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The Free Tool Dilemma

heseltine-simon
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Some great free tools are available for anyone to use for real-time search and page speed analysis. As a Yorkshireman, free is my favorite price to pay (a common British saying is that "a Yorkshireman is a Scotsman with all the generosity squeezed out of him"), as I'm sure is true for most, but there are times when free isn't the way that many companies do, or indeed should go.

How 'Free' is the Software?

Take a look at why the software is out there. Is it to stimulate interest in a set of paid tools (a gateway tool)? Is it available to generate interest, traffic, or goodwill for a company or individual? Is someone just simply altruistic (the foundation of the open source community)?

Tool Availability

Are replacement tools available in case your tool of choice goes away one day?

For example, free server header checkers are a dime a dozen, if one goes away a quick search will pop up another one. But if your favorite all-in-one free SEO audit tool goes away, and no other existing tool replicates the functionality, you may find yourself scrambling, especially if you're working on a deadline that is dependant on that tool being available.

Availability of the Tool's Creators

Will someone keep it around? Or is someone maybe even willing to listen to suggestions for improvement?

Several years ago, a company I worked for located a free parsing tool that became a critical part of their main production process. The tool needed some minor changes to it, so we contacted the creator, who agreed to make the changes in exchange for some stuffed penguins (yes, he was a Linux fan). Will you be that lucky, or will you find your options limited and be forced to make do with a tool that's a best fit, but not optimal?

Buy or Make?

The problem with free tools is that there isn't always an impetus to maintain them, expand upon them, or (in many cases) pay more than minimal attention to them.

Maybe the best bet is to go for paid tools. After all, someone should always be more willing to protect a live revenue stream, shouldn't they? Of course, but free tools shouldn't be discounted so quickly, nor should the option of developing the tools yourself.

The buy or make dilemma really resolves around two elements: functionality and resources. For some tools, no matter how hard you try, you won't be able to replicate or better their offering without throwing more money than makes sense into a development effort -- and even then you'd possibly only be playing catch up. Where it makes sense is if you have the resources available and you either have access to data that others don't, or you have an idea for utilizing available data in a way that others aren't.

Once you create your own tool, then you have more choices. Do you keep it to be only used internally, to give you a competitive advantage? Do you release it as a paid tool in order to recoup your development costs? Or do you release it as a free tool, perhaps as a gateway to other tools or services you offer, to generate traffic and goodwill to your site, or because you're simply altruistic?

How do you prefer your tools: free, paid, or made in-house? What are some of your favorite tools? Leave a comment below.


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