No such thing as a free lunch – or free advice

Before the age of instant communication and the Internet, if you had a technical question on law, accounting, tax, or whatever, you either had to go to a library to research the answer or ask an expert for professional advice. Nowadays people will just turn to Google because they’ve got all the answers. Right? Well no, actually. Google has answers, lots of them, written by lots of people, some qualified, others with not the foggiest idea what they are talking about. How do you know who to trust, and who is up-to-date, who is trying to sell you their services, and who is spreading false information?

To get the best advice, it is best to approach a qualified expert in their field, discuss with them your specific problem and circumstances, and ask them what is the best solution in your case. However, too often, the assumption is that this advice should be provided free. After all, you don’t pay for Google – why should you pay your local lawyer, accountant, copywriter or website developer? The answer is simple – nothing comes free in life, especially advice.

Professionals of every hue and persuasion face the same dilemma every day or week. A friend or colleague, business contact or sometimes even random strangers approach them, via their website, email or cold call, and ask for professional advice for free, usually framed in terms such as “I have a quick question for you”.

The problem with this approach is that there is no quick question which is free. Without knowing the context, the personal circumstances of the client, their legal and financial position and status, the industry and sector, and a host of other factors, it is impossible to provide an appropriate solution to their problem. And to gain that knowledge, the professional has to invest their time understanding the client’s background, time which is usually valuable to them.

At the same time, it needs to be appreciated how much time and work that consultant or expert has spent practicing their art or profession, and honing their skills and knowledge. This means all the study, the qualifications, the years of post-graduate study, the continuous professional development, expensive professional membership, the upskilling, and all the other efforts and sacrifices they have made to get to their present level. Often the faster or more comprehensively they can answer your “quick question”, the more work and years they have put in to get to that level of expertise. They have invested all that effort to create their own intellectual property in the form of their knowledge and skills – don’t expect them to hand it over to you for nothing.

Many consultants are small business owners themselves. This means the business pays their salary and is their sole source of income. What sort of business gives its services or products for free? One that won’t stay in business for very long, that is for sure. They almost certainly did not start their business to be a charity, and while they may provide the odd service pro bono or at heavily discounted rates, that this is their choice, and not yours to make on their behalf.

Going back to Google, it is important to remember also that it is not really free. At heart, Google is an advertising company, and makes most of its money from paid search. That means companies and individuals pay to advertise their goods and services on Google. Companies use Google AdWords to have their searches displayed to specific audiences, using the search engine’s advanced algorithms. AdWords is a cost per click service; every time somebody clicks a link, Google makes money directly from that search. This means that Google wants to promote those advertisers that generate the most clicks.

Companies use AdWords and bid on keywords so to get listed as high as possible in the Google rankings. The higher the ranking, the more clicks your links get, with getting to page one on Google search for their particular service or product being the holy grail for many advertisers. This is important, because many people when they search will not look beyond the first page or two when researching a question or looking for a solution.

However, this means that the answers you get to your online search are not determined by their veracity or validity, the expertise or knowledge of the solution provider, or the fit for your particular purpose or situation, but by how much the advertisers have paid to AdWords this month. This should give you serious pause for thought before you rely on Google for any answers, especially if your query relates to the one of the most heavily advertised sectors, like finance, insurance, or retail.

So not only should Google search be treated with caution, but it is also important to consider the motivations of those that feature highest in their rankings. A small business entrepreneur or consultant may not have the money to bid on AdWords against larger or more aggressive competitors. This does not mean, however, that their knowledge, expertise and integrity is not their equal, or even superior.

There really is no such thing as a free lunch or free advice. A Google search may seem to be free, but understand the motivations of those who advertise on it. Even if you are not obviously paying for advice, your “buying preference” is being skewed by those whose advertising and marketing budget is the greatest, with no respect for your context or circumstances. A professional with the appropriate qualifications and experience will be able to give you a more appropriate answer tailored to your needs and situation, but don’t expect them to give you the answers for free. Their knowledge and skills have been hard-won and earned. Respect that and expect to pay for what you need.

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