One of the cooler things about the web is how many free tools there are to build, maintain, enhance and enjoy web sites. A lot of tools are offered out of the goodness of their makers’ hearts.

But that’s not always the case. Sometimes the freebie is a way of setting you up for a torrent of advertising — and the makers aren’t always as upfront as they could be about what you’re in for.

For years, thousands of sites (many in the Netherlands, but many elsewhere too) have relied on Nedstat Basic, a free service that gave you a rundown on who’s been coming to your site and what they’ve looked at. The company hoped that users would upgrade to a more comprehensive paid package.

But with the sale of Nedstat Basic to German marketer ad pepper media, the free service has become Webstats4U — and the name isn’t the only change.

Webstats4U is much more of an ad-driven service. Ostensibly that’s to cover development costs, but the new owners have to be looking at earning some kind of return on the three-million-Euro purchase price.

Motives aside, Nedstat users — and more to the point, the people visiting their sites — are suddenly being pestered by popup ads. Their surprise (have a look at a sampling of irritated blog owners) is understandable. Here’s what Webstats4u.com says about advertising:

In order to finance the new developments and to continue providing you with the world’s best FREE web analytics tool in the market, Webstats4U will accept advertising sponsorships on its reporting site and will from time to time accept other types of advertising sponsorships. These advertising sponsorships will not be implemented directly into your website [emphasis added].

Ah, that little word “directly”. It should ring an alarm claxon, because it’s the kind of language marketers like to use to give themselves a loophole. It implies that “indirectly” adding advertisements to your site is fair game.

And so it is: the detailed terms of service set out an astonishing range of technologies that Webstats4u is willing to deploy in the service of antagonizing your visitors.

With the installation of Webstats4U on the site it is accepted that WMS has the right to place advertisements on the site in any format or through any channel, including but not limited to e-mail, layer ads, pops, banners and other usual formats without any forewarning and it is furthermore accepted that WMS takes no responsibility for the advertising content and that WMS shall not be liable for any losses incurred regarding this advertising.

In other words, in exchange for our “free” stats package, you’re now our ad mule. Open wide!

The subtlety of that change has already led one high-traffic, net-savvy blog owner to mistakenly conclude that a blog search engine was responsible; it was an understandable error, because the weasel words on Webstats4u’s web site do little to alert webmasters of just what they’re in for.

The moral of the story? Read your terms of service carefully, especially if you’re getting something for “free”. Check out what others are experiencing.

And guard the integrity of your web site jealously. If they’re on your site, those popup ads reflect on your personal or organizational branding. And they don’t reflect well.

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