Are people ready to pay for good info on the Web?

The ongoing debate in the Web world is whether services that provide information for a fee can thrive -- or even survive. Will people pay for information when so many sites provide it free of charge? Should they? I'd argue yes to both questions.

The Web has opened up unprecedented opportunities to communicate and share ideas and information, locally and globally. It arrived as the great equaliser of access -- giving anybody with a browser the ability to reach an unlimited universe of information and giving even the borderline technically literate the ability to become a "publisher".

Seemed like a great deal at the time, didn't it? Just pay for the access and get lots of free information. But as we approach the 21st century, that model has quickly become outdated. Today, the Web is a macromedium that serves serious business professionals as well as general consumers. It's time to re-evaluate the Web in terms of what it actually provides those vastly different groups.

Generally speaking, the Web offers too many pseudo-answers from too many dubious sources. Lots of wanna-be publishers have cluttered the cyberscape with their Web sites.

But if you know where to find them, there are valuable sites that offer information based on trusted sources and reliable content that provides context, perspective and analysis that can be used immediately in decision-making. That's intelligence, not just facts. And intelligence helps people make wise decisions. It improves efficiency, productivity and, in the end, profitability.

Shared intelligence commands a price, no matter what form it takes. Experts don't consult for free. Authors don't write books for free. Intelligence found on the Web -- via services that integrate a variety of authoritative content or sites where content is based on a particular publication -- also should carry a price. When it comes to intelligence, you get what you pay for.

Sure, there always will be people who'll plow through massive amounts of sometimes moot information or random facts, hoping to stumble across what they're looking for. But business professionals must make smart decisions quickly. Wasted time is lost revenue and missed opportunity.

Home buyers hire real estate agents to find that perfect home. Readers buy newspapers and magazines to get better informed. In the same way, business professionals are paying -- and will continue to pay -- for valuable information and time saved.

Fascination with the powerful Web is waning, and expectation of real answers to crucial business questions is growing. Few free sites will have the resources to respond to the increasingly complex information requests of business professionals, and even fewer will find the right business model to guarantee long-term success.

For some Web sites, just as with television and radio, advertisers alone will provide the capital muscle needed to offer valuable content. For others, a mixture of advertising and subscriber fees is working. And for some traditional online information services, measured experimentation with an ad-supported model -- as an alternative to the all-subscription one -- is just beginning.

By itself, Web technology carries little marketable value. Access to a world of information doesn't matter if the content fails to satisfy. If television is guilty of "57 channels and nothin' on", as Bruce Springsteen has strummed, how many wasted channels will continue to occupy the Web? Stay tuned.

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Tim Andrews

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