The truth about Social Media and free web services is this: If you’re not their customer (i.e., buying ads or services) then you are their product. Facebook, Blogger (and similar platforms) are not open-source communities intended to bring mankind closer together; they are profit-driven corporations that expect a return on their investment.
The Facebook API assembles names, hometowns, work histories, religious affiliations, web-surfing habits, and personal preferences.
Google tracking software is installed on over 10 million websites; whenever you watch a YouTube video, send a gmail, or use Google Maps you are tracked.
Hosting companies offer free site builders in exchange for permission to monetize your content. Advertising sales is the engine that makes all these services work.
I’m OK with that business model. In the pioneer days of the internet, consumers were given a choice: They could pay a fee to portal sites like America Online for internet access, or they could use search engines like Lycos for free. Overwhelmingly, consumers preferred free access rather than paid access. Search engines and webmasters alike were forced to discover new ways to fund their businesses if they were to survive. Many were unable to do so, which led to the dot com crash of 2001.
Free access is good for consumers because it gives them access to a variety of platforms. Free web is unsuited for running a business, though. Platforms recruit business customers with promises of free websites, email, and marketing connectivity.
To a cash-strapped antique dealer, it all seems so easy: Spend an hour making a website or a Facebook page and then the task is done. But the platform will own everything on your site. It’s theirs, and they get to decide what to do with it.
Terms of Service change regularly: Providers change the rules, ban sites for alleged infractions, merge with another provider or disappear altogether. When that happens, dealers discover that they have lost all their content, customer lists, and backlink authority.
Early this year, after twenty years of service and hosting over one million websites, eHost closed permanently. [https://bit.ly/2JDsmi1] In fairness to eHost, they did offer to relocate existing sites. But for free sites — those with a sub-domain URL rather than their own, dedicated web address — moving meant the loss of any SEO benefits that had accrued.
Hosting companies are subject to the same failure rates as other startups, so they come-and-go with disturbing regularity. Small businesses that were lured by the promise of free websites, social media pages, and “free exposure” find themselves abandoned, wondering how a company could “treat customers that way.” Of course, they weren’t customers in the first place, were they? Customers are the folks who buy advertising or pay for services.
This spring (2019) the social media platform Google Plus was permanently shuttered for all private users: bloggers, small businesses, and consumers. Users’ Google Plus pages and associated content (articles, links, photos, videos) were deleted. The site will continue to operate as an enterprise-level intranet for corporate customers.
I used Google Plus a lot. I liked its lack of ads, discussion tools, and ability to combine social media with search engine optimization. Plus, it was free.
Digital marketer Rebekah Radice sums up my opinion: “Google Plus wasn’t only a social network, it was a key component within the Google ecosystem ... the platform was a relationship marketer’s dream.” [https://bit.ly/2HokX3k]
Google Plus operated for eight years, and for millions of users was an integral part of their marketing system.
And then Google turned off the lights and sent everyone home. It’s happened before and will happen again: Social media and web services offer access to their platforms for free, hoping to build a user base large enough to attract advertisers. If profits don’t arrive soon enough, the companies close. Some platforms make it, others don’t. It took Facebook five years to achieve positive cash flow. It took Google three years to achieve profitability.
Fortunately, Google Plus wasn’t my entire marketing plan; it was just a link in the chain, and all my content was backed up elsewhere. Some dealers weren’t so fortunate, and they built their business around Google (after all, it’s Google! What could be more stable?)
An effective website is not a do-it-yourself project. It’s not an adult coloring book where the object is to make everything look pretty. Websites must be engaging enough to hold readers and accessible enough to be understood by the Google bots that index the pages. Many consumers will see your website before they ever lay eyes on your store. A website deserves as much planning, effort, and money as a bricks-and-mortar store.
If you don’t yet have a website but are considering “making the move,” it’s best to avoid free site builders altogether. If you decide to “try out” a free site builder, don’t post a lot of content until you determine that the host offers a way to migrate your content to a new host. Blogger, WordPress, Tumblr, LiveJournal, and TypePad are a few that offer migration. If your host doesn’t, you’ll have to move everything manually.
Dealers who are tied to free web services should act now to relocate their data and content to a new website that they control. Foundational elements (website, hosting, email, customer list, and content) should all be accessible by the dealer or through the dealer’s webmaster.
How to upgrade from your "free website plan"
If you’re in a “free” plan and you like what you have accomplished so far, upgrade now by doing the following:
Purchase a domain name. Dot coms are still the best choice. If the name of your business isn’t available as a dot com then consider using a geo-locator as your domain name (i.e. <antiques><your town>.com). Your home page can still be tagged and titled with the name of your business. Those who are not sure how to do that just proved they need the help of a web professional to create their site.
Purchase a hosting account or upgrade the one you’re using.
Purchase professional email. Although email is typically provided (for a fee) by your host, use a separate mail company to keep your customer lists. Don’t use Gmail, Hotmail, or other free email providers for business email. It’s unprofessional.
Purchase third-party backup for everything.
In the words of author Will Leamon: “Sooner or later there will always be a cost for free stuff.”
Don’t be seduced by the folly of free web services.
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