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Are free software tools really worth it?

Google recently announced that it will release its website optimisation tool, Google Optimizer, for free to everyone, raising an important question. Should you use free (or cheap) or paid tools for your business?

Given the myriad tools and software available for many functions in the online world, it can be difficult to decide which tool to go with. This is especially true when some tools require no fee of any kind, while others can cost an arm and a leg!

Here are some things to consider when selecting an online tool for your business.

Present vs. future needs

The first question you should ask is what your current business need is. Does the tool…

  • meet your core need right now?
  • solve the problems at hand?
  • integrate well with other third-party tools?

The second question you should ask is about the durability of the solution. Does the tool also solve the future needs of the business?

Depending on the growth trajectory and complexity of your business operations, your future needs may be 3-5 years down the track.

The general rule of thumb is that greater durability correlates with higher cost, but it’s important to remember: the present and future needs of your business – and the tools you use – will always change.

You should also remember that if the tool is free, there are usually restrictions on it, or the software company uses other methods to monetise the tool that may not be suitable for you.

Let’s talk about the open source in the room

Some popular online solutions are referred to as ‘open source’, such as the content management system (CMS) WordPress, Joomla, Drupal or Magento.

Open source software is defined as “software with source code that anyone can inspect, modify, and enhance”, but you may infer that these CMS solutions should also be free.

Agencies may still quote you a price for a Magento website, but you are paying for the time and materials of a developer and/or a designer to modify the open source code to your wishes.

Putting aside individual differences, the strongest draw card of an open source CMS is the large community of developers that come with it.

This ensures that no matter what, you should be able to find a developer that can work on your CMS more easily than if you were to have a custom or a proprietary CMS.

The almighty budget

By now, you probably have a wish list of the tools you would like to use; however, there is  one last question standing in the way, and that is budget!

Simply put, the resources at hand will most certainly reduce the options you can select from. It’s important at this stage to not dwell on price. In the land of online tools, paid is not necessarily better than free!

Take the web analytics industry. According to BuiltWith.com, an Australian firm that tracks what software websites use, 54.6 per cent of the top one million websites uses Google Analytics, which is completely free.

In summary, don’t dismiss a tool just because it is free or cheap. There are always opportunities to procure tools at a great price, or for free, especially if they are in a new software category, or the provider is looking for traction.

Cheech Foo is an SEO expert and director of Ignite Search.

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