up being about everything, which means as far as Google is concerned it's about nothing.

That's sounds pretty in-depth for free advice!

I have had the same experience...without the longer articles and additional hours.

...I basically maintain a blog just to keep notes for myself about current things that I am working on. Each post is short and to the point. The titles are not "click bait". I figured that if I needed it someone else might as well and I am leaving it up to the search engines to figure out relevance.

...funny thing is it gets decent traffic and next to 0 on monetization. I allow Google to place ads so that the url rental is free.

Next to no traffic prior to Panda...pretty decent traffic for the topics (some are very specialized and esoteric like a specific bit of code to extract a Sales Order from Quickbooks Enterprise).

This is so encouraging to hear! I'm not much of a writer myself, but I am super happy that Google is able to translate quality into results. Keep it up!

>I'm somewhat surprised that anyone would have spent 10 years flailing in this arena and not learned that.

"I’ve always had some type of entrepreneur trapped inside me. [...] I decided I’ll start a blog and make money via AdSense ads."

This is not the thought process of someone with the competence to know how to learn effectively. It sounds like someone who just wants to be a cog in a money wheel, both learning as little as possible and creating as little value as possible.

It is especially telling that they think their age is somehow relevant in the picture of how much money they are making or what their credit limit is.

The credit limit was about fronting money to grow the business.

Overall I think HN is being too harsh. This is a person taking a rather honest look at himself and giving us a glimpse into his life that also happens to capture an interesting history of the Internet.

My only concern here is that anyone would be surprised that a thought process of "I want to make money -> Let's do whatever is popular" doesn't result in success or production of lasting value.

(A) Everybody and their mothers will think the same thing and

(B) that equation doesn't have any value production in it, and

(C) what happens when the fad dies?

It is a wholly selfish act, and I think it's worth the harshness. Not every mistake is redeemed by a sob story. Some are just not worth making in the first place. (Especially when they are very old and common mistakes.)

It's not coming across as a sob story to me, just more of a reflection and insight on experiences.

> very old and common mistakes

That's human nature and storytelling.

This isn't a sob story. I'm just saying that, in general, "having experiences" is not the same as doing something worthwhile. So if the best one can do to capitalize on a mistake is to say "I learned not to make a mistake after I've already made it," then you've done the very least you could do.

I agree about the harshness here. I'm surprised and a bit disappointed.

Affiliates are often very secretive because the barrier to entry is extremely low, and as such they don't want to reveal what they do or how. That he took that step, even in retrospect, to post it publicly is to be commended. Why not reveal the workings and the lessons he has learned? Let's value it for what it is.

Yea, he was honest! He wasn't hiding in denial. It was one of the better HN links I have read.

I welcome posts like this. What I have read too much of is success/fail stories that leave out the most important details; number one is daddy gave me the money to start my risky business(that business could be anything). Number two is ripping off someone's idea--blatantly(without any remorse, and continue to justify their slimy behavior until they die). It amazes me just how selfish/sadistic some people, even family and friends can be when it comes to money.

I have a successful sister who constantly wonders why her mother and brothers never call--it's beyond pathetic, and she doesn't have a clue to why there's no one left. Actually, she knows, but the denial is thick. We grew up poor, so I know that feeling of desperation, but screwing over people repeatedly--adds up.

I don't know this guy, but at least he was honest. To guy's who don't have a rich family, or a license to steal; if you make money--it seems like late 20's through your thirties, hang on to it. Don't throw it away on living like Rapper. It will eventually dry up for so many of us.

I know it's hard. You have hormones that literally shape your view of reality. Those hormones will go down. That woman you are so trying to impress will change. If you have a fear of death, that fear goes down as you age. I'm not giving advise. I just releate to this guy's financial journey.

I wish I could vote up more than once, that was a solid comment, on par with the post!

And after posting this, the harshness has decreased markedly. This is why HN rules.

That this captures a little spoken about history of the Internet is my main reason for appreciating the article.

Being too harsh? He publicly admitted to using xrumer, I think he deserves whatever criticism he gets.

Yep. This guy takes "get rich quick" to the next level.

In that same time period he could have founded real startups with real products. Instead, he got 10 years of putting his blood, sweat, and tears into bullshit money making schemes.

Founding a real startup with real products also leads to failure most of the time. We just hear about the successes more often on HN.

I would imagine that online 'get rich quick schemes' have an even higher rate of failure than most startups. Perhaps 99.99% versus 90-95%?

With some startups it's hard to distinguish between the two to be honest. I almost feel like the way the media covers startups they are a "get rich quick scheme". What percentage have a successful exit? I don't know. I did hit the startup lottery once as a late hire and got about $8k from the acquisition.

However, I do agree I would have better spent those years thinking about how I could solve people's problems instead preying on their insecurities.

Not all non-get rich quick schemes are startups.

I think what people here are saying is that given the obvious level of effort you (I assume you're the author) put into this, you could have put serious dents in a few patio11/rob walling style saas or other small product businesses. I understand there's money to be made chasing various arbitrages in online advertising, but those get plugged over time. Plus a product business would make me feel better about what I spend all day doing.

Maybe you're right. I really don't think I have the skills pull off something like that.

Walling's book start small, stay small may help you get started. Amy Hoy talks about this a bunch; she runs a paid course but also has a ton of free content. You should check them out.

I've also read about people making serious money from advertising; it seems like the time investment to understand all that stuff is big enough that it could help you understand a small business instead.

I've gone through 30x500 which is kind of what shifted my focus to products. I haven't really taken any action with that yet though but it seems to work for some others.

I dunno, just from reading your blog post I think you showed you have a lot of ingenuity, intelligence, passion, and perseverance- add some good product sense and you have yourself a decent web startup.

