The internet: A new venue for selling snake oil?

The internet:  A new venue for selling snake oil?

Searching the web (of course, where else?) this is what I learned on wikipedia about the history of snake oil salesmen.

The snake oil peddler became a stock character in Western movies: a travelling “doctor” with dubious credentials, selling some medicine (such as snake oil) with boisterous marketing hype, often supported by pseudo-scientific evidence, typically bogus. To increase sales, an accomplice in the crowd (a shill) would often “attest” the value of the product in an effort to provoke buying enthusiasm. The “doctor” would prudently leave town before his customers realized that they had been cheated.

With over 20 million small business owners in the USA, where are these business owners going for advice and help to increase the success of their business?  Like me, they probably start their search on the internet.  With our struggling economy many so-called experts have virtually no barrier to entry in starting a coaching business. With minimal cost and ease of establishing an online presence, are we potential marks for the snake oil peddlers of today’s internet?  Many new members of the Center for Women Business Owners come to me questioning the integrity and value of the quick and easy business solutions marketed on the internet to small business owners.

When I searched the web for “small business”, google returned over 522,000,000 results.  Research on the internet is an overwhelming task for anyone, including experienced small business owners like me. So where do you start?

In my online (where else?) Center for Women Business Owners community I recommend that members always review the following steps when considering purchasing advice, programs, books, seminars, etc for help with their business.

  1. Where has the seller done it before?  (How experienced are they? Or are they just great at selling online?)
  2. Are they willing to share both their success and failure advice?  (Have they done it more than 1 time?)
  3. Are they results driven? (What were their results? Good and bad? How will they help you drive your results)
  4. Are they selling solutions or motivation?  (Beware of the quick and easy “feel good” solutions without the step by step instructions to also make the difficult choices in managing your own business)
  5. Are these sellers willing to share honest testimonials?  (Ask others)
  6. Are they honest in saying “I don’t know” to any of your questions? (Beware of those who say they can do anything.  Watch out for the one medicine cures all ailments programs!)
  7. Are they willing to turn you away as a customer because they can’t help you? (Do they show you how to say “no” to a customer?)
  8. Remember the old adage:  “If it sounds too good to be true …  it probably is”

Women business owners today have to make many difficult business decisions.  If you don’t know why you make the decisions you make in your business, ask those who have done it before you for help.

I use these same tips when researching for help with my own businesses… I hope they can help you.

Written by

Darlene Ziebell

Center for Women Business Owners


  1. As much as I don’t believe that you have to be established for years in order to have valuable information, I think it is always important to test before you buy. Do they have a return policy that you can live with? Do they promise more and have no clear set rules?

    I started my own company recently, after many years in the corporate world. My business is not directly related to what I did before. I did learn everything I am using there. And I do believe telling people the good, the bad and the ugly. If I procrastinate, I will tell you. If I did something once or tried something many times, I will tell you. If I get paid to do, sell or promote something, I say that too. I think honesty is more important than being a so called expert.

    I have fallen prey to some snake oil salesmen a couple of times. I believe that happens on every type of business, online or off. Think about the last time you or someone you know purchased a used car, house, computer.

    Due diligence, feel your gut and then do what you think you should. If you get more good experiences than bad, I think you are doing well.

    Thanks for the great advice.

  2. Thank you for sharing your experiences. It is so important to learn from other willing to share with honesty.

  3. Excellent article! And it really gets me thinking. I’ve been running my own website design business for 11 years and am considering offering a coaching program to help others get started in this business. I definitely don’t want to fall into the snake oil category! I’ll be saving this to help make sure I shape my new venture into something that will be real and beneficial to future web designers in training!

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