On pursuing the perfect...

We all, at one time or another, are in search of a product or service, and naturally we want the best money can buy, for the least amount of money. Our lives are often dominated by such ques-tions as, "What doctor or dentist should I choose?" "Which house painter, mechanic, plumber or lawyer should I pick?"

We live in a world of specialization where others now provide most of our services. The days of the jack-of-all-trades are past.

The problem is deciding, or rather the process of deciding, which product to buy or which service to employ, and remember, you are the employer.

In the past I've jokingly called this process "Yellow Pages roulette." You've opened the Yellow Pages, flipped to the section you're looking for and made your decision, often based on the biggest advertisement. Today, this would be relabeled "Internet roulette" as the Internet increasingly becomes the main source of information.

Although the Internet opens the door to many more possibilities for those companies that have Web sites, it still leaves us pondering which company or individual will provide us the best service for the money.

Like the big ads in the Yellow Pages, companies can hire experts to mount an impressive Web page, claiming they are the world leader in whatever field of endeavor they earn their living.

The consumer is still in the dark. It's like dating: When we first meet a new person of interest, everyone is on his or her best behavior. It's only after some time together that we find out what we've really gotten ourselves into.

The basic problem is that, from Able Seaman to Zoologist, from barbers to brain surgeons, only 50 percent graduated at the top of their class - the other half were at the bottom. Where did the one you're considering finish?

Trial and error may be OK for an espresso, but if you're hiring an attorney for an important legal proceeding, or a medical professional, you don't want to roll the dice.

There's help out there if you are looking for product advice. Consumer Reports magazine is probably considered the leader in helping the buyer through the maze of makes and models, clever advertising and fast-talking salespeople, both with their magazine and with their Web site.

A number of Web sites have emerged to lend a hand. One that has grown exponentially since being founded by Angie Hicks in 1995 is Angie's List. You have to register and pay a fee for her service and, although not as independent as Consumer Reports - Angie's takes money from advertisers, opening the possibility for a conflict of interest - it's a useful resource with the customer rating system based on people who've hired companies to do work.

Similar online services are available. Locally, there's Judy's Book, started by Andy Sack and Chris DeVore of Seattle.

At Yelp, everybody tells their experiences on a site where you can look for everything from restaurants to pest control.

Although the Internet offers plenty of information - you can Google any of the names mentioned here - it is wise to at least double-check the information you get from any site.

References from family and friends may still be the best approach.

We live in an increasingly complex world, inundated with advertising, product and service claims; we may long for the simpler days, but they're history. It's up to each of us to check information, and talk to friends and references, before plunking down our hard-earned money on important and sometimes life-altering decisions.

Today's Internet can be like the snake-oil peddler of yore: flashier and more technical for sure, but potentially just as nefarious. The well-known "There's a sucker born every minute," inaccurately attributed to P.T. Barnum and really said by his rival, David Hannum, still holds true today.

Don't be a sucker. Do your homework.

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