Five reasons to be wary of free online services

Everyone wants something for nothing, but sometimes signing up for a free service can be more hassle than it’s worth. Hidden costs and pitfalls can leave you feeling like paying for something would have actually been cheaper than getting it for free.

Here are five reasons you should think twice before signing up for a free service.

1 – If something’s free, you’re the product

This is a modern take on the old adage “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”. Put simply, if someone isn’t charging you to use their service, they’re making money out of you some other way – usually through advertising. This is particularly true of social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, who make a huge amount of money through advertising. Ad income is also a major source of revenue for Google, even though roughly half of people don’t realise that promotional content is included in search results.

To make matters worse, many companies use personal data users offer them while signing up to help them target adverts more accurately. If you’re ok with this, that’s fine but it always pays to understand exactly what your relationship with a company is.

2 – Hidden extras

If you’ve downloaded a free game for a mobile device, you’ll either experience a plethora of adverts or be asked to make in-app purchases. If you’re aware of what you’re getting into and happy to pay real money to have an advantage in the game, that’s fine but often these games can be targeted at younger players, who may not realise the size of the bill they’re racking up.

Again, it pays to make sure you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into before you hit download on that free game.

3 – You might end up giving things away

How often do you read the terms and conditions when you sign up for a free service? If the answer is never, you could be in for a shock. Take the case of blogging network Medium. On the face of it, the deal seems pretty simple – you get somewhere you can host your blog for free and also find an audience without having to engage in self-promotion.

The downside? Well, that’s buried in the small print – if you look closely you’ll find that the rights for any posts you make on Medium belong to Medium, meaning you can’t reprint them anywhere and the company also stands to profit from your work.

Just make sure you understand the exact nature of any agreement you’re entering into.

4 – You don’t know how long a free service will last

Free services have an annoying habit of disappearing at the most inconvenient of times, take, for example, BT’s free email service, which is shutting down, leaving users with the hassle of finding a long term solution. Obviously, paid-for-services do close down as well, but if you buy a domain name, web hosting and email hosting then your web presence is as much in your hands as it can be.

5 – Free can stop you earning money

Although signing up for a free account may feel like it’s saving you cash, it could actually leave you out of pocket in the long run. One of the main advantages of a self-hosted blog or website is the ability to include adverts which earn you money. If you use a service such as Blogger, then any ads your visitors see will be generating cash for the hosting platform, not you.

Conclusion

Although free online services, games and apps can offer great value, it’s important to always make sure you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into. A free service should match more of your needs than simply a price point alone, so be careful or you could end up getting stung.

About the Author
Guest post by Will Stevens of 123-reg, the UK’s largest domain name registrar. Will writes on a range of tech topics including web hosting, social media and content marketing.

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