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Good Free, Bad Free
- a Guide to Web Tools and Services

Software, hosting and other web tools and services are sometimes free of charge. In some cases the free versions are better than anything you could pay for, and other times, they should be avoided. This article will go through some examples and explain why you should or shouldn't avoid free versions of them.

Open Source Software

Open source software is distributed with the right to read, redistribute, and modify it. Common examples are the Linux operating system, Apache Web server (used on over 50% of web sites), PHP (a scripting language) and MySQL database. In plain english, the main appeal is that the source code is made available to anyone to see how it works, enabling them to customize and modify it however they want, and most of the time it is free of charge. Most open source software is created and maintained by volunteer programmers. If other words, open source promotes software reliability and quality by supporting independent peer review and rapid evolution of source code.

Many practical applications have also been written using the above open source tools, like PHP and MySQL. These applications are themselves in many cases, open source, and usually free. Examples include message board, shopping cart and mailing list manager software. For example an average web site owner might otherwise pay around $200 for a software license for a message board, and also pay someone to install it for them. They could instead hire a web designer who could install an open source PHP/MySQL message board for them. The designer would charge them for the installation, but not for the actual software.

Hosting

Web sites need to be hosted on a web server to be able to be viewed on the internet. There are some companies that offer free hosting. Generally these should be avoided by any serious business. When using them they often include advertisements from themselves and other companies on your web site. This can both annoy your site's visitors, and also encourage them to leave your site by clicking on the advertisers links. It can also spoil the aesthetics of your site's design. Sometimes they also cause popup and popunder windows to appear on your visitors computer, which has been shown to greatly annoy people. Most free hosting companies do not offer many (or any) other features that you could get from a paid host. For example, the ability to run CGI scripts is very important, and most free hosts do not allow it. CGI scripts are commonly used for mail forms on 'Contact Us' pages. There are also more complex CGI scripts in use - for shopping carts, mailing lists, message boards and many others. The amount of bandwidth and disk space is also likely to be limited by free hosts. (Avoid any hosting company that says it offers unlimited bandwidth - it just isn't possible!) Additionally, most ISP's don't offer the best accounts for hosting either. A company that specializes in hosting or a web designer who also offers a hosting package is the best choice.

Web Site Design

The phrase 'You get what you pay for' often, but not always, applies to web design. Be wary of any place that offers design for free. They may not have the skills to do many of the things you need. They may also not be aware of issues concerning search engine placement, usability and accessibility. Likely they will not stay in business too long, and won't be around when you need updates or improvements to your site someday in the future.

Other

Fire wall software by Zone Alarm - free and very good!

Search Engine registration - while it may ok to pay someone to register your sites with various search engines, it is best to stay away from places that advertise they will register your site with 100's (or whatever number they come up with) of search engines. It is best to register sites manually with the top search engines. Automated services may even hurt your site by submitting it too often, or inappropriately. There are a number of search engines and directories that charge money to be listed with them. For the most part it is not worth the expense, but it really depends on the specific site and engine/directory you are considering it for.

While not exactly free, PayPal and similar services will allow you to accept credit card payments on your site without having a merchant account. For many online businesses this is great, if the volume of products you are selling online is low, it is worth it. For larger businesses a merchant account is more appropriate.

Lastly, there are web applications that can be run from or connected to your site such as some message boards, which are free but are best to avoid. They tend to have all sorts of ads popping up which not only looks unprofessional on your site, but also tends to annoy people.


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