Financial comparison sites have become an essential part of the frugal consumer's tool kit over the past few years. Once upon a time, shopping for car or home insurance was all about the Yellow Pages and hours on the phone – the ultimate test of anyone's patience. Today, however, once you've filled all your details into a website such as confused.com or gocompare.com, you can receive dozens of quotes in only a few seconds. And if you're in the market for a new savings account, credit card, loan or utility provider – or any number of other financial products – you'll probably be able to shop for them on the same site as well.
But while comparison sites can be a great guide for finding the right financial product, they still have a number of pitfalls – as The Independent found when we mystery shopped at each of the main sites this week. The quotes that you'll receive on many sites will not be the price you'll end up paying if you decide to buy. The assumptions used to generate your quote are often not clearly laid out. And consumers are often pushed towards the products of the companies with which the sites have commercial arrangements – rather than the product which is most suitable for them.
While each site has its strengths and weaknesses, it's advisable to get quotes from a handful of different comparison sites to ensure you've got the best possible deal. For some products, you should steer clear of them altogether.
Moneysupermarket.com is the king of the comparison sites – at least when it comes to size. It offers comparisons of more products than any of its competitors, it has more users, and after listing on the London Stock Exchange last year, the company briefly had a market value of more than £1bn.
Moneysupermarket's wide range of providers on comparisons such as car and home insurance, and credit cards and loans is commendable. However, as the table below shows, its quotes are the least accurate of any of the main five comparison sites.
We were also left somewhat confused by some of the site's best buy tables, such as the ones on the credit card and mortgage homepages. In the case of credit cards, the site has a list of "bestselling" credit cards, split up into a series of categories – but often only has one or two cards per category. There are hundreds of cards on offer, so why only list one or two?
The mortgage tables are also hard to decipher – focusing on headline rates and not on total cost. In a world where mortgage fees can run into several thousand pounds, the headline rate is not always the most important factor.
And on moneysupermarket.com's loan comparison page, we're uncomfortable that they rank loans based on their APR and not "typical APR" in their sponsored table. The APR is the best rate that a provider offers – and will only be available to those with the best credit ratings. The typical APR, however, is a much better reflection of the cost of a loan, as it must be given to two-thirds of successful applicants.
Pros: wide choice of product lines, wide number of providers on many product lines, good user forums and editorial
Cons: sponsored deals are often not flagged up clearly; quotes have a poor level of accuracy
Gocompare.com's unique selling point when it started out was its star-rating system – which lets you know how close a policy is to your needs. This was to be commended, as it was one of the first to help consumers compare insurance without focusing solely on price.
Its motor and home insurance channels are still some of the clearest around, and the easiest to use. They are better than confused.com, although the quotes are slightly less accurate.
Like confused.com, however, gocompare.com lets itself down on other product lines. Its credit card table is not a search facility, it's just a table compiled by fool.co.uk. Like Uswitch, it labels these as "Our best buys" – but only confesses in the small print that they might not be the best rates on the market.
Other banking products are equally weak. "Search the savings market for the highest interest rates," the site states. But again, there's only a handful of rates which are displayed – not the whole market by any means.
Pros: clear and easy-to-use motor and home insurance searches
Cons: poor banking searches
A newcomer to the market last year, Tescocompare started off with the advantage of being the only comparison site to carry the Churchill brand. Since then, however, Churchill has tied up with other comparison sites.
However, this was by no means Tesco's only strength. One feature that impressed us was that customers must individually tick a list of exclusions before they can be quoted for car or home insurance – whereas other sites are often too quick to wave you through, regardless of whether you're aware of the terms and conditions.
Tesco's questionnaires were also much more comprehensive than some of its competitors – helping it to provide a good level of accuracy on its quotes.
Sadly, Tesco too has fallen into the trap of offering a less than impressive service on some of its banking lines. On the loan comparisons, for example, results are only provided from six companies. The terms and conditions from this section of the website sum it up perfectly: "We make no warranty that the website will meet your requirements or will be uninterrupted, timely, secure or error-free, that defects will be corrected, or that the site or the server that makes it available are free of viruses or bugs or represents the full functionality, accuracy or reliability of the materials." Oh dear.
Pros: good at highlighting policy exclusions
Cons: poor loan search facility
Comparethemarket.com has a good selection of insurers on its site, but like confused.com, its result page misses out some important information such as what the excess is.
But once again, it is their other financial products that let them down. The credit card and loan side of comparethemarket is almost a completely separate proposition to its motor and home insurance search engines – yet it all falls under the one brand, and consumers could be forgiven for thinking that the quality on one side of the business might reflect the quality on another side.
For its energy search, it has teamed up with xelector, which has a fairly comprehensive service.
Pros: good selection of motor insurers, and good energy search
Cons: poor banking product comparisons
The worst performerConfused
Confused.com has built a strong position in the motor insurance market over the past few years – and has had great success with its memorable (and, some might say, irritating) adverts. Because it has a direct feed from a number of insurers, the quotes it provides for motor and home insurance are more likely to be accurate than many of its competitors.
However, it's not perfect even in this respect. When we mystery-shopped on the site for a car insurance quote, we thought the main results screen was a bit short on information – notably, that it did not even say what the excess was. However, generally, for car and home insurance, confused.com offered a good service.
Where it lets itself down is in its banking comparison lines – such as personal loans and current accounts. A simple search for a loan, for example, will furnish you with only a small handful of results, while in the small print at the bottom of the page there is a confession that there are another 52 results which it could have shown, but chose not to because they don't have commercial relationships with those providers.
Meanwhile, the current-account search is shocking. The initial best-buy table contains accounts from just two banking groups. However, if you then click on "compare all accounts", you still only get a table with accounts from these two organisations. Our concern is that if consumers have a good experience with confused.com's car insurance service, they might think they can be trusted for banking comparisons. But we would advise customers to go elsewhere.
Pros: accurate quotes on home and car insurance
Cons: poor banking comparisons
The best performer Uswitch
Uswitch is much better than it used to be. When we last looked at this site a year ago, we uncovered many more glitches, but feel that it has been working hard to clean up its act. For example, Uswitch used to only show you companies that you could sign up to via its site, unless you expressly selected that you wanted a comprehensive table. Today, it does the opposite – showing you all the results, but giving you the option to narrow it down to companies who you can sign up to directly.
We do, however, still have some misgivings with some of the tables on its site. For example, on the credit card homepage, it shows you "our top deals", and only tells you in the small print that these are only companies with which it has a commercial agreement.
By and large, however, we think Uswitch has been working harder than its competitors to be clear and honest for its customers.
Pros: easy to use, good number of providers across all lines
Cons: could be clearer about who it has commercial deals with
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