Let's separate get-rich-quick from the actual process of making affiliate campaigns, testing and scaling them.

Here's some stats (top-level, very approximate) from my own experience:

* Number of campaigns created & stage 1 testing: 500+ * % to stage 2: ~25% * % from stage 1 to 2: 20% * % from stage 2 to "success": ~50%

In the end, I'd say that roughly 5% of my affiliate campaigns were successful. Success is defined as eventually returning the test budget * 4.

The key was that if I got a campaign to stage 2 I had a very high likelihood of profit. Literally 50% of the stage 2 campaigns became successes (most stage 2's broke even close to it).

Of those successful campaigns, only 10% of them generated 90% of my profits on average. The end result is that ~1% of all the campaigns I made made 90% of the profits, which is quite accurate.

Over the span of 7 years of being a full-time affiliate (excluding the part-time years) 12 campaigns were the main money drivers.

At least he's being honest with himself. I see many posts here about people learning a tiny bit of some programming language, making (IMO) unnecessary products and then looking to cash out / sell out at the first opportunity and move on to the 'next big thing' to do it all again.

I'm not sure that is true. There are always new people entering the internet in still large numbers, and their late adoption usually means they are technically naive. You also have young people becoming adults and sometimes getting their first taste of un censored internet use.

I enjoyed reading this because it's not something you usually see publicized. And as a single data point leads me to believe that there are some people really doing well with these sort of tactics - just not talking about. It's like the blackjack card counters in 1980's and 90's. They were successfully employing a system to pull money from casinos - but weren't talking about it. It was only when the MIT Team started publicly talking about the strategy, that it made it into the open. And that was at the time that the casinos made it not a really viable strategy.

So it seems likely that there are successful strategies for using these affiliate tactics for profit. I know that Wired magazine profiles a few of these people every once in a while. There was a Canadian entrepreneur who was big into the diet pill scheme and made millions (he, too, would fly down to Vegas with friends). And here is a link to another scheme that used scareware:


Oh man, I first learned about affiliate marketing at around 2005, but started seriously doing it in 2006. I made close to $50,000 a month for a good 2.5 years promoting various colon cleansing products. I considered myself lucky because this was actually the first product I chose to promote, and colon cleansing just was about to become "hot". I found out that ranking for terms like "X review" or "X coupon codes" were the money keywords.

In 2008, I then decided to create a coupon site (think RetailMeNot) and scale this thing, and promote all sorts of products by ranking for coupon keywords. I quit my job, but couldn't reproduce that success so turned it into a content farm.

In 2011-2012, I decided to create an online gamification calorie counter, thinking stupidly some big player would acquire it. After a year of muddling success, I just turned it into a glamarous, well designed affiliate site :(... which ironically turned the site into a profitable venture.

Now I'm building a very successful, profitable product in the SEO/content marketing industry. So in a way I'm building the shovel for the gold industry instead of digging for gold like I used to :)

Card counting was hardly top secret until MIT revealed it. Edward Thorpe's "Beat The Dealer" was published in 1962. It did enter a wider phase of popularity in the 80s, especially as easier to follow tactics were worked out.

Like many, I was tempted into these same areas - driven by success stories and my own technical knowledge which fooled me into thinking it would be "easy".

What I found is there's lot of money to be made in... telling people how to make money! Those guys like Shoemaker who have an almost cult following end up making an empire on those in the "pyramid" below them.

Not to say this is shady, just that the real "riches" are in charging people to tell then how ... not in actually practicing what you preach.

To be honest, HN is full of this stuff too

- Double your freelancing

- Guys who create a not-very-well-known startup and then start pushing guides on how to be successful

- Email marketing, write 3 tutorials on topic X to build your list and then spam your ebook.

Don't get me wrong, things are better targeted and less shady. It just feels like people spend more time selling their systems than they do using them. It looks like 'snake oil'.

To be honest, HN is full of this stuff too

Agreed, and some of it (as you mention) is quite ingeniously marketed as well, e.g. pushing a load of free content that occasionally suggests using a certain SaaS app as part of the success strategy.

It just feels like people spend more time selling their systems than they do using them. It looks like 'snake oil'.

I'm not sure that it's always snake oil exactly, more that it's simply easier for these people to make their money training others, especially compared to making money with the systems they're pushing.

There will always be a market for selling people messages that they desperately want to hear.

First you sell the stuff you mine from the ground, then you sell shovels to the miners, then you hire the miners and make them dig stuff out of the ground for you that you sell.

The final stage is selling miners to other mining companies.

The final stage is selling stuff that helps people sell miners to other mining companies.

The final stage is actually owning the mines.

And then selling the mines when they stop producing so much.

This is starting to sound like an incremental game.

The first and the third work though. The first is from Brennan Dunn. Haven't seen him on here in a bit, but I used his program. Really helped improve my tutoring business.

I've actually had to tell some freelancers I use to RAISE their rates, because they were too busy and frazzled. The kind of advice in Brennan's book is something a lot of freelancers need.

The third is probably Patrick Mckenzie. He advice helped me create an email course that is very popular on my site. It's not spam if you write good stuff and people ask for it.

Everyone on my list explicitly signs up to get an email course, and I get tons of excited emails from happy users.

That stuff is popular on Hacker News because a big percent of the audience here genuinely needs help with those problems.

(I agree that the second one can be an issue, if they actually lack expertise. On the other hand, lots of startups are good even though I've never heard of them. It all depends at what level you're giving advice. If you're giving advice about a solo business, you don't need to have founded Facebook)

I like to say that gold rushes make the showel sellers rich, not the gold seekers.


