Free Stuff on the Internet

Free Stuff on the Internet

by Kerry Scott on 21 March 2011

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A reader emailed me about yesterday’s post on Mocavo, asking why I wanted to know how this new search engine planned to make money.  She felt it was rude to ask about money.

Well, maybe it is.  I’m going to keep asking, though, about every site I use.  Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned on the internet, it’s this:  Hardly anything is free.

Google isn’t free.  You’re trading a chunk of your privacy to use it.  That’s not a knock against Google; I use a number of their products, and I like them just fine.  But asking myself, “How does this for-profit company make money when it’s providing me with these free services?” led me to investigate and understand what I’m giving them in exchange for that “free” stuff.  I’m making an informed decision to use those tools, and also taking steps to manage the volume of information I give them.

Facebook isn’t free either.  In fact, if you’re on Facebook and you aren’t paying close attention to how they make money, you’re nuts.  I use Facebook, but I make sure I keep up on what they’re doing with my information.  I don’t trust that Zuckerberg kid one bit.

Another concern I have about free sites is stability.  I’ve noticed lots of companies in the past year or so who have started offering free hosting for your family tree.  That’s great.  Before you spend hours building yours, though, it seems wise to ask:  How are these people making money?  Are they backed my venture capital, angel investors, or a rich uncle?  Are those people who are bankrolling this thing going to want a return on their investment at some point?  If they don’t see one, don’t you think they might pull the plug?  Are you prepared to see the work you’ve put into your online family tree disappear if those sites can’t make enough money to satisfy their investors?  Because you can’t have it both ways.  You can have a site that lasts a long time, or you can have a site that doesn’t make money off of you one way or another…but not both.  Before you spend hours entering yourself and your information on both living and dead people, you might want to ponder how it will be used.  Marketers will pay a lot for demographic info on living people.  If you’re entering your entire living family’s dates of birth, wedding anniversary, kids’ names, etc. on a “free” site, make sure you are super clear on how that will be used, now and in the future.  That’s not to say you shouldn’t use those sites.  Just make sure you’re making informed choices.

There are also sites that start out free, but don’t end up that way.  Raise your hand if you know anyone who submitted their family tree to RootsWeb, and then got mad when Ancestry bought them and made the trees available only to people with subscriptions.  The Huffington Post was built largely by writers who worked for free, and are now furious because the owner has sold the site to AOL for a cool $315 million.  In fact, building websites with content users have generated for free (and making money in the process) is a very hot topic lately. Lots of people have figured out that you can get people to make your site more valuable and then sell it.

In the comments on yesterday’s post about Mocavo, the site’s owner, Cliff Shaw, has suggested twice that I submit the sites I want Mocavo to index.  Now, notwithstanding my belief that all sites on the internet should be indexed if a search engine is to be valuable, I might decide that I want to spend some submitting “genealogy” sites for Mocavo, so that I can help make it more valuable for when he sells it (as he has with sites he’s owned in the past).  I certainly contribute lots of other free content to sites I use regularly (Twitter, Facebook, blogs, forums, etc.), so that’s actually not a stretch at all.  But I know how those sites make money off of my contributions, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask how Mocavo will do the same.  Even if I DO contribute sites…what’s to say that they are free?  Reader Debi commented on yesterday’s post that the only result she’d found was one for e-Yearbook, which isn’t free at all.  Are paid sites now submitting themselves for inclusion?  Can nefarious operators build websites full of spammy affiliate links and then submit them for inclusion?  Is there a process for guarding against that sort of thing?  Are sites paying for search engine placement on Mocavo?  How would we know if we didn’t ask?

I hope Mocavo makes money (because I think success in genealogy is good for the entire field, and because the owner seems to be a guy from the genealogical community, with a history in this “neighborhood”…not some random stranger).  I just want to understand how it will do so.  In the search-engine world in particular, where making money has been such a challenge recently, this seems like a reasonable question to me.

