The Connected Web

Phil Wainewright

Why Free Services Should Offer a Paid Option

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Announcing the demise of tr.im, the free-of-charge URL shortening service, its parent Nambu Networks writes, "users will not pay for URL shortening, and why should they?" Well, one reason for paying might be to have some guarantee the service won't suddenly disappear, breaking every link made through it. There's probably a quantifiable premium that a serious user would pay for that certainty , especially business users.

Personally, I've always preferred to pay for a service, which at least gives you a contract and thus the feeling that you have some recourse if it fails. Yet my attempts to become a paying customer for online services have often been frustrated by the inexorable march of Free on the Web.

I was an early user of Blogger's paid Pro service back in 2002 before Google stepped in and promptly shut down the paid option. In 2005 I signed up for the useful Feedburner RSS service, opting on principle for the paid option. But within a few months that option was withdrawn after , guess who? Google acquired the startup. When Omniture shut down its Hitbox Professional website traffic analytics service last year, I'd been a paying customer since 2001 , because it was no longer sustainable as a paid service in the face of competition from Google's free-of-charge Analytics service, it was becoming clear who the villain of the piece was in this history.

In each case, the withdrawal of paid services has coincided with a lack of investment in new
features, a deterioration in service quality and worsening customer service. Which is exactly what I had wanted to avoid by signing up for a paid service in the first place. In my view, online services that want to be taken seriously should always offer a paid option for those that want a business-class service with certain guarantees.

The true villain here, though, isn't really Google. It's the mass of users who want to save a few dollars and let someone else worry about how the service is going to remain viable. What they forget is that the service provider will make money by splicing ads into their work processes, selling off their data to the highest bidder and cutting corners on service delivery , either that or simply giving up on the service one day with no warning.

As I've written elsewhere, the infrastructure costs required to charge for services bump up the starting threshold for fees. So providers aren't going to add paid options unless they're confident of demand. Unfortunately, the 'everything-for-free' culture of the Web that's prevailed until now has deterred or even eliminated paid options. They'll only make a comeback if users insist on them. Perhaps the lesson of tr.im will encourage them to start asking.

Phil Wainewright blogs about how businesses are using the Web to get better plugged into today's fast-moving, digital economy.

Phil Wainewright

Phil Wainewright specializes in on-demand services View more

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