Key principles for comparison tools
Consumers face an abundance of information online and thus rely on shortcuts such as comparison tools in their decision-making process. These can bring transparency to the markets and the possibility to compare products/services to find better deals are useful. However, transparency and trustworthiness of the service to consumers (and fair competition) requires minimum principles to be respected.
The European Commission document outlines such principles (developed together with stakeholders and includes a list of those organisations who have endorsed the principles) to help operators as to how to respect the relevant EU legislation and offer better services to consumers: 1) in terms of compliance with Unfair Commercial Practices Directive; 2) user-friendliness and transparency of comparison tools.
Principles cover all types of comparison tools and are also accompanied with best practices (“in practice” section). The term 'comparison tool' (CT) should be understood as including all digital content and applications developed to be used by consumers primarily to compare products and services online, irrespective of the device used (e.g. laptop, smartphone, tablet) or the parameter(s) on which the comparison is based (e.g. price, quality, user reviews). To the extent that operators of search engines, travel or ticket booking sites, e-commerce platforms acting as a marketplace for several traders develop functions or applications dedicated to the comparison of products and services, these functions or applications are also covered by the term 'comparison tool'.
Ensuring compliance with the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive
1. Impartiality of the comparison and identification of advertising: Clearly identifiable advertising (sponsored results differentiated from organic comparison results), Clear information about contractual/relation between CT operator and trader (lack of impartiality of the results displayed e.g. default ranking), Option exists to rank the offers differently
- Reference to “advertising” or “promoted link” whenever the default ranking is affected by a contractual/relationship between the CT operator and the manufacturer/seller/provider (e.g. premium fee for offer(s) to appear more prominently/higher on the ranking page.
- Product reviews featured on the website posted by the manufacturer/seller/provider or paid for by them should be clearly indicated as being advertising.
- Other types of advertising (e.g. banners) should be explicitly marked as such and separated visually from the results
2. Transparency about the business model: Adequate disclosure of financing models, owners, shareholders, material connections with manufacturers/sellers/providers.
- Business-model transparency (general information on whether the incomes come from ads, pay-per-click, pay-per-order/commission, referencing, selling of user data collected to others)
- Mention of (part) ownership/affiliation (displayed in a clear, simple and meaningful manner and easily accessible from all wepages e.g. “About us” or “FAQ”)
3. Accuracy of the information provided, including price and availability: Comparison tools should ensure that all the information they provide is accurate and in particular that information regarding price and availability corresponds exactly to the offer as made available by the seller of the product or service. In no case should availability information give a false impression of scarcity. CTs should provide consumers, in accordance with existing legal obligations – and where such obligations do not apply, to the extent possible – with the final product price, including applicable taxes, charges, surcharges, additional fees and delivery costs, and with a detailed breakdown of these charges.
- Information is updated regularly and frequently (to reflect the changes in the offers) i.e. prompt actions to correct inaccuracies once aware or are notified of them Prices (especially for long term contracts after initial discounts) and conditions applicable for loyalty periods are clearly stated.
- Consumers informed about the differences between a promotional offer and the normal price
- When offers are ranked by ascending prices, then final prices should serve as the criteria for such a ranking.
- Clearly indicate whether availability information reflects availability on the CT itself or overall availability, and could be completed with the time of the last update on the search result page.
- Since delivery costs may not always be known to the CT operator, they should undertake best efforts and provide, to the extent possible, indicative information by mentioning, for example, the standard shipping costs applicable
4. Data collection, ranking, comparability and coverage: Criteria used for the rankings should be clearly and prominently indicated, as well as, where relevant to ensure that consumers are not misled, general information about any specific methodology used. When the products or services compared are not identical, differences in their characteristics should be clearly mentioned. Comparison tools should give a clear indication of the completeness and coverage of the comparison.
- CT operators should explain in a general and understandable manner how they collect data about the products and services compared.
- The criteria on which the different rankings are based (e.g. ranking based on price, comments/marks from users or a personalised set of criteria etc.) should be clearly indicated.
- The criteria of the default ranking should be prominent, provided in a succinct way directly on the search results page.
