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Consumer Reports Online reviews Net stores

The watchdog's new service, dubbed e-Ratings, marks Consumer Reports' biggest foray yet into the online world.

Consumer Reports Online today added evaluations of e-commerce sites to its offerings.

As reported earlier by CNET News.com, the watchdog's new service, dubbed e-Ratings, marks Consumer Reports' biggest foray yet into the online world. Consumers long have turned to the 63-year-old magazine for shopping guidance, ratings, and product recalls. Its brand is among the most trusted--and to some, controversial--for product reviews.

"Consumer Reports Online e-Ratings is designed to help Web shoppers select the sites to shop at--much as we help shoppers select the products they purchase or the services they use," Nancy Macagno, director of new media for Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports magazine and Consumer Reports Online, said in a statement. "We are using the distinctive Consumer Reports 'testing' approach with each site to come up with unbiased ratings that are meaningful and helpful to consumers."

As e-commerce booms, consumer-watchdog sites are growing, too. Another example is AuctionWatch, an independent critic for online auctions.

The e-Ratings will be available to subscribers only. A subscription costs $3.95 per month or $24 per year--or $19 per year for Consumer Reports magazine subscribers. A page of tips for shopping online is available for free.

Sites to be reviewed are chosen based on their traffic and popularity, Consumer Reports Online said. "Consumer Reports Online approaches each site as an average consumer would," according to the site. "In every case, a consistent shopping scenario is followed: browsing for products; searching for specific items and features; and placing an order. Sites are scored using Consumer Reports magazine's familiar five-point ratings system."

Consumer Reports Online launched e-Ratings with 30 catalog merchant site evaluations. It plans to follow with ratings of sites selling books and music as well as toy sites later this month. It later will add sites that sell electronics and small appliances.

Sites are evaluated for their policies surrounding security and privacy, as well as how well the policies are disclosed to shoppers; usability; content, which includes breadth of product offerings, information about the products, and features such as personalization.

The service also offers merchant ratings by BizRate.com, which tabulates surveys of consumers regarding their online shopping experiences.