Ramit Sethi does this as well. An info product on how to see info products...

He is an amazing speaker and an even better marketer. But every time I get lulled into signing up for his newsletter I have to unsubscribe after a few months because the amount of self promoting fud is unbearable. But even he admitted that a lot of his readers skip straight to the "buy" link because they like him so much, so I guess the ratio of value to promotion can shift noticeably once you have the audience

in norcal tech lingo it's called "selling shovels to the miners".

I disagree. He probably makes a bit of cash on that but he has a lot of case studies that show legitimate success. He's the kind of guy who explains exactly how he did it as well.

Yes Shoemaker does both well - however beyond the superstars, there's a huge network of "how to make money online" websites/people whos income dwarfs those who are actually practicing the concepts.

This always disturbs me that only a handful people make it big such as Shoemaker while the rest of the population sample barely make ends meet.

I don't know if this has anything to do with some obscure physical law like these phenomenons that best described by a normal/Gaussian distribution or just explained by the probability theory (read: sheer luck) and the success ratio of this magnitude in these "games" or life in general is very slim and thus people should not get that excited to imitate them or feel down and dejected if they don't.

Certainly, wealth and power distribution on Earth is one of these life mysteries that kept and will keep puzzling humans for a long time to come.

Have you read The Black Swan yet? If you haven't, it sounds like you might enjoy it.

Taleb has said before (it could have been in 'Black Swan') that focusing just on the successful massively distorts the reality of the curve. So much so that it would be more important to study as many of the failures than and all but ignore the successes.

I'm not sure I'd regard making 100's of thousands of dollars complete failure. Now, it's obvious that he made money in ways that aren't overly useful to society, and promoted products that were less than stellar in spammy ways, but just having the goal of "Making Money Online" I'd consider that money to be pretty dang successful.

The fact that he blew it all after the fact just makes him bad with money. It doesn't mean that the attempts to make money online were failures, just that his personal finances were.

P.S. Not in any way condoning the things he did, and you can definitely argue it's a failure in that it didn't build a sustainable business. I don't feel like I'd call it complete failure though. Lots of people try to do the same thing and make dozens of dollars :-)

In his shoes, I would definitely call it a complete failure. It was certainly very educational, but failure nonetheless. I think his failure lies in equating making money with success.

The purpose of commerce is to help us create value for one another. But there is a bunch of activity that uses the same tools that is essentially parasitic. The reason his income streams kept blowing up was that people eventually decided that they were better off without him involved.

He could have spent 10 years building products that were creating value. He could have spent 10 years learning the tools and techniques necessary to make the sorts of thing where customers can't get enough. Instead, he spent a decade as a leech on the ankle of the economy, getting scratched off and reattaching himself.

I could have gone the same way. In high school I had a job doing telephone fundraising. It turned out to be basically a scam, with ~12% of the money collected even going to the non-profit, and therefore even less being spent on actual beneficial work. There was a lot that was appealing in the work: smart, funny people; great challenges; getting paid in cash. But eventually I came to realize how morally bankrupt it was. I got lucky in that it was much easier to see how what I was doing was worthless.

So now he's basically starting over. And good for him, I say. I think this post is incredibly brave, and I wish him the best of luck in making something so useful that customers are clamoring to hand over their money.

perhaps (obviously, completely) personally it was a failure, but the title was referring to making money online. Maybe the failure isn't connected to that specifically? I dunno. I mean I mostly agree with everything you said, just trying to point out that he did in fact make a decent amount of money online whereas a lot of people try the same types of things without making anywhere near the amount of money he did.

The reason his income streams kept blowing up is because they were all basically scams and/or spam exploiting early Internet search and advertising schemes, which in pretty short order either collapsed or got wise.

Which is good to see, in a way. As scammy and spammy as the web is today, this shows it could be worse. Hopefully today's scammers are chasing a moving target too, and with any luck having even less success. I'm not certain that's the case (some of the crap seems to have just gotten institutionalized) but one can hope.

"Now, it's obvious that he made money in ways that aren't overly useful to society.."

FYI making markets more efficient is definitely useful to society by reducing costs / bid ask spread. In particular this helps those who get the most utility from this savings, the poor and middle class.

Obviously I'm setting aside the ethics of some of his ways and speaking in general. (Although you'd probably want this competition even more so in unethical markets because at least those markets are then more efficient for those getting scammed, ie the poor and stupid.)

Actually I'm happy with making markets more efficient. I have no problem with affiliate marketing in general. I was more referring to the fact that some of the things he was marketing were scams.

Yes, I'd call that successful too. The expectations were too high, tough.

I'm not sure why people are focusing so much on the fact that the money was obtained, but nothing useful was created. How different is it from, say, high frequency trading?

There is a very widespread idea that if you can get rich doing something, that alone makes it worth doing. Lotta people see dollar signs, and equate that with having done something good.

HFT is useful, it provides liquidity to buyers and sellers and lowers their spreads to razor thin levels saving them a ton of money in the process. To say HFT isn't creating value and isn't useful is simply wrong.

Over ten years, though? If you made $100,000 over ten years that's only $10K a year. That's not even enough to get you over the U.S. poverty line (https://www.healthcare.gov/glossary/federal-poverty-level-FP...).

Did you read the article? He made $90,000 in one month, and almost $10,000 per month for most months after that.

No, it is not utter failure but we can't know for sure how much did he really make after expenses and taxes i.e. net profits.

What I got out of the post was what happens to a person who spends a decade trying to make money instead of building value.

I'm not trying to make a judgment call but the emptiness of it almost hurt to read.

I never looked at it like this but now that you pointed it out I tend to agree.

