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by Lloyd A. de Vries

Vol. 26 - Free And Not Free

Lately, I'm hearing radio ads that say, "For more information, go to our Web site." It's hard to fit much into a 60-second spot anyway, so for details and a chance to re-read or -hear something, it makes sense.

That is, it makes sense if the listener has Internet access.

The other night, a network television news anchor, his broadcast truncated to a mere seven minutes because of a sports broadcast, told viewers to visit the company's news Web site for the rest of the news.

Great, if the viewer has Internet access.

Then there's this column, which is hard to read unless you have Internet access, although some non-Internetters may read hard-copy print-outs of it anyway.

But even if you don't own and never use a computer, there is an alternative. It's called "the public library."

Almost all of them have computer terminals hooked up to the Internet, and you can use them for free.

Another alternative, found mostly in big cities, is the "Internet cafe," a combination of coffee shop and computer access. These aren't free, but may be more convenient or comfortable (and, no doubt, the cappuccino is better there than at your library).

And don't be afraid to ask for help if you're surfing the Web in a public place: Either the staff will help you, or another user. Most Internet users are eager to show off their proficiency and knowledge.

Just like stamp collectors.

Free Internet is going away. Sites that once opened their doors wide and offered all their resources for free are charging for admittance. Services are now charging for use.

There are two reason for this, I think. One is that the "loss-leader" promotional period is ending. Now that you've discovered how indispensable a site or service is, the owners hope you'll pay to continue using it.

Another is the slump in advertising, both in general and on the Internet. General advertising appears to be coming back after our brief, mild recession, but on the Web, the problem is that users are reluctant to stop what they're doing and go to an advertised site and, possibly, buy the product.

In a newspaper or magazine, you can turn down a page or put in a bookmark, and go back to the ad later. Of course, you can't do that on radio or television, and they do manage to sell commercials.

It's hard to measure the impact of most electronic advertising. The other day, I signed up for an online computer-virus service. Did I do so because I saw an ad on the Internet? In a magazine? A billboard in a subway station? No, in this case, it was because I heard about it on the radio, but the company doesn't know that.

Eventually, the Internet will become recognized as an advertising medium, even if results can't be correlated all the time.

In the meantime, advertisers are looking at their "click-throughs" (the measure of how many people click on an Internet advertisement to go to the site) and scaling back on how much they pay sites to run their ads. In our capitalist society, someone has to pay for everything. If the ads won't pay, and there aren't enough sales generated, and no public relations reason for operating the site, then the readers will have to pay.

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