I’ve almost had it with the word “free.”

Free is such an overused, worn-out, tired and agonizing form of offering just about anything on the planet.

It’s not that I’m upset about the word itself. I am, however, concerned that conversion optimizers are slinging around the word with indiscriminate abandon. I want to use this article to set your expectations and understanding regarding the word “free.”

Here is what you should understand:

“Free” is a word that gets attention.

Research indicates that people pay attention when they see the word “free.”

Qualaroo’s signup button

Gregory Ciotti’s famous copywriting article, “The 5 Most Persuasive Words in the English Language,” helps to sum up the power of the word “free.” It has the power to substantially alter people’s perceptions.

Asked to choose between two chocolates, most people preferred the higher-quality Lindor truffle.

most people preferred the higher quality Lindor truffle

Yet when the price was reduced by a single, negligible, lowly penny, how the tables did turn.

Yet when the price was reduced

What made the difference? The price? No. The free.

Ciotti explains how the mind’s cognitive bias, loss aversion, forces a preference for free. We do not want to lose stuff — money. Therefore, if something is free we instinctively pursue it, because we are fighting against the possibility of missing out on it.

Free can be damaging.

As attractive as it is, the word “free” can also be risky.

First, there is the possibility that the word will be perceived as gimmicky. The more sophisticated, aware and discerning the customer, the more likely he or she is to shy away from a page of copy loaded with the word free, especially if the word is in all caps.

User attention isn’t the same as conversion value. This is a common conflation. A conversion optimizer hears that something is more likely to get attention, so he rushes off to do it. Don’t do that.

Take a lesson from this Hubspot split test. By way of disclaimer, this is just an example of one test by one company about one little factor. I’m just telling you about it so you can understand what sometimes happens when you use the word “free.”

Hubspot tested two subject lines:

  • Version A: [Free Guide] How to Master Internal Link Building for SEO
  • Version B: [SEO Guide] How to Master Internal Link Building for SEO

Hubspot tested two subject lines

(Image Source)

The only difference was the word “free.”

Which variation had higher open rates? It was the second one — “SEO Guide.”

HubSpot’s takeaway was this:

Now, this doesn’t mean that all emails without the word “free” will necessarily get a better click-through rate. It does, however, tell us that HubSpot’s email subscribers are more responsive to the word “SEO” than the word “free.” I can think of a couple reasons why this would be true. Either HubSpot subscribers are especially keen on SEO, or they already know that our content is free, and therefore, the word does not add value. Either way, it’s fascinating to see that “free” — a term that seems to be regarded as an all-powerful, silver bullet in the marketing world — did not win this competition

Even though it’s safe to use “free,” it might not be the most effective term for your audience.

So, that’s the first concern — a perception by the customer that the product, service, copy or content is gimmicky.

Second, there’s the concern about attracting the wrong kind of customers. Ultimately, you don’t want to have a cadre of customers who don’t want to pay — the kind of people who are eager only for free stuff.

You want customers who are prepared and willing to pony up the cash. That’s what business is about.

Analyze your business model, understand your customers, and use the word free only if it makes good business sense.

Is “free” really a magical, conversion-boosting, revenue-improving, mind-blowing, miracle word?

If you read the kind of blather that I do, then you might believe this myth: Free is the best word for higher conversion rates!

I read stuff about using the word “free” that makes me think a single word is the equivalent of some mighty unicorn that is able to fart rainbows.

Check out the screenshot below. This comes from one of the most highly respected and widely used conversion tools in the industry. Just read it.

Use the magical word free

Let me pick that apart:

One of our customers made a quick AB test in our tool to add the words, “It’s free” with their call-to-action and this increased their conversions by 28%.

To ascertain the validity of that statement, I perused the case study. There was noticeably no comment on the statistical validity of the test, the test size, the duration of the model, and the surrounding context of the conversion action.

Even the comment by the client company indicated that they had skepticism regarding the test’s outcome and impact:

To be honest we aren’t sure yet [of what impact this makes to the actual signups]. We wonder how these tests measure up to the goal funnels in Google Analytics and compared to actual conversions into paying customers. It could be that we get more users to sign up and lose them later in the process. That is of course still valuable because it means we can have more call to actions to convert to a paying customer and test the conversion there.

I’m not as concerned about the outcome of this specific test as I am about the way that it is presented. I see this all the time in the conversion literature:

  • Company XYZ did a split test between a red and green button and the green button won!
  • Ergo, you should make your button green, too!

FALSE! The green button/red button test is simply a placeholder for any variety of inane tests that are shoved down the throats of unsuspecting starry-eyed conversion optimizers hoping to make a big impact without having to get their hands all dirty by researching their own customers.

My point is this: Just because company XYZ did 1, 2 and 3, and got A, B and C results does not mean that you will get the same results!

Read on …

The word “FREE” has contributed to the conversion rate of a lot many [sic] websites. Give it a shot, if you haven’t already. It shouldn’t take more than 2 minutes to create this test in our tool. And yes, you don’t need a designer or HTML knowledge for that.

Pardon the fact that I don’t know what “a lot many” means. I guess it’s a pretty big number? But tell me how many! Vapid generalizations about “a lot many” don’t convince me. Data convinces me.

And what about “contributed to the conversion rate?” What kind of contribution? Did it crush conversion rates? Or did it raise them? If you have so many a lot many, then show me some more!

I offer this brief rant in the sincere hope that you will not be gullible. Gullibility manifests itself in wasted time, wasted dollars and a wasted website.

Free is not automatically a miracle word.