Interesting way to read it. Isn't that, however, what most people do (if you replace "trying to make money" with "trying to survive/pay the rent/etc")? How's the average "9-to-5" building value?

I read this earlier in the day, and I've been thinking about it a lot since. In many ways, my story mirrors the one in the blog post. However, I've been fortunate enough to make my living at it. I too started by encountering a lot of "internet marketing" gurus.

I was lucky enough to find one idea that let me make a fair amount of money, relatively easily. Back in the day, Google SEO was shockingly easy. Looking back, I probably could have made many times the amount of money that I did with SEO.

All things come to an end, and eventually SEO became much harder. Fortunately, by the time that happened, I had learned enough to be able to pivot my business.

I've ended up building a business that I'm proud of. I get emails all the time from people thanking me for the free services I provide.

The OP talks about a lot of marketing techniques that have worked very well for him in the past. I think what he may have missed is this: A marketing technique is not a business. A business is a set of activities that create a sustainable competitive advantage. A product is not a business, a marketing technique is not a business, any skill, no matter how well developed, is not a business. A business is a system -- a combination of activities that hopefully support and reinforce one another.

I'm always looking for new ways to add stability and strength to my business. In fact, I get pretty "terrified" at any hint of weakness. Sadly, there are lots of hints of weakness. But, I've managed to do this for ten years. Hopefully I'll be lucky enough to continue for many more.

> A marketing technique is not a business. A business is a set of activities that create a sustainable competitive advantage. A product is not a business, a marketing technique is not a business, any skill, no matter how well developed, is not a business. A business is a system -- a combination of activities that hopefully support and reinforce one another.

So true! This is what allowed me to succeed as an affiliate. What I tired of was the churn that kept the value I built from realizing a long-term ROI.

Adding to OP. What pains me in Affiliate Marketing, is that there is never talk about the end customer. The question whether "would you sell this to your grandmother?" is never even considered. All people are talking about is ROI, Campaigns, CTR, AB Testing, Laser targeting ..etc. Nobody cares if the customer is happy.

I want you to know that this post reminded me of a blog I had set up several years ago and placed some affiliate ads on. The site has been down for years, but I figured I'd log in to the affiliate dashboard to see if any users who signed up through my affiliate links ever spent a significant amount of money.

Turns out, there's a $740 pending balance sitting in there that just came in in the past few months. Sweet! I probably would have forgotten I ever set up an affiliate account if I hadn't read this, so thanks for writing.

Really great read. What seems to be missing from the author's 10 years is actually building value. Affiliate marketing, arbitrage, finding a cheap ad platform to flip for some clicks - none of this is really building something of value for users to buy. I feel like 10 years spent product building or building up a set of useful services would have had a much greater ROI for this guy.

I felt like if he stuck with this original tech review site, his income would have grown more steadily, and while he may have missed out on some "rich" years, the overall results would be a website/company with value.

Absolutely, might be running a whole network of blogs by now.

Looking back now I think I would try to not make money via ads on my blogs and instead create some info product that I could have sold to that audience. A complement to the information that they were already coming to the site to get.

Diversifying income would be key - AdSense+Private Ad Sales+Affiliate Promotions with your own "products" sprinkled in. That way if an affiliate cuts you off, or Google decides to nuke your account you still have other income streams.

*You can tell I haven't left this market completely ;)

Sure, you can do all sorts of scammy things to squeeze a few dollars out of people in quasi-illegitimate ways, but if you want to build a sustainable, long-term business, you need to provide people with something they actually want.

>I apologize to all you forum owners for what I did in the past.

Yeah, well you made hundreds of thousands of people spend hundreds of hours cleaning up after automated bots turn a site to crap.

The underlying issue here is a lack of understanding on the difference between taking cash and creating value.

A reader of this might think that all this stuff is in the past, but it's getting bigger and more sophisticated by the day. The tools are all automated and the money is in the people who sell 'systems' which clip the ticket for all the wannabes who charge their credit cards for the latest 'make money online' schemes.

They all convince themselves that spamming out links is providing what their marks want. I'm not surprised to hear that depression is a common result.

Something like this could be worked into a decent movie script.

I don't accept the apology. It isn't enough.

Both myself and volunteer moderators of a solid and truely valuable online forum worked many hours to deal with this very problem.

Hearing this guy has great memories from a visit to vegas is exactly what I'd expect was happening with the 'value' created. Shameful.

I have the firm belief that, being continually exposed to sketchy spam 10 years ago, made me extremely averse to advertising, clickbaits and affiliation. Today, I can't imagine the web without an adblocker, and I'm certainly avoiding giving money to a service when I'm prompted to by an ad.

So, I may be wrong, but if the minority of "EnlargeYourMaleParts.com" hadn't polluted my visual field 10 years ago, it would be a lot easier for advertisers to have my contribution today.

I understand your aversion to ads. When I tried affiliate marketing, it made me sick just learning of the products shady companies were trying to trick consumers with. I quickly moved toward creating websites to offer useful content and including ads or affiliate links. Most of them failed to earn anything substantial.

I don't think you're wrong, but many great websites that provide content people really want rely on Adsense-type earnings to sustain themselves and afford the content creators the income necessary to continue producing it. It's unfortunate that the financial fate of some really great contributors is so closely tied to that of others who seem to produce little or no value. I wonder how those who offer high quality content via their own free website will continue to thrive.

I share your concern for the few website with high quality content, damaged by the reputation or shady moves of a lesser population. One of the greatest examples is, to my mind, Ted.

But, regarding to Ted, they have done something absolutely genuine: they run ads, yes, but at the end of the videos. And often the ads themselves are very high quality (comparing to the one on your average TV channel).