Maybe it IS rude to ask how companies make money.  Maybe I’m a total weenie for asking (and that wasn’t my intention here at all; I actually though this was such an obvious, softball question that the company would be able to copy-and-paste an answer).  But I’ve been on the internet long enough to know that it’s always a good idea to ask.

(I apologize in advance if I’m slow in moderating the comments; my internet connection is not working at home.  This post is coming to you courtesy of the free wireless at my local Barnes and Noble.  I am hoping it will be fixed tomorrow, but…well, we’ll see.)

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Jennifer Trahan March 21, 2011 at 7:22 pm

As an accountant, I don’t think it’s rude to ask how a company makes money. It’s rude to ask your best friend how much money she makes, but it’s not rude to ask how a company makes money. Us accountants produce financial statements so that investors know how a company makes money. You may only be investing time, but that doesn’t make your concern any less valuable than someone investing money. In essence, time invested most likely carries with it some opportunity cost that you are foregoing to make money elsewhere. Anyhow, you can tell I’ve been studying too much for the CPA exam.

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Jill March 21, 2011 at 7:36 pm

I was only partially invested in caring about Mocavo until something occurred, or rather, didn’t occur.
Mocavo is obviously monitoring this thread and has responded to a number of items, but has also obviously ignored one. And that is the question of the revenue portion of their business model. At first I wasn’t concerned, but to have NO response at this point raises a red flag to me. Maybe it’s unjustified, but it seems exceedingly peculiar for Mocavo to completely ignore the issue.

Thanks for generating a lively discussion.

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Kerry Scott March 21, 2011 at 7:52 pm

Well, by now I think I have figured out that I caught them off guard.

And sometimes the answer is “we don’t know yet how we are going to make money.” I mean, Twitter did that, and so did Facebook. When you build something so new you don’t know how it will look in the end…I get that.

Searching the internet, though, is not that new. It’s, like, 10-15 years old. So in a more mature space like that, it’s a little strange.

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JL March 21, 2011 at 7:38 pm

Intelligent post. It is SO about marketing in one way or another, with the notable exception of most genealogy bloggers who seem to be kind of ‘marketing-blind’ – because we love what we do and do what we love and don’t care much about all that other crap outside our cozy world. (Although we wouldn’t mind an affiliate sale once in awhile to pay for our Ancestry subscription.)

As you’ve noticed – the increasing number of family tree sites that seem to hit the airwaves almost on a daily basis. They call it technological-expansion and creativity and, god knows, it is cute and tempting to play with but if you look just a teeny bit closer it is, of course, being driven by the money-makers clambering onto what Thomas MacEntee recently called ‘the fast moving train’. We think they’re doing it for fun? Or because they like us a whole lot.

I wrote about the Google Dashboard awhile back. It can be shocking to see if you haven’t. The marketing machine gets ever more sophisticated while we talk and talk because we like the ease of communication and instant contact and we give ourselves and friends and family away for free. We’ve come to do it so naturally we might have forgotten to notice there’s a yokel on every street corner looking for another way to sell it.

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Kerry Scott March 21, 2011 at 7:49 pm

EXACTLY.

And the thing is—I’m fine with yokels trying to make money. I’m a yokel trying to make money. Making money is good. In fact, the obsession with free in the genealogical community makes me cranky. Some people in our ‘hood are offended when people try to make money from genealogy, and I am absolutely, positively NOT one of those people.

But when I can’t understand how someone is going to make money, I get uncomfortable. I’m a big girl. I can take it. Give it to me straight, y’know?

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JL March 21, 2011 at 9:37 pm

Maybe it’s like Randy says – they don’t have to tell you.

I don’t know if you’re correct when you say, “Hardly anything is free.” Lots of the software I use (and write about) is free. I don’t get hassled about upgrading or buying other things. Neither did I have to register to download it. But that’s another world where someone designs something for their own use. Over time it develops into something worth sharing with the rest of the world. And the creator is happy with that.

