Comparing the price comparison sites

There is a slew of price comparison websites that will weigh up the best deals on insurance, fuel, broadband and much else - but who compares the comparison sites? I do.

Sergei the meerkat dates Nicole Kidman in an advert for - but the advice is to shop around

Given their fondness for telling you that you won’t pay less by going direct, it would be easy to think that a quick trawl of Compare The Market, Moneysupermarket, Go Compare or one of the other available sites would be enough to cover the field. But in practice, the quotes they produce can differ wildly.

I searched for car insurance on two different comparison sites, using the same criteria, and found the prices from the same insurers consistently £40 or so less on the second one. This is not to say that one site was better than the other; just that they use different algorithms. That means pressing the search button is as reliable as spinning a roulette wheel.

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In any case, the price quoted on any of these sites does not necessarily reflect the amount you will end up paying. Nor do the advertised features always completely reflect the goods on offer.

This is particularly true of insurance - a market for which small print was literally invented. In one case, two comparison sites returned results from an insurer which advertised that free breakdown cover was included with the policy. Only a close examination revealed that it was subject to a £20 call-out charge every time it was used, which is an interesting definition of “free”.

Most of the policies that advertised personal injury insurance as standard included only a negligible amount of cover, and charged extra for a more useful level. And nearly every policy was set to automatically renew after the first year, with a hefty cancellation fee for those who had not waited in line at a call centre to give notice.

You have to wonder as well whether traditional methods for reducing your premium, such as volunteering to pay an excess amount when you claim, make any difference on comparison sites. In every permutation I tried, the differences were marginal - typically involving the payment of around £5 now to save £150 in the event of a claim later. In one case, the premium was higher with a voluntary excess than without.

Besides, not all the cut-price insurers allow themselves to be quoted on comparison sites at all: Direct Line is among those who insist that you go, well, direct. That’s because they don’t want to pay to be included in someone else’s list, or to pay commission to someone for putting business their way - even though that is a principle on which the insurance industry has always operated.

What’s more, those “optional extras” offered to customers are also available to the insurers themselves. An extra payment to a comparison site may secure a more prominent listing - and if you’re not careful with your sorting, you may be left looking at firms ranked by their advertising spend, not the quality or even price of their product.

This applies not just to motors but to household and life insurance, domestic energy deals and telecommunications. In all cases, use a comparison site by all means, but not just one. However tedious it may be to enter your details all over again, the investment of an extra 10 minutes is better than an unnecessary 40 quid on your bill.