For me the benefit is twofold: I believe their behavior is rewarded by people, like me, who will stay and engage with the ads; because they don't feel betrayed and because they might learn something new or interesting during the advertisement. And, I believe it will become so difficult to make money with shady trades (because people are more and more protecting themselves), they will eventually come to disappear.

So, to be short, I think great websites which offer high quality advertisement, will earn back the trust of the users at some point. And, if they can manage to keep genuine user experience above their own greed, they will be rewarded for that.

PS: Not sure if it's relevant, but I should have disclosed this, I'm currently working for a startup who sell a recommendation engine to the travel industry. The product itself is not very far from an ad, but at least it only include references to the client's content. It's pretty ironic when you think of this.

Quote: "For the record email marketing is still the method that drive the most engagement."

Hands down that ^^^^ is correct.

I've spent the last year doing a lot of what the OP has done, sans the link spamming. I've built sites, did white/gray/black hat link building, promoted cpa offers with media and traffic buys, and even offers via kindle books.

What might not be clear to everyone here is that this is still going on and there is still a huge market for this thing and thusly, quite a few people making a lot of money.

I have spent a long time building software. All kinds of it - client, server, web, mobile, now watch. I'm good at this and it's second nature. I've also made a lot more money doing this vs. any type of IM or AM.

However, after getting into IM last year, part of me felt like I missed a whole part of the web 'growing up' because I was focused on spending huge amounts of time building building the tools & platforms vs. using them. Part of this was my disdain for advertising and marketing in general. However, in the last year I have developed a new found respect for those aspects of business - they are required nowadays and you can't avoid them. The few get lucky sites or app builders are just that - lucky. For the rest of us, it's marketing hard work.

I actually didn't do that bad during my foray into this last year. I probably made back 75% of my spend, which was 'only' about $5k. The easiest was bing ads -> clickbank offers. I'm still amazed that tinnitus or diabetes are still big sellers...

I feel like we programmers tend to look down on this or feel it's beneath us. I used to but I don't anymore. I posted before on HN how I thought Pat Flynn was doing a great job and got comments that what I was talking about was spam, not sustainable, etc. But Path's now up to about $1m/yr by becoming his own brand. He engages with his audience and has figured out how to bring a lot of these different types of marketing and educational aspects together.

Another great one is Brian Dean - his posts on driving traffic and capturing audience are amazing. He's definitely a hacker seo guy and I like that.

So, to each his own, but this was a great read.

hey man don't listen to all the negative comments that are bashing you ! You were brave to bare your failures for all to see. Yes your success came from the shady affiliate world, but learn from your mistakes and move on. Offer a real solution for users out there and I think your results will be different.

This article was like a trip down memory lane for me. 10 years ago it was Hoodia diet pills, pay day loans, and blockbuster trials that filled my war chest. Difference is after I multiplied my initial 1K, I invested the profits in starting a legitimate business. I treated every success in affiliate marketing as a fad, and I'm so glad I moved on after a few years. I've never "worked" with scummier people then those that ran CPA sites.

Since it sounds like you're now out of it and have nothing to lose, could you elaborate?

Any advice for those now getting into content-based websites that would be supported by banner ads or affiliates?

(edit out of prompting questions that sounded like I was looking for help on being a bad guy on the internet)

It's nice to know that people who fixate on making money not by building useful or beautiful things but by gaming the system are having a hard time too. I've seen enough obnoxious Acai Berry spam to know there must be money there. I'm thankful that the money was short-lived.

"One weird trick" - the scams and spams will never leave us.

We have a great deal in common. I followed a similar path to yours, and somewhere along the way moved into the Advertiser side of the equation, where the potential upside is much higher. Being a solo affiliate these days has been usurped by large companies posing as 'ad networks,' reselling traffic on the open exchange. With your background, you could make a lot more (in the form of salary and bonus) by marketing at a company that has a large marketing budget. I personally know affiliate vets like myself that pull 500k+ salary and bonus, whilst also having side projects. This is definitely one of those cases in which your skills are more valuable promoting an existing business than starting your own.

Can you give me an example of a company and position that pays $500K for this type of work?

Clearly, this guy can write decently well.

Now imagine this: had he spent the time building a consumer-facing brand instead of hocking affiliate scams and other such bullshit, he'd actually be somewhere.

I've been down this road too, and could write a very similar story. At some point, though, shouldn't you learn the lesson instead of constantly making the same short-term mistake for ten years straight??

There are plenty of legitimate products out there to promote, but those Acai Berry/Weight loss rebill offers were really shady and one had to have absolutely no moral compass to promote those. Even newbies knew that they were flat-out scams(for the customer).

You would see marketers justifying these products by saying that the customers were suckers for not reading the TOS or that nothing was wrong with rebilling(citing Netflix,which is totally different; people knew it was a subscription unlike with these shady stuff) and stuff like that. It was amazing the lengths people went to fool themselves into thinking they weren't ripping people off.

I agree. There are plenty of legitimate channels that use affiliates and there are tons of shady ones.

So good to see another affiliate go through details of his experience. I've been in the space for almost 10 years now as well, and looking back I have a ton to relate but just haven't ever really written it out.

I never got into some of the things he did, and it did definitely hold my peak revenue back. I went down a different - and much more technical - route and had a more consistent income over time.

The big thing that most people don't realize is how the "churn" will get you in the end. At every moment as an affiliate, it doesn't matter how good you are - the offer you're running or the network you're buying traffic in can kill your best campaign in a second, and there is little/nothing you can do.

