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Are the days of the “free” internet over?

I keep hearing about how informational sites will probably be charging for their content soon. Are the days of the “free” internet over?

I’ve seen several questions like that lately (must be an article going around or something), so I’ll try to explain what’s going on and why.

First off, most information sites are supported by advertising revenue. They draw traffic due to their (hopefully) excellent content and then charge advertisers for ad space. Without that revenue, they’ll become as extinct as a 286 with a 2X CD ROM drive.

The problem is that we’re becoming immune to ads, sort of building up a resistance to them. Since we’re not paying attention, we’re not clicking. Since we’re not clicking, the advertisers pull out, and the site hurts for cash flow.

In order to get our attention again, many sites have decided to try the “annoy ’em into clicking” approach. You know the kind; expando ads that block the content for a few seconds-forcing you to pay attention, ads that have people running across the screen, irritating stuff like that. Unfortunately, sites like that have become so grating that they’re driving people away (in droves).

So, the next step seems to be charging for content. Lots of the big boys are starting to do it already, and I think that you’ll find many informational sites will be following suit during the 12-24 months.

Only time will tell how well this is all going to work out. I’m not 100% convinced that the “free internet” will be resigned to a distant memory in a few years. As competitive as things are, I have to believe many info sites will come up with alternatives.

In addition, I think sites that are an extension of a larger organization (like Discovery.com) are probably going to stay free. It’s my guess that the site is worth having to help promote the “main branch” of the company, and keeping it free will help keep people interested.

That said, I’m personally not opposed to shelling out a few bucks for good content. I happily pay weatherunderground.com $5.00 a year for an ad free experience. I’m not really trying to avoid the ads, I just think they do a heck of a job and I’m more than happy to pay for it.

It’s my hope that if sites feel they must charge for content, that they’ll follow the example set by weatherunderground.com and keep the charges down. I guess only time (and dead carcasses along the information superhighway) will tell.

PS – If you’re worried that we’re going to start charging for content, rest easy. Our site and newsletters are supported by software sales, not outside advertisers.