24/01/2013 09:20 GMT | Updated 25/03/2013 05:12 GMT

Beyond Comparison: The Aggressive Ascent of Price Comparison Websites

There was a time, not so long ago, when we forked out a product's RRP blindly. "Only £59.99, you say? I think I might be being ripped off... but that's cool."

Then came online shopping, bidding portals, comparison sites and affiliate networks (let's just ignore the life and death of daily deals for now) and suddenly we were greeted with an unnerving sensation: that the universe wasn't out to rip us off - we could actually save money online.

The die was firmly cast in the favour of the consumer, but nobody could've possibly predicted the ascent of possibly the most powerful consumer tool: the price comparison website.

This nifty invention lets you compare, usually by price, product or merchant, a whole host of financial products - insurance (car, life, medical, health, landlord, gadget and many more), broadband, credit cards, loans, energy - as well as high-ticket shopping items like TVs, washing machines and designer clothes. I expect it won't be too long before you can compare dates, husbands, wives and pets.

Everyone knows how to buy online: add to basket, click buy, pay safely. But do quite as many people know how comparison sites actually work? I'd wager not.

Essentially, brokers and merchants pay the sites for listings, and every time you either click through to their site or click to purchase their product, the host site takes a commission. There's also price comparison back-end technology, technical feeds, and product matching that goes on behind the scenes. With hundreds of thousands of affiliate sites and an industry worth close to £1bn in the UK, it's the most widely used form of affiliate marketing and it's not slowing down.

Even if you put the industry's net worth aside, by comparing prices and switching suppliers there's still billions of pounds to be saved by us, the consumer. Sounds win-win.

It makes sense then that price comparison companies have launched a disturbingly aggressive ad campaign featuring cartoons, catchphrases, cuddly toys and celebrity endorsements. It's mass market selling, and it's unignorable.

Celebrities who have been drafted in to the cause include Professor Stephen Hawking, Nigel Mansell and Robert Webb. In this madcap take on the meerkat genre, Mr Webb of Peep Show fame not-so-delicately and extremely Britishly explains why, when choosing comparethemarket energy suppliers, one shouldn't eat the first piece of suspicious looking mudcake that comes one's way:

Clearly, there's so much shit to wade through online now that comparison sites have created something truly timeless and robust: an easy and relatively painless way of sorting the wheat from the chaff.

Whatever you make of the world domination of price comparison websites, there's no denying it: they can save you money, and they're doing a bloody good job of it.

Natalie R Harris