For example, I had an AMAZING search site for the food & bev space with a major beverage company as a client. We made a ton of money for them and they loved us because we were super-white-hat and never had issues. But after 5 years the parent company of our client killed the entire affiliate program.

It didn't matter that we were their top search affiliate - we were a drop in the bucket for a multi billion dollar company. The campaign ended and the site is dormant for lack of clients to work with.

This churn gets affiliates all the time. You have to stay one or more steps ahead of it and constantly be searching for new methods to succeed. In the end, I looked at that game and decided it was no longer one I wanted to play with the rules as they were.

I had a rather tough time with an affiliate venture that was a short term success followed by scaling up and ultimately failing.

Nothing nearly as seedy as skinny pills, but I ran a service that would alert people when "hot, got to have it, out of stock everywhere" items were back in stock at online retailers. It was a great system that grossed about 45K in the first three months with little work.

I had started with one product and a simple website, so after the initial success I doubled down. I spent two months creating a site that would allow me to add more products, a subscription management system for users, and added a bunch of retailers to my web scraper.

I also calculated how much revenue I made per user to figure out how much I should spend to acquire more users. Based on the result I started aggressive spending on Google adwords with the expectation of future affiliate commissions.

But then the retailers caught on that I was earning commissions on items they could barely keep in stock and the gravy train came to an abrupt halt with no warning. I turned off the adwords just in time to break even. If it wasn't for Amazon.com staying true, I would have been in the red.

"I still wonder if affiliate rapper dullspace ever got a record deal"

I'm not sure, but he did get into YCombinator

wait, what?

wat? dullspace is someone from rapgenius or?

I have this idea to use technology and excellent customer service to be a sort of agent in the skilled labor market (painting, landscaping, masonry, etc). My wife is fluent in Spanish and English and I am good with web technologies.

I though we could build relationships with some of the lower cost skilled labor providers in our area. They are on craigslist or we know them in other ways. Unfortunately, their English and their customer service skills are often lacking. I've seen where they don't follow through to make the sale, or don't give nice estimates/invoices, etc.

I really just want to be a middle man for this market, using Twilio (IVR), invoicing software, the phone, etc, to give clients a warm-fuzzy. Yeah, my wife or I may have to drive around, and make sure the jobs are getting done well, but I want it to be as low touch as possible.

What forum can I research this on? Any one know or have experience in the same thing?

What sort of middleman do you want to be? Customer support for the local guys' clients? Or do you see yourself advertising to the public and contracting others to work the job sites?

In the latter you will be competing with the labour guys for clients using local SEO and ads. In the former you won't rely as much on search engines as the pool of customers is limited to the business owners - more relationship building and outreach.

I've never found useful stuff on a public marketing forum - the good ones are probably unknown and selective entry only. Try reading some of the blogs linked here by other commenters. Hopefully their discerning tastes will filter out the bs :P

This article was extremely depressing. Not for the author, but that sadly, this is the state of business done on the Internet. Never does anyone receive any tangible, lasting value. All of it relying on deceptive or coercive tactics, or rigging an otherwise legitimate system for individual gain. All of the tremendous effort that goes into attracting as many people as possible, in the hopes that a small subset of them are gullible enough to convert. "Communities" who don't exist to provide resources and support, but to share tales of their victories and conquests. All this done so they can collect their next commission check and blow it all on vodka and wild nights in Vegas. All of it done so they can move on to devising a new scheme to extract money from the next batch of suckers.

I like the end. Create a product that people want. I feel the same way. I've hit the SEO lottery before, earning $20-100k/month, and it didn't last long enough. Being an affiliate site is a hard gig and I have a lot of respect for people who can keep it up year after year.

You have to see it this way: making money with ads has to be hard, because there is very little benefit for any person who clicks on ads, while at the same time there is a very low barrier to entry. So contrary to what the make-money-quick salesmen want you to believe, you have to work a lot to maintain this type of income.

Things get a little better if you sell an ebook, for example, although most money spent on ebooks is money lost. Progressing on the benefit curve you will see that things get very different when you create new technology (think of Apple or IBM) or invest your capital in something that people need to survive (food, oil, housing, etc). My philosophy is that you should work on anything that you like, but the money you make you should invest on things that have real value.

".... you have to work a lot to maintain this type of income."

If you love what you do, it's not work...

I see alot of criticism in this thread, but basically he ran ads against content, which is the business model of many people reading this. Vice does the same thing. AOL has become America On Listicles. Facebook and Google also run ads against content - they both made hundreds of millions from acai berry ads being run by affiliates like this guy.

I suppose the difference is in the value of the content, but then Facebook got their start by spamming everyone to death and even today actually has negative value to me. They make a significant portion of their revenue from scammy affiliate ads, so they aren't all that different (except that Facebook is worth $230 billion because they sit at the top of the affiliate marketing food chain).

He's not a failure. He's a success, not a big success but a success nonetheless. What he failed at was keeping his wealth.

I really enjoyed this article. I think anyone in direct marketing or sales has experienced highs and lows like the described.

Heya, I have the opposite problem - I keep inventing physical products, and the people who buy them are happy with their quality, but I'm too shy to market them properly. Want to talk?

What type of products do you create?

3D printing accessories like liquid print heads, laser cutters, and continuous production thing that I call a "broom". Android based robotic rovers (we were the first to do one at google i/o 2010, I should do a writeup on how that went). Industrial control systems.

Thats really cool. How are people (the few that do) currently buying your products? How do they find out about them?

Paypal, and... that's the thing - I don't want to spam. I did an indiegogo last year, but I have no idea how to advertise in a non-spammy way.