I started my website as cousin bait which has worked out hardly at all. And then I got sidetracked into writing a blog that’s gone on and on. There’s very little money in it so essentially that could be called ‘for free’.

Although it would be good marketing strategy I am extremely reluctant to give away my personal information to people who want to sell it for their benefit and to the detriment of my privacy, so I keep it to myself. There goes my chance to get rich and famous playing the game, but that’s my choice.

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Kerry Scott March 23, 2011 at 2:44 pm

I use a lot of free stuff too (Twitter, Facebook, Evernote, Firefox, the awesome Better Facebook plugin…). In each case, there’s a reason it’s provided:

Twitter is free because they built something so new they weren’t sure yet how they’d make money. Now there are some ads, so while I’m not paying for it, I expect that down the road there will be those to deal with. I like Twitter well enough to put up with them.

Facebook is free because they use the information I provide to them to sell advertising. I like Facebook well enough to put up with that too (actually, I don’t really like Facebook, but I like the people I’m connected to there…but that’s a whole other post).

Evernote is free because they hope that you’ll like it well enough to buy the upgrade version. Eventually I probably will, because it’s a great product.

Firefox is free because it’s run by a nonprofit.

Better Facebook is free because (I assume) the guy wants falls into the category you describe—a creator who creates something and wants to share it. Or maybe he’s looking to make a name for himself as a developer so that someone will hire him for something big. I choose to pay in donations and by telling everyone it’s a great tool (and it really is)

But in each case, and in the case of all the other “free” stuff I use, I look at the motivations of the people providing the product. I have no objection at all to people making money, off of me or someone else…I just like to understand how they do it before I decide to use their product. As you point out in your last paragraph, you’ve looked at some of these same tools and others, and perhaps made different choices (I know you are not a Google fan, for example). As long as we are both making informed choices, it’s all good.

It’s when I’m forced to make an uninformed choice that I get cranky (well, crankier).

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JL March 23, 2011 at 4:02 pm

Being informed makes me even crankier. I don’t like the increasing lack of boundaries, period, whether someone is telling me about it or not. According to the forecasters we’re headed for a place where everything is kept in the cloud, the concept of personal computers will virtually disappear and we won’t care. Yeah, I’ll care. It seems like we’re being led through the nose to a place where we happily hand ourselves over.

I think you’re talking about money and I’m talking about something else but it’s vaguely related.

Kerry Scott March 23, 2011 at 4:15 pm

I think it’s whatever you value. I actually like it when people make money (in fact, I feel weird when I use certain free sites…like I’m being a mooch or something). I don’t like giving up certain elements of my privacy in order to use sites though. Facebook, for example—I would rather see 20 blinking obnoxious ads than a single ad that says, “Special discount today for 39-year-old blonde chicks in Milwaukee!” It’s important that I understand, as a Facebook user, that they will use every bit of demographic info I give them to sell advertising. Then I can decide for myself whether to use their product, and whether to provide that info if I do.

Now that sites can track where you’ve been and where you’re going (in addition to the stuff you enter on the site itself), I think it’s especially important to know who’s doing what. I looked at a pair of shoes on Zappos a while back, and I’ve seen an ad for that exact pair of shoes on probably 5-10 sites in the past week (most of which were “free.”) That’s not a coincidence. Those totally unrelated sites know what I looked at on Zappos. That stuff is all tracked.

People need to start asking questions about the sites they use.

Randy Seaver March 21, 2011 at 8:41 pm

Kerry,

I’m glad that you are asking the questions. That’s what we genea-journos (new word for the dictionary!) should do, and not enough do. However, private companies don’t have to tell us their business plan, or their profit/loss statements. At this point, Mocavo is not a public company to my knowledge, and doesn’t have to tell us anything..

