Web Informant #105 18 March 1998:
Why buy the cow when...


You can get the web site for free? The debate about whether or not to charge for access to your web site is pretty simple: either you do or you don't. So what is the big deal?

The vast majority of web pages are freely available, provided you can find them and navigate about the particular site. Most of us now feel it is our right to access anyone's pages anytime without paying for more than the connect time to the Internet, rightly or wrongly.

Just take my own situation as an example. I have tons of content here at Strom.com: archives of old articles I have written for over a dozen different computer publications, previous Web Informant essays, and lists of various products that I maintain. All of it is gratis, and what is more, I intend to keep it that way if I can.

Now I realize that there are plenty of other situations where someone would want to charge an entrance fee, especially if they start out with the philosophy embodied in this essay's title. But you should know that in most cases visits dropped off when sites starting charging a fee. Even if the fee is pretty small (less than $25 a year), it still cut traffic dramatically. And for those of us that like to see the numbers grow each month, this is troubling.

Before you make up your mind to charge for your site, consider the following.

First, why are people coming to your site in the first place? If you are a magazine or some other periodical and charge for your subscriptions, are your visitors coming from your existing subscriber base or some new audience that wouldn't necessarily subscribe to begin with? If you don't know the answer to this, you better attempt to find out before proceeding any further.

While you are doing your research, you should also figure out things such as:

This is all information that is available from your server log files. If you don't know this, it is time you bought some simple analyzer software and ran your logs through to find out.

Second, you should ensure that your most popular pages are available for free, no matter what you end up charging and how you restrict access later on. Why? Because that is why people are coming to your site, and you don't want to put up additional barriers so they can get this (presumably) valuable stuff. But why would anyone buy the cow then? Because once you have proven the worth of your site, visitors will return and maybe they will become paying customers down the road.

Third, you need to seriously think of how you are going to restrict access. Do you just require everyone to login with a username and password, gratis? This is one way to track users, although it still is an obstacle and it will keep some people from sticking around. Do you build your own payment and authentication technology, or do you use someone else's? Building your own is time consuming, but it may be the only way to get what you want done. None of the web servers is very good at working with authenticating thousands of users: this is really the job for a good database and that means getting things set up so that web and database servers can communicate properly. Now you have a major programming job on your hands.

Curious, isn't it: I began this essay talking philosophy, and here we are ending up talking technology. But in the meantime, don't forget in your rush to charge admission, people really come to your site for the content.

Site-keeping and self-promotions dep't

My past NT Webmaster columns for Windows Sources are now out in print and on the web: April's column is entitled Easy E-Mailing to Many People, using NewsMail to setup web-based mailing lists. And March's column is entitled Become your own publisher, using Microsoft's and Netscape's web publishing tools

This spring I'm part of the Networld+Interop world tour: first stop is the Singapore show at the end of the month, and then to Vegas in May and Tokyo in June. In each city, I'll be giving a one or two-day class on eCommerce. More info here, along with links to the actual presentations.

David Strom
+1 (516) 944-3407
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