Just here to share a bit about my experience. I've been affiliate marketing for 8 years, and self-employed for 5 years. (I also run another business)

Affiliate marketing is an emotional roller coaster, not just in the sense that the money goes up and down so much. It is evertything, constantly watching traffic and analytics is very draining. It becomes almost impossible to go on vacation when things are bad. Almost worse wehn things are going good because all you are worried about doing is scaling.

Like a few other people in this thread, I've been out of the game for a while. I still have a few profitable campaigns that I am lucky enough to have nailed down to the point where I'll dominate as long as the niche is alive. I stopped innovating and testing new things because the industry is so god damn shady. Not just the CPA offers, I've had affiliate managers steal my campaign creative ideas, networks continually not pay me out and so many people fk me over.

Part of me thinks I would still be in the hustle if I didn't get married and have a kid, but for me it isn't something you can do if you want to responsibly sustain a household.

For anyone looking to get into this: pick a product (CPA, CPS) that you can get behind mentally. Can I promote this? Do I know how to sell this? Do I know how to write creative ads that will be better than the next guys?

Back in 2006, I made enough money through online ads to fund a 10-day trip to Egypt (excluding the airfare). That was the pinnacle; I don't actively blog now but I should probably get back just for the fun of it.

10 years to discover you have to create some kind of value to make money sustainably.... Otherwise, it's just gambling. Bit of a waste, spending that much time on get-rich-quick schemes.

I hate these picture gallery clickbaits sites on facebook. If you are visting mobile, almost every "next" click redirects you to some ad site and you "have to go back". And yes, I still click on them because i want to see funny/sexy stuff ;-)

I will never understand though how people manage to just "burn" serveral thousands of dollars after they got them. I like to save and don't need any of this funky stuff. Why would I want to spend 1200$ on some vodka? WTF, seriously!

usually people coming from a non-rich/poor family might have this need for "Status". it's not usually about having value for your money, but most the time is about feeding the ego, feeling the power and sending a signal of success to the world around you.

It's not necessarily that, but do not get me wrong for a lot of people it is. Depending on who you are with, sometimes it is more about the fun. IMO it really depends on the person/crowd.

I own an automotive business and it is amazing how much networking goes on at SEMA after parties every year in Vegas. It's really truly depends on the person and who you are with.

It's the same way that I can't understand how an NBA player can go bankrupt.

>Why would I want to spend 1200$ on some vodka?

Why would you spend 2300$ on some laptop?

Could be value, status, money to splurge? Different people different preferences. To a millionaire there is little difference between a 1200 bottle and a 500 bottle, yet for 'regular people' there is. Perspective ...

Yeah, but i can buy the 1200 vodka also for 10 at the store. Does not work the same way with the laptop. Also, the laptop lasts longer. Also the writer wasnt and isnt rich.

From my understanding, the $1200 price is for the privilege of getting a dedicated table in the club, not really the bottle of alcohol itself. This is still very expensive, of course.

Thanks for the awesome view into your private world of trying to make it on your own. As a wage slave, this is the most interesting thing to read about!

I hate sounding like some kind of prude but rap lyrics have got to be the worst advice being dished out to millions of impressionable young people.

Ben Horowitz begins all of his blog posts with rap lyrics: http://www.bhorowitz.com/

Great article. I myself make a full time living online and have dealt with every single point that was made.

The main thing is on you great months you have at act as if you're still "broke" just because you have a great month doesn't mean the next one will be.

A few months ago I made a large sum but have only made chump change sense. If I had spent it all the day I got it, I'd be fked.

Quite interesting to read. The Penguin and Panda updates did a lot of damage to my legitimate business (which was slowly but steadily growing until that point) and many others, so there have been a lot of victims of Google trying to kill off these spammers, collateral damage I guess.

The sad part is he is making an effort here to rank for "Make Money Online", so he can again make money online. Not sure how confident he is in actually doing that, but seems like a somewhat recursive cycle..

Frankly, this stuff was really shady and sketchtastic. I guess I suggest finding a pastor-type and talking about right behaviors.

How come you never tried to make something people wanted?

> How come you never tried to make something people wanted?

When you're making tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars a month in your 20s, why would you want to do something different?

an ordinary tale of, one of the millions of adsense-salary drawers, who were suddenly fired. Starting from the 1st 'Panda' update. I didn't know it mattered much in the 1st First world, but imagine this in countries like India & Pakistan. Little young boys became super-rich and bought flats in Dubai and what not. Now again back to earth. All of them are now fat and depressed, like the one writing this comment ;)

This is why I don't think in terms of money buying happiness... it clearly doesn't... but it can rent it for a while.

It buys me happiness. I don't want to work for anyone besides myself and I now make enough money to do just this.

And unless you have enough money to last your lifetime, and then some without losing it all, or even most of it, it's temporary... Yes, it can last a lifetime.. just the same, you don't own it.

I enjoy reading `The Downside of Becoming “Rich” Suddenly` since it teaches a good life lesson on spending wisely.

OP should PM grindstone for more motivation.

The best way to make money from SEO is to sell tools to the people doing SEO. Marketplaces of BHW and WF have ~1M revenue per month in aggregate, at least.

I'm really glad I didn't fall into the trap of just trying to "make money online". It could have easily happened. My inspiration was the timeless milliondollarhomepage.com. One simple idea, and boom - a million dollars. Awesome! So I decided to learn how to build web sites. Then I could make some kind of site where... maybe people could rate ads. Or something. That sounds like it would make money.

Fortunately, I decided it didn't make sense to jump straight into a real money-making idea until I knew what I was doing. So as a little project to learn the ropes, I'd make a site to help with something I was doing at the time - shopping for a used portable air conditioner on nearby craigslist sites.

