MELISSA BLOCK, host:

As the National Retail Federation predicts overall holiday spending will be down this year, but online spending is expected to grow, especially in the next few weeks as people rush to take advantage of Internet deals like those Omar was talking about. We have more information than ever at our fingertips and yet it can be tough figuring out which businesses to trust.

NPR's Tamara Keith tells us about a new Web tool designed to help.

TAMARA KEITH: The Better Business Bureau has been around for almost 100 years, taking consumer complaints and policing business practices. Alison Southwick works for the BBB.

Ms. ALISON SOUTHWICK (Spokesperson, Better Business Bureau): It used to be you would have to call up your Better Business Bureau to ask about a company, and ask whether it had a satisfactory or unsatisfactory record.

KEITH: And when you called you were probably using a rotary phone. But times have changed � a lot � and the BBB has just come out with a new browser plug-in designed to make it easier to figure out which businesses have the Better Business Bureau seal of approval.

Ms. SOUTHWICK: It kind of overlays on top of your browser and then when you search�

KEITH: �for, say, a plumber in Washington, D.C., Southwick says the plug-in checks the BBB's database against the results pulled up by the search engine.

Ms. SOUTHWICK: And then you'll be able to see immediately whether or not they are a BBB-accredited business.

KEITH: A BBB logo shows up next to the businesses that are accredited. Those businesses have agreed to meet the organization's standards, and have also paid a fee. But this begs the question: How much is the BBB seal of approval worth these days? I asked some total strangers.

Ms. JENNIFER SMITH(ph): I'm assuming it's still, you know, in existence. But I haven't heard of anyone using it for years and years and years.

KEITH: What do you know about the Better Business Bureau?

Mr. CLAIRE DAVIS(ph): You know, I actually haven't heard of them before. So, yeah, I don't really know anything about them.

Ms. HELEN COLIN(ph): Yeah, I have to say in my Google and searches for various things, I have never come across their Web site.

KEITH: Jennifer Smith, Helen Colin and Claire Davis were all in Bethesda, Maryland. About three and a half million people do visit the BBB Web site each month, and the site's traffic has been steadily growing. But when it comes to informing consumers, Damien Rosgill says there is a lot of competition from sites like Yelp.

Mr. DAMIEN ROSGILL (Compete): About 27.5 million people are visiting this site on a monthly basis, so just orders of magnitude bigger.

KEITH: Rosgill works for the Web-tracking firm, Compete. Site like Yelp let users comment on their experiences with local businesses and rate them. He says the BBB site is just so Web 1.0.

Mr. ROSGILL: Just go to their Web site, it feels pretty cold, contrast that with going to Yelp and see which one feels more like a place where you want to hang out.

KEITH: Of course, the Better Business Bureau isn't trying to be Facebook or Yelp, for that matter. Think of it as one more tool to help you make intelligent decisions about where to shop or who to hire to fix a leak. And the toolbox has a lot more choices than it used to.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington.

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