I do think that you should correct your statement about Rootsweb and Ancestry. Yes, Ancestry bought them out, but none of the data on Rootsweb was “put behind the subscription wall.” All of the databases that were on Rootsweb in 2000 are still there for free. The WorldConnect family tree database is still there and is being added to on a regular basis. Ancestry has this database as part of their subscription site called Ancestry World Tree. It’s exactly the same as what’s on Rootsweb. It is free to access on Ancestry.com.

What you probably recall is the attempt by Ancestry to capture freely available data in a so-called biographical collection in 2006 or 2007 (my memory half-life seems to be about six months these days) and present it within their frame without a link to the free sites. This was shot down within a month of complaints by bloggers and the data providers, but it left a really bad taste in everyone’s mouth, and many societies and organizations with free sites on Rootsweb (especially the USGenWeb sites) moved away from Rootsweb because they feared Ancestry would “steal their content” and “sell it to subscribers.” The data was never “stolen” or “sold” but it was available to subscribers. It was “used” just as search engines “use” information on websites.

The net effect of this was that Ancestry tried harder to play nice, be more open with their plans, and work with the genealogy industry, including bloggers and other communicators.

If the description of the “biographical collection” sounds familiar, it is close to what Mocavo seems to be doing. The very first question that I asked of Cliff Shaw when he asked me to look at the site was about making sure that the sites found in the results and showed within the Mocavo frame were actually getting the hits when they are on the match list, and that there be an obvious link to the site. He assured me that they would get the hits, and pointed out the link to the site. The link is still not obvious, and I’ve recommended that he make it more so.

Cheers — Randy

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Cliff Shaw March 22, 2011 at 12:09 am

Hi Randy,

Thanks for your comments. I’m working on making it clearer that when you click on a site, it’s loading directly from the 3rd-party.

A few tips and exclusive new feature first posted here:
- When you click on a search result in Mocavo, there’s a bar at the top. Some people love it for it’s convenience. You’ll notice an X on the top right. If you click that X, it will close the bar, and just load the site in your full browser window. However, let me be very clear: The site was already loaded in the window below (this is called an iframe).
- Anyone who doesn’t want to see the bar can turn it off by going to:
http://www.mocavo.com/prefs/turn_off_bar

This sets a cookie on your browser that tells our search engine to link to the site with no bar. You lose the convenience of seeing your previous search and having a back button (also, you’ll lose the convenience of the next/previous buttons we’re coming out with soon), but I realize some prefer this so we’re happy to offer it.

Best,
Cliff

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Cliff Shaw March 22, 2011 at 12:17 am

Also wanted to point out that all of this is identical to the way Google functions — we just added the bar for convenience.

Soon, that X will change to a MUCH more explicit box that says “Close This Bar”. Should have that live on the site by the end of the week.

I hope this makes things more clear. Mocavo is very new so obviously there’s a time period where people are trying to get a fuller understanding. Let me further be clear on a few things: We have the utmost respect the site owners who build all of this amazing content and will always link to the content (and not re-display it and call it our own). The confusion about the simple “convenience” bar is one that’s easily solved by setting the cookie above.

Thanks for everyone’s thoughts and comments as we develop Mocavo to be something great. Kerry, I also appreciate your comments about me being someone from the community, and obviously, I want to get this right and work with people in every way we can.

Best,
Cliff

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Kerry Scott March 23, 2011 at 2:44 pm

Randy—first, you’re absolutely right that there’s no law that private companies have to tell us their business plan or share financial information. I’m definitely not asking for numbers of any kind, or projections, or anything like that.

I do think that in today’s environment, it would be unwise for a web-based company (especially a search engine) to decline to tell people how they make money (even though there’s no question they have the legal right to do so). Privacy on the internet is a huge issue, and that’s especially true for search engines. If you can’t or won’t reassure people, some of them won’t use your product. That’s why there’s so much press on the issue of how companies like Facebook and Twitter make money (and neither of those are publicly traded either). Consumers see all of the information Google can extract from them to sell targeted, and they wonder how similar companies are using their info. I still don’t think it’s an unreasonable question (although I would agree that no one is *required* to answer it).