Free has two purposes: Searches and Users

Let me define the scope of the word “free.” There are two main ways in which the word “free” has power:

  • It has power for SEO and queries — people search for the word.
  • It has power to attract eyeballs and interest — people are eager for free stuff.

Let me elaborate on both of those issues.

Searches: People are actually searching for the word “free.”

The word “free” is as hot as it gets in the SEO world.

ranking score for the word free

As ranked by Moz’s Keyword Difficulty Tool

Of course, the word is mostly used and searched for with attendants:

  • free downloads
  • free antivirus
  • free Kindle books
  • free stock photos
  • free music downloads
  • free movie websites
  • free games online
  • free coloring pages
  • free books online.

The fact is, people search for the word “free.”

Let’s take the example “free samples.” People like and want free samples. They search for it. Here’s what you may get in a SERP for the phrase “free samples.”

google search for free

The websites that rank for “free samples” have to use the word “free.” If they didn’t use the word “free,” then they wouldn’t rank. Their business is modeled upon the massive quantity of queries that are angling for free.

What should you do?

If you are in an industry or niche where the word “free” has SEO value and is expected, then use the word. It’s about the users, remember. The word “free” alone is not a spam signal, and you can use it (sparingly) in your copy, along with a comprehensive and safe SEO strategy.

Users: Users are attracted by the word “free.”

In other contexts, websites will use the word “free,” because it’s an attractive and attention-grabbing word. Who doesn’t like a little free sumpin’ sumpin’?

“Free” appears on the website, not in an attempt to gain searches, but in an attempt to gain conversions and interest.

If I were to search for “keyword tool,” I probably wouldn’t use the word “free” in my query. However, when I do search for “keyword tool” — without using “free” in my query — the following results may capture my attention. Why? Because of the word “free.”

google resutls for free

These pages have the word “free” on them, too.

websites with the word free

Jeff Ferguson helps to explain the difference between search-based free usage and user-based free usage.

Think of it two ways … both as the word that would be searched on, but also the word that is read by the consumer.

Now, you maybe get plenty of folks that are searching for “free” whatever it is you’re pushing … and that’s fine, there’s probably just going to be a lot of competition there. For SEO purposes, it’s just a word like any other word that you could possibly optimize for on your page, etc.

On the other hand, there is the word that is read and that word still has a lot of power. The user may find you in a variety of other ways that have nothing to do with “free;” however, when they see free in the title or body of the organic listing, it’s going to draw the eye and cause an action that has worked since the dawn of advertising.

Use “free,” but back it up with real value.

As anal as I am about data and testing, I encourage you to consider this issue in a holistic way. Let’s step back from the data and metrics for just a moment and consider some fundamental issues.

Consider the fact that it’s about giving your users value. Consider that it’s about being natural. Consider that user experience is the sine qua non of marketing. Consider that someone else’s split tests are not your marching orders. Consider that free should be really free if you want to call it free. Consider that you have a business to run, not a charity to maintain.

I think that free makes great business sense in so many situations. I provide free guides on my website! I often provide free consultation. I’ve done pro bono work for nonprofit organizations. I’m attracted by free just as much as the next guy.

But I believe that if something is free, then it should be something of genuine value. Offer value, not some cart load of horse manure that no one cares about but you call it “free.”

“Free” Recommendations for You

Let me close this article out with some free recommendations about using “free.”

1. Know your users.

In some niches, the word free is expected and invited. There’s zero risk in alienating your audience by using it. The only risk is not using the word

For example, consider shipping charges. “Free shipping” is everywhere. According to ComScore, 72 percent of customers want free shipping. More than half of all holiday retailers provide free shipping, making it an expected part of the online shopping experience.

2. Know the risk of “free.”

If you have a proclivity for using the word “free,” keep these issues in mind.

Some email spam filters are designed to filter email with the following “free” phrases in the subject line. The following list is extracted from a variety of sources, including HubSpot’s “SPAM Trigger Words” list, GetResponse’s spam list, Comm100’s email marketing, and Mequoda’s Spam Trigger Word list.

  • One hundred percent free
  • 100% free
  • Free
  • Free access
  • Free cell phone
  • Free consultation
  • Free DVD
  • Free gift
  • Free grant money
  • Free hosting
  • Free installation
  • Free instant
  • Free investment
  • Free leads
  • Free membership
  • Free money
  • Free offer
  • Free preview
  • Free priority mail
  • Free quote
  • Free sample
  • Free trial
  • Free website
  • For free
  • Risk free
  • Call free.

Email filters can be a tricky thing. You should work to optimize your headlines, but steer clear of subject lines with “free” words.

3. Tell me what’s free.

The word free, taken out of context and alone, can be misleading. “Free” is used adjectivally, meaning that it is a word used to describes a noun. If you use the word “free” it should be in connection with another word.

Here are some examples:

“Free trial” is a common term used to encourage SaaS conversions.

Here’s Qualaroo’s signup button.

websites with the word free

Here’s a trial for an email service:

free trail for mailup

“Free shipping,” “free quote,” “free consultation,” and other free qualifiers are all legitimate ways to put borders on your free product. There are plenty of variations on the free theme. People understand any word based on context.

4. Don’t overuse it.

If you push the word free too hard, people might suspect you’re up to something. Use it cautiously, but you don’t need to stuff it.

This is an example of overuse:

do not overuse the word free

Conclusion

To sum it up, if you want to use the power of “free” without being gimmicky, then do this:

  • Use it if your searchers expect it.
  • Use it if your users will be drawn in by it.
  • Use it if you will provide value.

And, finally, my broken-record part: Split test it.