Rhodri Marsden: Cyberclinic

Dazed? Confused? In search of computing help? Look no further
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The Independent Online

Last week, I looked at the problem of getting hold of information on the internet amid the mass of conflicting opinions, old websites and blitz of pop-up ads. It prompted a larger number of e-mails than usual from readers; people who go online seeking help, but log off confused, upset and none the wiser.

It's surely possible, with the help and wisdom of Independent readers, that together we could help those in technological distress - hence the opening today of the Cyberclinic. Each week, we'll pick a question from the inbox and ask for readers' advice and suggestions. The best offerings will be published the following week, with my own delvings.

One e-mail about internet chaos came from Tony Morgan. "When I search for information about certain products," he writes, "all I get are results from price comparison sites. Who are they? What's in it for them?"

Many companies have armies of experts devoted to bumping up their rankings on search engines, and the price comparison sites are particularly skilled at this. The leading five in the UK - Kelkoo, shopping.com, Pricerunner, Pricegrabber and Shopzilla - keep updated information on thousands of products from selected retailers, and aim to give a direct comparison of price differences.

An ideal site would obviously be one that compared every single outlet, decisively ending the tedium of "shopping around" - but none of the five has total store coverage, so they give a slightly skewed view of our shopping options. But some do their job better than others, and there are a few clues to look out for.

The sites receive referral fees from stores every time you click through from their pages, and some are obviously eager to send you on your way by giving little information other than the price. Kelkoo, indeed, allows stores to have direct links higher up the page - before any comparison is made - in return for a fee. Others, such as Pricegrabber, keep people on their site for longer by providing more details - specifications, reviews etc - to build user loyalty. Check for clear info on post and packing costs; these aren't always spelt out clearly and can distort the price comparison.

Also, look for seller ratings, which indicate which vendors are the most efficient and trustworthy. These can be useful in helping us over our aversion to the middleman.

Diagnosis required

Cyberclinic is now open for patients. One of this week's e-mails says: "I've become addicted to BitTorrent, and use it to download movies, TV shows, comics, music and software. What are my chances of getting prosecuted?" Readers who have views on the legality of BitTorrent, or who have questions to submit to the Cyberclinic, should e-mail cyberclinic@independent.co.uk.

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