Is ‘Free’ the Wave of the Future for Job Boards?

Sep 8, 2009
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

There’s been an explosion of ‘free’ out there — free social media, free long distance, and yes, free job boards. What is a free job board? For most recruiters and employers, it’s a place where you can post jobs (and sometimes search resumes) without paying a dime. Ever.

How can a free job board survive? Some make money from advertising (think Google AdWords). Some charge the job seekers for access. And many boards, I suspect, simply don’t make money.

So what gives?

Why upend the most common job board model (where employers pay to post jobs and view resumes)? Listen to Chris Anderson, in his recent book Free: “In a marketplace with low marginal costs and many competitors, (free) feels inevitable for most digital goods.” (For a roundup of the arguments pro and con surrounding this assertion, go here).

Hmm? I guess I wasn’t the only one who choked on that: “I do agree with Anderson and Godin’s underlying point, the “freemium” model — giving away some content while offering a more valuable experience for a premium — but it’s neither a new idea nor a terribly innovative one,” said Guy LeCharles Gonzalez in a recent blog post. “The containers may change and get cheaper, but it’s the content that gives them value, and the creation and distribution of quality content isn’t free.”

Freedom’s Just Another Word for …

Aha! So ‘free’ really isn’t ‘free’, at least as far as Anderson and his followers are concerned. ‘Free’ is another word for ‘roping them in’ with a free job post, or a test run on the resume database. I imagine most job sites are already offering some version of ‘free’.

But what about the true believers: those jobs sites that are completely free to the employer? How can they exist — and can they thrive? Let’s take a look at some of the factors involved:

  • Super low barriers to entry: If you have 20 minutes, you can set up your own job board with SimplyHired’s Jobomatic. They take care of everything except the traffic — that, you must supply. What could be easier? Well …
  • Social media: Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social media channels have yet to settle on their business models, so in the meantime, recruiters can use them just like job boards (ok, kind of dimwitted and poorly focused job boards). Cost? Nothing much but your valuable time.
  • Inadequacy at the top: The big three job boards continue to display a lack of initiative in solving employers problems. Results? Recruiters continue to turn to niche job boards and social media.

Each of these has played a role in the growth of free job boards. But you have to ask…

Can ‘Free’ Really Stay Free?

Is it really plausible for a ‘free’ board to stay that way? Can employer really expect an eternal ‘free ride’?

I doubt it. Any job site worth its salt has to fulfill one basic function: it must provide a targeted, high-quality stream of job seekers who respond to employer offerings. Generating and maintaining this audience costs money. So too does the operation and improvement of the site itself. Jobomatic and its ilk are limited in what they can provide to seekers and employers. Maybe that will change. But again, I’m betting that change will come with a price tag.

Those sites relying on job seeker revenues will always be limited because the majority of seekers have been trained over the past 15 years to expect access at no charge. That’s a hard lesson to unlearn (even a site like TheLadders also garners revenue from recruiters).

Where does that leave the ‘not-free’ job boards? Right where they were: scrambling to maintain relevance and value in a tumultuous recruiting world. The best (and a few lucky ones) will survive.

This article is part of a series called Opinion.
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