The word free, combined with any keyword is the most common search item, and any good webmaster knows it and tries hard to provide something of value to the viewer that's free, so they can legitimately use the terms. However, like most good ideas, it's being abused. Most often for the sake of higher search engine ranking and " good " keywords, meaning keywords commonly used by the public.
Unlike our brick and mortar cousins however, our visitor count, as merchants can number in the 1000's a day, no matter our size or real location, as we can receive shoppers from around the world. We are not limited by geography.
Our visitor didn't have to get in their car and drive there and walk in, it's the click of a mouse that brings them to our door. So they have invested little of their time. They will not generally consider, well I'm already here, I will just look about and see what else they have, if they are disappointed in the " free " sales pitch that brought them in.
A brick store with a live location, can about count on this behavior of.. "well I am here", as people hate to have completely wasted their time and effort to get there. So they can fudge on the " freebies" a bit , and it will be tolerated to a point by the consumer.
For the Web however, it's a simple equation, if we Lied to them to get them there, they will leave as soon as they know they have been lied to, they have literally billions of other alternatives at their fingertips, so their tolerance for such tactics on the web, is almost nil.
Example: Freeware programing. A very common search item. However, many sites use the "free download" as a keyword phrase .. to place well on the engines for free programing, when the programs are not, in fact, free. If I see one more free trial or free demo, I will just scream !
This one is so bad, that many free program sites have come up in rebuttal to this practice, that promise you, no free trials, no shareware, no registration, no forced membership, just free. As they know how disgusted people are with this tactic. Which, while legal, is a scam in the minds of most people,
Example: You have won a prize
We have all seen the bouncing ads at the top of many web pages that tell us we have just won a " whatever it is " click here to claim, only to find that we have to fill out forms, or apply for credit cards, or... you see the trend, we have all tried it at least once. And found out quickly it was not free, we didn't "win" anything, as it has a price.
The word free, in common parlance means without cost. Now those who defend the above practice say, " but we didn't charge them any money for it ". But it's not just money that can be a price. The old saying that " there's no such thing as a free lunch" spells out the fact this practice is, and has been, common place.
However, people are very tired of it. And given their literally billions of options on the net of other sellers, they don't have to put up with it. Be upfront with them or lose them.
I will have to fill out a 20 page survey to get this ? Tell me, before I get there. I have to apply to X number of offers first, tell me before I hit the button. In other words tell me its price. If its price is my time and I choose to spend it, then I am willing to buy whatever it is with that time, but don't tell me its free if I will have to spend a half hour of my time to get it.
Want to keep your viewer ? Make very sure, that if you offer free things that they are indeed free. Any limitations should be clearly spelled out. And that such limits do not negate it being free, Including the price of their time.
If they cannot walk up and walk away with it, it's not free. Never has been in anyones mind, they have just been willing to put up with it in the brick and mortar shops as they are already out the time to go to the store, so will make the best of a bad deal. On the net, they don't have to.
Free that's worthless:
This is worse. Something they can indeed have for the asking, but its useless.
The current fad is Ebooks for free, I have a couple myself, like the one at the head of the page you came from on web design, that are compilations of whole sections of my website, that you can take off site to read at your leisure. Which I did at the request of many who wanted to be able to print them out to read away from the computer. This is only for their convenience, as the same information is available to read on site. All the information is one of a kind, written by me. There are many fine ebooks on the net.
However, what's common place on many sites now is canned ebooks. Ebooks with identical content, on any subject you care to name, that one can buy pre made and brand with their site name and logo, that's identical to everyone else who bought the same package, just to get on the ebook band wagon.
There is no one of a kind content, it's a throw away, designed to get a person to the site, to sell them something else. Which is ruining the whole concept of free ebooks. People learn after a couple of these useless freebies, not to trust anyone on the net who offer free. So the practice is not only bad for other sellers who are offering real free goods, it's self defeating to the ones who paid a lot of money for the pre made "freebies" they are offering.
Want to impress your viewer ? Give them something of value they can't get anywhere else. Or at the very least something they can really use. People don't mind the net equivalent of free matches, with the company logo on them .. or ink pens branded with the company phone number, it's expected that you will do so, it's advertising, but at least give them something they can use.