As Western Europe grays, the money in emerging markets' digital populations are leapfrogging it

By Sarah Lacy , written on December 21, 2012

From The News Desk

When I do keynotes about my 2008 books on emerging markets, I start out explaining why I left Silicon Valley for two years-- despite everyone's advice-- to find and write about entrepreneurs no one had ever heard of.

One of my arguments is a chart that shows Goldman Sachs' view of the world in 2050. It shows the seven largest economies in the world and only one-- the United States-- is a G7 nation. And we're not the biggest. We're roughly tied for number two with India.

It's a dramatic representation of how little most of us are prepared to compete in the new world, because we don't understand most of these places and the places we do understand are becoming more irrelevant by the decade.

To be sure, the journey to that graph's reality is rocky and uncertain and filled with false starts. While the overall trend may be a sure thing, there's no obvious, reliable way to profit from the trend. We've written before about how Groupon made serious missteps in going too aggressively internationally, too expensively, and too quickly. And we've also reported before that returns are pretty ugly in emerging markets right now-- both for private and public markets.

Meanwhile, there are reports that China is clamping down on VPNs: The massive gaping hole in the Great Firewall that many a Western Internet company had been exploiting for years to reach a certain affluent and business audience, censor-free. (For more on how the Great Firewall works, see our epic music explainer video, set inexplicably to a circus theme.) And while China is the most known, its certainly not the only market that engages in control and Web censorship. It's a continuing lesson in just how much you can count on reaching the largest global audiences.

But at the same time, you just can't ignore these markets either.

A new study by a company called puts that same Goldman Sachs chart in digital terms, ranking the countries with the most sales potential via the Web. It measures this by looking at the Internet population of each country and its estimated GDP per person, determining a "market share" of each place and language on the Web.

Clearly -- as the name says-- makes a business in helping people reach local customers around the world, so there's an agenda here. Any Internet company will tell you that sheer size of people online and GDP growth doesn't equal revenue you can actually get from them. There are a million cultural holes to fall into. Still, if you agree with Goldman Sachs on where the world is going, it's a fascinating way to watch it happen digitally.

At a top level-- as Goldman predicts-- Western Europe is declining and the emerging world is surging.

The company forecasts that China will take over the United States' as the most lucrative online market in 2016. While it's sort of a wonky thing to measure, there's clear logic to it. China already has an Internet population 1.7 times the total population of the US, and there's still huge upside as the Internet penetration in China is about 40%.

Less dicey than navigating China is Brazil, and the report showed a surge in the money making potential online in Brazil as well, predicting it could overtake the UK and France next year. By 2016, it could overtake Germany. Russia follows closely behind. Meanwhile, the research predicts that Mexico will edge out Italy in the ranking.

Western Europe struggles while the emerging world steals its global power position: It's becoming a familiar story playing out in politics, macro-economics, age demographics, and, now, the Web's spending power.