Recently, I read about two newly-launched web-based services that help to match people up with others for their mutual benefit. One, studentswaps.com, was for students going away to university to live in the home of another family in a swap system, with the aim of saving money on accommodation costs. The other, localmothers.co.uk, was for parents to find other parents in the local area with whom they could leave their children, instead of using a registered childminder.
I won’t comment on the merits or otherwise of these particular sites. What struck me is that, while it is currently free to register with them, they both plan to charge in the near future: around £10 for studentswaps, and £14.99 for localmothers.
Now, these sites were both set up to help, by people who themselves required the service in the first place. Yet it seems that, rather than wanting to help others by providing a useful service, the founders wish to turn their websites into money-making enterprises.
I’m quite aware that having a website hosted costs money, and that the cost increases with traffic. But this could easily be offset by incorporating advertising on the pages, which only takes a few minutes to set up. As the number of visitors to the site increases, so does the pay-per-click revenue. You don’t need many paying members at £15 a time to pay for web hosting, so that can’t entirely be the motive behind introducing payment.
The trouble with requiring payment to join this sort of website is that it has a significant effect on the number of active members. So while on a free site it might be possible to find a selection of suitable rooms or willing babysitters, once payment is required the choice will be extremely limited, and quite possibly there will be no other local members at all. Worse still is when the site introduces two levels of membership, free and “premium”, with only the latter able actually to contact anyone. They advertise having thousands of members, but the number of active members is actually quite small, and one has to wade through hundreds of pages of people who will never pay money to the site before finding anyone who is contactable.
It’s important to remember, unlike paying for an “offline” service, these online services don’t actually do anything for you other than provide somewhere to post an advertisement. To find someone with whom you can do a swap, you have to do the searching for yourself. Nor are advertisers vetted in any way before joining the site – in fact, most sites carry a disclaimer that they are used at the user’s own risk. In fact, this type of website would be entirely unnecessary if more people were a bit more savvy when it came to search engines. Anyone posting in their blog to say they are looking for a room in Leicester is within minutes included in Google Blog Search or Technorati. Then all the other person has to do is to search using suitable keywords, sort by date, and they find what they are looking for. Unfortunately, most people would never think to do this. If they are looking for a room swap, they think they have to use a room swapping site.
Ultimately, anyone setting up one of these services should think carefully before charging. After all, which are the most popular – and profitable – services? Google, Yahoo!, MySpace. The latter is a site that’s been in the news a lot lately. It has millions of users, and last year was bought by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation for $580m. The significant thing is that all of these websites offer almost all their services for free, supported by advertising. If the services had to be paid for, the sites would not be nearly as big or successful. Unfortunately, people are always going to look for ways to make money, and it’s to the loss of the whole community that specialised sites won’t reach their full potential because of charging for their services.