Everyone loves a good deal. Whether it’s an amazing discount or a sale, we experience an endorphin rush when we get a good deal. Things only get better when we hear those magic words we love…“free.”

Nothing gets people more excited than when something is offered for free. If you’ve ever seen a store offering something for free then you know what to expect… a lineup around the corner.

This philosophy gets amplified when we talk about anything offered on the Internet. It is commonly accepted that any services offered through the Internet should be free.

And many websites are happy to oblige. Facebook is free, YouTube is free, Twitter is free…you get the idea.

The thing that no one seems to be asking anymore is “what’s the catch?”

Pigs and free

In the real world we usually have an idea about why something is being offered for “free”; maybe they want to get you into the store to buy something else or they want to get you hooked onto the product, but there is always a reason.

Unfortunately we aren’t so inclined to look for a catch when it comes to “free” services online. It’s understandable that people expect online services to be free but it’s important to know why it’s being offered for free.

There is always an ulterior motive for something to be offered for “free” and there is always something that is being compromised in exchange for the “free” service. The level of compromise involved will depend on the service being offered.

Some compromises will be harmless, such as when a service is offered with limited features. However, often, the compromises made are more than the user bargained for when they signed up in the first place.

Ultimately the more we understand about why a service is being offered for “free” online, and the compromises that come with it, the better we can make a decision on whether to proceed with becoming a user.

Awareness is the best defense to ensure that we don’t end up in a situation where something we thought was going to cost nothing (“free”) ends up costing us an arm and a leg (and some other important body parts).

Let’s cover some of the reasons a product or service is being offered online for “free”, along with their level of harm:

  • Trial Versions/Upgrade Incentives: No different than when a product is offered for “free” in a real life setting, the company wants you to continue using the service (at a cost, naturally) once the trial period is over or upgrade to a paid tier. This is relatively harmless unless the company asks for your credit card to start the “free” trial and will charge you automatically. Then you need to have a good memory or set your calendars to not get charged.
  • Advertising: Similar to watching TV, a website may offer you a “free” service in order to ratchet up the hits and collect ad revenue. Unlike TV, ads on the internet are ridiculously annoying (TV ads are just mildly annoying). Between popups and flashing banners, some websites are just not worth visiting. This category falls into the “harmless but frustrating” section.
  • Micropayments: Typically with a service that relies on micropayments, the base tier is “free” but has very limited features and in order to expand the features you have to make some sort of minimal payment (think .99¢) that seems insignificant…at first. However there are many features that need to be unlocked and each one of them will require its own micropayment. In a way micropayments are like a faucet that has a drip. At first you might not think it’s so bad since you only see a drop of water falling at a time, but then you get your monthly water bill and see that it’s triple the usual amount. This is definitely one of those categories that can get out of hand very quickly and cost more than you expect if you aren’t too careful.
  • Data Mining: Now we’re getting into some bad territory. Data mining is when the service you’re using is harvesting information about you to use for other purposes. Have you ever booked a flight to a city and then seen a bunch of ads for hotels in that same city?…it’s not a coincidence. Sometimes data mining is used only for advertising (relatively harmless) but other times the company wants to collect a profile on you based on the websites you’ve visited, who you interact with, and even your spending habits. Needless to say, depending on the level of privacy you crave, this can be pretty harmful.
  • Malice: I did say the motives may not be sinister in nature, but sometimes they are. As a wise man once said “some people just want to watch the world burn”. I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t mention that some “free” online products/services come with lovely add-ons such as viruses, worms, spyware, and malware or they might be used to extract personal information from you, such as your online banking login information. Needless to say, this is the most harmful form of “free” you get online and a good reason of why you need to be very careful about who you trust.

As you can see, not everything that is being offered for “free” is actually without any cost to you. It’s important to take a step back and ask yourself why the provider is offering it for “free”. What’s in it for them?

Do appropriate research and make sure that you aren’t putting yourself in a situation that can be harmful to you or cause you to expose more about yourself than you want.

So, yes, we all love to get something for free…just make sure it doesn’t end up costing you a ton in the end!