Comparing apples with apples
Benefits of using comparison sites
When shopping in a mature market, ripe with a vast and ever-growing range of choices (think credit cards, loans, investments, insurance and bank accounts), a well-designed comparison site is the essential tool for busy people. Especially if you're not tied down to a particular brand.
These sites research wide and deep, drawing information from not just the bigger providers, but from smaller and lesser-known companies as well, bringing you a wealth of features, benefits and deals available to you, beyond the options you might stumble upon day-to-day.
Best of all, the information is often presented in a standardised format for easy reading --- sometimes with sophisticated tools like shortlisting, filtering and ranking deals based on specific features and prices.
Limitations of comparison sites
With all the obvious perks, it's easy to forget that comparison sites are also a product themselves. The companies behind them are also businesses, generating income by providing a service to consumers. They typically make their money by selling advertising space and promoted links, or even through commissions on referred product sales.
All this can tip the balance in their own favour, rather than yours. For example, a site may be biased by their relationship with a particular company, and recommend that company ahead of other, possibly better, products in the market. At best, they'll simply give their preferred product more exposure. At worst, they might employ sneaky design tricks to entice visitors into buying (in the marketing and design world, this is known as a "dark pattern").
Keep in mind that comparison sites can't capture every offer out there either. While they can give you a broader picture of the market, it's not humanly possible (yet) to pull together a complete picture. So you're likely to land on "the best of a bunch", based on what they deem worthy to include.
Finally, ratings and rankings aren't always determined the way you might expect, with some scores assigned arbitrarily. As an eager, time-poor shopper, it can be tempting to take a Top 10 list at face value. But we recommend taking a moment to dig deeper, just to make sure the site's criteria is a close enough match to your own.
How to shop smarter with comparison sites
Decide what features matter most.
Before you start shopping, figure out which features are essential to you, and which are simply nice to have. Without an idea of what you really want, you could spend hours distracted from what matters most. Remember, there's no point comparing apples with apples if you're in the mood for an orange.
Consider factors other than price.
Price is important, but true product satisfaction comes from feeling like you're getting value for money over the long term. Check how your essential features fit into your lifestyle and needs, how well they hold up when something goes wrong, and whether the company you buy from offers good enough customer service to help you recover from it.
Use the recommendations as a starting point.
Comparison sites can only give you the highlights of what's on offer at a particular point in time. Use them to narrow down your shortlist, then do your own research of each product for more up-to-date pricing, accurate feature descriptions, and any critical product information. Remember to read the product disclosure statement before buying.
Ask for a second (or 22nd) opinion.
Online communities and discussion forums are a goldmine of information. If you're not sure whether you can trust the information in front of you, search the web for what people might be saying about the site you're using or the product you're considering. And don't be shy about asking your friends and colleagues --- it's your time and money at stake.
Enquire before you buy.
For cheaper products, non-essential products, and products intended for short-term use, you can afford to take a gamble on quality. But for something like a loan, you'll want to get in touch directly with the provider first to make sure they're right for you. Even if they have the best deal on paper, their quality of service may still let you down, costing you in time and stress in the long term.
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