As for the frames…well, my bad. It didn’t occur to me to click through on any results pages when I searched Mocavo, so I completely missed the fact that there are frames. That is…well, I’m not a fan. Here’s why:

Up until very recently (like, a week or two ago), this site’s primary source of direct income was display advertising. I was with a large ad network that served ads automatically to a particular spot on my sidebar. I got paid based on the number of page views (which is I think what you mean when you refer to “hits”).

One of the terms of my ad contract was that the top of the ads had to be at a specific point “above the fold” on my website. The layout of my blog was (and still is) carefully designed so that the spot in question complies with the terms of the contract. My ad network had sold ads to its clients promising that they would only appear in that spot, and (understandably) they required me to fulfill that promise. There isn’t a margin for error in the layout; I actually counted the pixels carefully when I designed it.

I just checked Mocavo’s frames, and while they are (thankfully) small, they would still knock my advertiser’s ads down further than the contract allows. So then one of two things would happen:

1. Since the ad wasn’t high enough, I wouldn’t get paid for it. Someone would view my content through Mocavo, but I would not get paid for that page view, OR

2. The ad wouldn’t be high enough, but I’d somehow still get credit for the page view. I’d get paid, but the advertiser would get screwed, because her ad would not be seen.

As a practical matter, I have some experience with this. Back when Clue Wagon was a job hunting blog, there was a news site that syndicated my content. They had a frame that was about the same size as Mocavo’s. They assured me that I WOULD get credit for all of my page views through that frame. Now, this is a large, well-respected news organization, staffed by decent people who I am 100% sure believed they were telling me the truth. There was nobody being intentionally shady here.

But what I learned is that it’s the ADVERTISER who gets to decide what constitutes a “page view.” The company putting the frames up can’t make that assurance (even in good faith), because they can’t control what measurement tools the advertiser chooses to use…and the advertiser pays the bills, so they have every right to make that determination (and insure that they’re getting what they’re paying for). That’s how I learned that I don’t get paid for the content I create when there are frames, even if the frame-producing website takes steps to give me “credit” for my page views.

Now, it’s not like we’re talking about big dollars here (buh-leeve me). But if you’re creating content, you want your own name at the top, and if you create it with the idea that you will be paid for it (or at least cover your hosting bill), frames are…well, not good.

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Susan Tiner March 21, 2011 at 9:51 pm

It amazes me that you had to write this follow up post. I thought the previous one was crystal clear.

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Banai Lynn Feldstein March 21, 2011 at 11:22 pm

When you mentioned affiliate sites… I saw one on CyndisList. I don’t know how she let it get through, but her link to the Ancestry blog went through Commission Junction instead of directly to the blog. I didn’t know that site was even running still, or if someone was actually making money from it, but I submit a correction the moment I saw it. If someone did that on Mocavo, is there a way to submit a correction? I haven’t looked into the site much to see.

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JL March 22, 2011 at 11:03 am

If Mocavo is going to a pay-per-click model running ads in the sidebar like other search engines, I don’t see how that would bother anyone. If, on the other hand, they’re compiling user data to target other marketing to you and/or selling it, then I think we have a right to know. I notice there’s no TOS or Privacy Policy on their site.

By the way, what is going on with this site that it’s not possible to copy and paste a snippet of text for commenting purposes, or to even right-click a link to open in a new tab?

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Kerry Scott March 23, 2011 at 2:44 pm

Right. I’d like to know which one of those moneymaking scenarios it is (or if it’s something else entirely).

I’m not having a problem with the right-click function (although I did some plugin cleanup yesterday in between internet outages). If you’re still having trouble, hit me on the contact page and let me know exactly what you’re seeing and what browser you’re using and I’ll figure out what’s wrong.

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JL March 23, 2011 at 3:38 pm

The right-click thing seems to come and go. Right now it’s working; other times the whole page seems frozen as if it was painted on the screen.

