Do Credit-Card-Comparison Sites Work as Promised?

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Tech tools that let you comparison-shop are awesome: You go to a single destination, plug in a little info, and some app or bot combs the universe looking to match your needs with the best deal. That’s the idea, anyway. Unfortunately, when it comes to websites that aggregate and compare credit card offers, this model works better in theory than in practice.

TIME Moneyland reviewed 11 sites that offer credit card comparisons: CardHub.com, CardRatings.com, CreditDonkey.com, NerdWallet.com, Google.com/advisor/uscredit, CreditCardOutlaw.com, CreditSesame.com, CreditKarma.com, Bankrate.com, CreditCards.com and LowCards.com. We ran two hypothetical scenarios: one consumer with excellent credit shopping for a cashback rewards card, and a second with good credit (in the 700 FICO score ballpark) looking for a 0% APR on balance transfers.

That is, we tried to run those two scenarios. While a few sites asked us more detailed questions, many didn’t let us search by card type (cash back, low APR, etc.) as well as credit type. Overall, the results were ugly. Sometimes, there were a few cards mixed in the results that seemed like reasonable suggestions given our criteria. More often, there were technological glitches, poor or inappropriate offerings, inconsistent recommendations, and a sneaking suspicion that just about everybody in this business was angling to sell us the same handful of cards.

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What went wrong? Here are four areas where these sites stumble.

Business Model

These sites tend to rely on affiliate partnerships for their revenue; that is, if you click on a credit card being offered and successfully apply for it, the site gets a payment. This can make it tricky to figure out a site’s motivation for recommending a certain card over another. Is it really a better choice, or is the operator getting paid more to promote the one it’s suggesting?

On several of the sites, we noticed that the top picks were heavily weighted in favor of just one issuer; three of the top four suggestions on CardHub were Discover cards. A search on CreditDonkey for balance transfer cards gave us a top five that were all Discover cards. On Bankrate, three of the top four were Capital One cards. On NerdWallet, even after we clicked through to see more detail about a non-featured card, the site still suggested the featured card we’d passed over.

Unsuitable Results

When we searched for cards using “good” instead of “excellent” credit as a criteria, the results were a flop. CardRatings, Bankrate and CreditCards returned us cards labeled as appropriate for people with “excellent credit.” CardHub suggested the Discover More card as its top pick for both credit tiers — a card several other sites classified in the excellent category. LowCards also suggested the Discover More card as its number one pick. Google Advisor’s top four included two cards that didn’t even offer 0% balance transfers — one of the criteria we specified.

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CreditSesame’s top pick was the Capital One Cash Rewards for Newcomers, which charges a 24.9% APR right out of the gate — even though there were cards with better terms further down the list. CreditCardOutlaw only returned three suggestions when we searched for “good” score cards, one of which was a Hilton co-branded card (not good if you’re not a regular guest at Hilton hotels), and CreditDonkey didn’t give us any indication of what kind of credit we’d need to qualify for any cards.

Strange Recommendations

We weren’t even that thrilled with what some of the sites suggested for people with excellent credit. Of the top four cards suggested by CreditCardOutlaw and CreditCards, two of each came with an annual fee. Credit card issuers are falling all over themselves to sign up people with top-flight credit. Unless there are some serious extra perks like airline lounge access you want your card to include, it’s not hard to find a credit card that won’t charge you an annual fee.

Several sites suggested cards that seemed either irrelevant or just weird. CreditCards returned a list that included a small-business credit card. CardHub and CreditSesame both suggested the Disney Visa in response to a request for a cashback card — while you earn money back, it has to be redeemed for Disney products and services.

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A few of the sites had Costco American Express cards in their top four picks, which wouldn’t be beneficial to someone who never shops at the warehouse club. Delta and Starwood co-branded American Express cards turned up as well. By far, the most bizarre suggestion was the Louisiana State University Tigers Platinum MasterCard suggested in CreditSesame’s top four.

Tech Glitches

On CreditKarma, every time we clicked through for more details on a card and then clicked back, all of our preferences were reset to the default settings. On Bankrate, a trio of tabs gave us the impression we could search by multiple criteria, but only the last click was the one that counted in the search criteria.

CreditCardOutlaw and CardRatings both had glitches with their search tools that required calls to the company. (To their, ahem, credit, both were resolved when we checked back a day later.)

The Bottom Line

The frustrating thing is that, despite the obvious concerns with how credit cards are recommended, these sites do other stuff well. CardHub regularly publishes financial research about consumer debt and evaluations about the credit card market. CreditKarma and CreditSesame both give you a big-picture look at your debts and offer fairly reliable FAKO scores; that is, while they’re not real FICO scores, they’ll give you a rough idea of your credit health for free. Bankrate, CardRatings and NerdWallet all offer a wealth of really good, easy-to-read advice and how-to information in their articles and blogs. Google — well, it’s Google.

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So if you’re in the market for a credit card, keep a few things in mind: Don’t use just one of sites in your search (you are comparison-shopping, so compare the compar-ers), don’t think checking off a couple of boxes is a substitute for reading the fine print and analyzing the results, and don’t forget to consider cards from local banks and credit unions as an alternative to the big issuers that tend to dominate these sites.

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