So, I made a really simple little site that just generated links to craigslist results pages with criteria you specify. Using a mix of really ugly js and (iirc) Dreamweaver I even programmed some selection boxes that let you choose multiple states and cities in a more convenient way than a default multi-select. It was hideous, but I was kind of proud of it, and it cut my air conditioner search time considerably (although obviously by not nearly as much time as it took to make the site!)

When I signed up for $5/month GoDaddy hosting (which I've fortunately left far behind, but that's another story!) I got a $25 Adwords credit. So I used that, because why not. Also, earlier in my air conditioner search, before I'd even considered making the site, I had found a few forum threads while looking for a site like the one I ended up making. So I replied to those as well, in case it might be useful to anyone else.

A handful of people found the site those ways and started using it. (Like, probably double digits.) One day one of them posted on some other random forum to tell people about it, and a few more people trickled in. I certainly didn't have Adsense at that point, and wouldn't have made anything if I had. But gradually those people told more people, and I had a slow exponential growth curve going. They started requesting features, and so I made them. Once I got up to a few hundred users a day, I decided to try some adsense ads, and made maybe a few bucks a month. Then a few tens, then hundreds. I remember how exciting it was when it covered the rent for my basement suite. A little while after that, I looked into other ways to monetize, while hopefully adding to the user experience; the first really successful one was adding (optional) search results from eBay.

Eventually I contracted, and then hired, a designer/developer who helped make the site look halfway professional. Then I quit my day job to focus on it full time. Then hired another developer and built a spinoff site. We've got a team of 4 now, and are looking to add a couple more. It's been 9 years now since I started work on that first prototype, and about 6 since I quit my day job. Thankfully I never got the chance to try my "real" idea. (But seriously, HotOrNot for ads? How could that not make money?!)

I visit forums like Wickedfire from time-to-time. Most of the people there want short-term riches with little to no effort.

In fact, the business I started 4 years ago, which is still profitable today, came from an idea I saw in Wickedfire. Only, all of the people in the forum that tried it got banned because they wanted to do it the scammy way..and I built it like a real business and gave people real value (and still do).

Even the guy in the article seems like he thinks like a gambler and not a business owner. He makes $100K and what does he do? Blow it on expensive cars, trips, and other luxury items. He should have taken the money and created a service or software based on what he has learned from affiliate marketing. Another route could have been a legitimate marketer. He might be in a happier place now.

To be fair I did point out that blowing the money was an obvious mistake on my part. Those numbers don't include expenses either. Actually most of the money was lost to testing new ideas.

I found it odd that even after some success, you had to borrow money and look for credit limit increases. Or did you have the money and it was just that CC was the method of payment?

Affiliate networks usually payout on net-30 max, or net-7 minimum. Google and other ad networks take payments on net-3 or less. So you have to float money for ads while you wait to get paid.

Yeah it's all about managing cashflow. That's how the entire thing works. Affiliates float money hoping the network pays. The network floats money hoping the advertiser pays. When the advertiser can't pay a lot of people disappear.

> In fact, the business I started 4 years ago, which is still profitable today, came from an idea I saw in Wickedfire. Only, all of the people in the forum that tried it got banned because they wanted to do it the scammy way..and I built it like a real business and gave people real value (and still do).

What was that original idea?


What's funny? You can't talk about your business?

The poster is probably being deliberately vague, because the barrier to entry in this industry is low.

If you have something that works and share it with the world, you'll quickly find yourself with 1000 competitors. They'll probably be poor competitors, but because of the nature of SEO, they just might outrank you for no good reason at all.

Or the competition might bid up (at their loss, but yours too) whatever you need as inputs (like traffic sources).

Why would I want to give anyone even a hint of my profitable niche?

Many believe that ideas are worthless, but I don't. Especially on a business/startup forum. I really don't want the competition.

In that case, I really hope you got domain privacy in tact.

To me, This sort of thing doesn't demonstrate their is value in an idea, rather it demonstrates the value of asymmetric information.

I thought you practically demonstrated that ideas are worthless unless someone executes them properly. The idea you executed was an old and tested one, but it kept failing due to scammy executions. You gave it a proper execution and voila!

Author was also a young 20-something, hardly the age in which we all make the best decisions.

Without being judgmental, the author has been under the influence of "Hit n' Run", "Dine n' Dash", "Pump n' Dump" on all his investment decisions and business operation.

Like they say, you can get a man out of the bad neighborhood but you can't get the bad neighborhood out of a man, and this is coming from your typical low middle class guy.

Just a friendly note, you may want to do some revisions/proofreading.

I think comments like this are OT and misplaced. It adds nothing to our discussion here and assumes that the author will read all of the comments here (though I did note that in this case the author has submitted the post himself). This is direct correspondence to the author, so send him a message.

I think everyone else agreed with you, just found it a bit distracting when reading the article and I rarely comment on grammar or spelling, the post was fresh when I made the comment and the post was made by the blog author. I made an assumption he'd be monitoring the thread and made a friendly note here, or so I thought.

I did take your friendly note and go back through the post but I'm just terrible at catching those things.

Yes, no disputing that the note was friendly and helpful for John!


I thought this was yet another snakeoil article posted on hackernews. Too many of them around these days. (Markov chains for stock market profit?? Parsing stuff and oh-check out-my-awesome-SaaS?? Installing stuff and oh-click-my-DO-affiliate-link??)

Turned out to be a humblebrag with no new insights into the affiliate networks. I think it basically states that the train has left and you are 10 years late.

Humblebrag? Maybe. But was there a promise of new insights into affiliate networks? He simply described his experience with online income, but he never claimed to provide fresh insight into the business.

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