Last Updated May 23, 2011 10:33 AM EDT
Last week the world's biggest search engine widened its product offerings by launching Google Advisor, a tool to help consumers compare rates and apply for various financial products including mortgages, credit cards and bank accounts. For Google, it's a no-brainer, lucrative move: The web giant gets paid each time you contact a mortgage lender from its web site, and an industry insider tells me marketers pay other comparison Web sites as much as $8 to $10 per click that leads consumers to mortgage sites.
First, the pros: Google Advisor is clean and simple to use. Here's a YouTube video the company made to show how it works. I do like the fact that the site shields your number from lenders, letting you use an 800 number that actually goes to Google - which then forwards your call to the lender. Similarly, Google protects your personal information - including your phone number, email and home address - when you fill out any forms to request more information. (Whether you feel comfortable giving that information to Google is a separate question, but at least you haven't given your address and phone number to a bunch of hungry financial-services companies .)
Google Advisor also does some helpful and convincing math for users comparing financial products. For example, when I look up various bank saving rates, I can see how much interest my account would accumulate in the first year, assuming a $5,000 balance. (Based on Google's results, Smarty Pig offers the best interest rate at 1.35%, for at total of $67 earned in the first year.)
Search results are pretty comprehensive, except for mortgage rate listings - more on that in a minute. As of Sunday evening there were more than 110 matching results for savings accounts, 118 results for checking accounts, 364 CD products and 87 credit card offerings. Right now Google is not getting paid to list these offers, which is probably why the number of listings are pretty high.
The cons: If you're looking for the best mortgage deal you may not want to limit your search to Google Advisor. The site's mortgage listings all stem from a rather short list of paid sponsors. A search for rates on 30-year fixed mortgages, for example, yielded 12 banks nationwide. (A similar search on Bankrate.com yielded the same number of offerings - but in addition to paid listings, I get access to Bankrate's own editorial rankings of dozens of more banks. Bankrate doesn't provide links to those banks, but the information is still helpful.) A home is likely the single biggest purchase you'll ever make, so you'll want to cast a wider net, and use a number of web sites and mortgage brokers.
Bottom line: Google Advisor is worth using as part of your overall search for the best financial products on the market. Just keep in mind that other similar websites go the extra mile by providing editorial content, calculators and an ability to search for products with more specificity.
It's not clear where Google plans to take its new tool, but it does pose as a threat to other players simply by controlling search results; overnight, Google went from being a marketing driver for these sites to a competitor.
Right now, if I type in "mortgage rates" into Google, the top search results belong to Bankrate, Wells Fargo and Quicken Loans. Might that change down the road? Yes, it would be shady for Google to do anything intentionally self-serving, but it's not as if the company has never tried to push the envelope. Google is also famous for changing its algorithm for ranking web pages; recent changes, despite being generally well-intentioned, are having adverse affects on some high-quality web sites.
By the way, the first ad to appear at the top of my Google search page for "mortgage rates" is for none other than ... Google Advisor.
Farnoosh Torabi is a personal finance journalist and commentator. She is the author of the new book Psych Yourself Rich, Get the Mindset and Discipline You Need to Build Your Financial Life. Follow her at www.farnoosh.tv, and on Twitter.
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