- CT should display the same information in a uniform manner for all the products compared to ensure comparability.
- When additional services are included, this should be clearly indicated as well as whether they are offered by the traders or the CT itself. Optional services should be offered with an opt-in mechanism.
- The coverage of the comparison should be specified in terms of sectors, number of sellers and geographical scope. In case of highly diverse markets (e.g. fast moving consumer goods, electronic goods), the CT should seek to give the number of products and suppliers compared.
- In the case of highly concentrated markets (e.g. energy or telecoms, international transport), the CT should clearly indicate which providers it covers.
- This information should be prominently provided, for instance on the landing page.
- The existence of any important exception to the coverage of the CT in terms of major market players particularly in highly concentrated markets should be made known to consumers.
- CT providing comparison of tested products (e.g. qualitative comparisons) should indicate prominently how many products have been tested or analysed in a given range of products.
5. Transparency and trustworthiness of user reviews and user ratings: Comparison tools should take measures to ensure the trustworthiness of user reviews and ratings, and provide an overview of the methodology used to the extent that this is necessary to ensure that consumers are not misled. If a review is posted by an endorser who is getting paid or getting services in exchange for talking about a product or if a review has been procured in a way that may influence the reviewer's opinion about the product, this needs to be made clear to consumers.
- CT displaying user reviews should explain that the reviews are user-generated and how they are created, posted, ranked and sorted.
- CT displaying user reviews should take steps to discourage fake reviews and ensure they are trustworthy. This could include, for instance, automatic quality control, requesting the reviewer to be registered, to verify his/her IP address or to require proof that the person has actually used the object of the review. However, the control of reviews should be carried out with respect to users’ rights to anonymity in compliance with EU/national data protection laws and should not discourage online engagement or create barriers for consumers to post reviews.
- All reviews, even negative ones, provided they respect legislation against defamation and comply with the terms of service of the site, should be published and should not be pushed at the bottom of reviews to ensure the full and transparent information of consumers.
- Sponsored reviews should be distinguished, visually and structurally, from organic results. Such reviews should not be counted in for aggregated review scores.
- Posting of reviews by traders, or by third parties on request of the trader (e.g. e-reputation companies), are totally "fake" reviews and banned in all circumstances as the practice amounts to 'falsely representing oneself as a consumer'.
6. Display of contact details: including postal address and e-mail address.
In practice: Contact details should be given in a dedicated “contact us” section.
Further improving transparency and user-friendliness (the following principles seek to further improve the transparency and user-friendliness of the CT beyond legal requirements).
7. Complaint handling and access to redress mechanisms: Inaccuracies and other problems fixed quickly and efficiently (if offers possibility to purchase via the website/application, the operator should have an efficient complaint handling policy and provide consumers with easy-to-find information on available redress mechanisms for the sector)
- Information on how to complain about problems in connection with the comparison itself should be easy to find.
- In relation to redress mechanisms, the CT should describe the complaint handling mechanism and provide the contact details of the relevant alternative dispute resolution body or bodies.
- CT could also indicate a phone number to be contacted for when the consumer experiences a problem.
8. Relevance of the information and display: Relevant for assessing and comparing offers from a consumer perspective
- Information should be written in simple language, avoiding complex legal and technical terms.
- To improve the user-friendliness of the CT, it would be useful that this information is layered in case the consumers wish to look for more granular details.
- CT could also provide consumers with the possibility to personalise the search, for instance by including multiple evaluation criteria, filters and simulation functions.
- CT could put in place a uniform and easy point of recognition (design, lay-out, icon, etc.) that informs consumers when compared products are not identical.
9. User-friendliness and accessibility: CT strives to employ a user-friendly and simple to use interface (includes features to help vulnerable, disabled and the elderly)
- CT websites should also follow existing international guidelines or standards on accessibility.
- Practical solutions should be implemented by the CT operator to help consumers find the necessary information covered in these principles, irrespective of the device used.
- To improve the user-friendliness of the comparison tools, sellers could be given the possibility to react to reviews posted by users.