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Joan Miller (Luxegen) March 22, 2011 at 5:14 pm

Great post Kerry, and I appreciate Randy’s follow up along with the other comments.

Banai – maybe that link to the ancestry blog is Cyndis ancestry affiliate link? Maintaining Cyndislist is a lot of work and affiliate commissions would be one way to recoup some of the cost.

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JL March 22, 2011 at 5:21 pm

As you said in a previous post, a blog post is only an invitation to a conversation. Your content is being primarily built by the people who leave comments because you’re very good at generating controversial topics. At the same time the commenter’s links are set to ‘no-follow’ so you’re not giving any benefit back to the people who are building your content. Are you really justified in complaining about sites making money off other people’s contributions?

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Kerry Scott March 23, 2011 at 2:44 pm

I’m not complaining about sites making money off other people’s contributions. As I said, I happily use lots of those sites, and I comment on lots of blogs (nearly all of which are no-follow). My complaint is that when I’m not told that they’re making money off of the site to which I am contributing. This site has a tab that says, “How I Make Money” right at the top, so I don’t think that would apply here.

Commenters also have the opportunity to provide a link to their own site and receive traffic from people who click on it (which I would argue is of worth more than this mysterious “link juice,” which I think is vastly, vastly overrated and overvalued, especially from a site with a PR that is the same as the one it’s linking to). Some commenters do see quite a bit of traffic from that (although of course it varies based on the comments). So I wouldn’t say there’s NO value to commenting (although of course it’s up to each individual to decide whether they want to do so or not).

I did try going without the no-follow tag when this blog was about six months old. What I found is that I got a HUGE number of comments (the second week it was something like 4,000). Obviously, the majority were just plain spam, but even those that weren’t were stuff like, “Great post!” and “I agree!” and “Ditto!” The quantity goes up, but the quality goes down, to the point where the comment section becomes useless.

As a practical matter, my time-budget for this blog is one hour per week, so if the number of comments/spam/email to moderate becomes too great, I don’t get time to do any actual blogging. That was the biggest driver to go back to no-follow.

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JL March 23, 2011 at 3:51 pm

You did say, “Lots of people have figured out that you can get people to make your site more valuable and then sell it.” I’m not suggesting ClueWagon is something that would do well on the auction block; it’s a little too personal and not exactly ‘commercial’ – just pointing out the point that commenters are adding serious value (relatively speaking) to your site.

The mysterious ‘link juice’ is back links. And back links pretty much run the SEO world so I wouldn’t call them over-rated. One good back link has way more value than a dribble of extra traffic for a day or two.

I haven’t noticed any difference in the spam volume on my site between follow and no-follow links. Most of it is taken out by Akismet and the rest can be deleted with one click. Do people think I’m actually going to post it? I also use a plugin called Secure WordPress (or something like that) and maybe that makes the difference.

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Joe Flint March 22, 2011 at 6:47 pm

I read some where on the internet, I wish I could remember where so I could give them credit: “If you didn’t pay for it, you are not a customer you are the product”. As with many cute sayings there are exceptions but the basic truth is there.

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JL March 23, 2011 at 4:33 pm

Kerry, since there’s no more place to reply above, I’ll start a new one here.

In regards to the Zappo experience, I think that should be enough to tell you, and anyone else, what you think you don’t know enough about yet. Here’s the one-size-fits-all answer: Anything you put anywhere online is being recorded and sold to whoever wants it. Even this comment I’m making is recorded as part of ‘me’ and together with everything else they’ve already got makes up my profile. I can ignore the ads thrown in my face but what else are they planning to do with my profile? Maybe they don’t even know yet but there it is. I don’t only not like Google; I’m just tired of the whole show. Hey, people out there recording me! I’m tired of this.

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dave clark December 8, 2011 at 10:47 am

right on the money! and the most enjoyable commentary that I have read in a long time. Thanks for the insight, [it was already a stored thought] but the renewed nudge to diligence, wariness, with a smidge of disbelief is always welcome.

Ta Da for Now

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