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Look (Online) Before You Leap

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It's a recurring feature of the Internet Age: Ways of using the technology spread rapidly from early adopters to mainstream consumers. As a new report from the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project makes clear, that's what has happened with the practice of researching products and services online before buying.

In polling for the report (conducted by telephone in August and September), 21 percent of all respondents said they used the Internet "yesterday" to research a product or service. That's up from 15 percent saying the same in a September 2007 survey and from 9 percent in February 2004.

Among the respondents who are Internet users, 78 percent said they do this sort of online research at least occasionally. In one telltale sign of how common the phenomenon is, 67 percent of online respondents who don't have a broadband connection said they have conducted such research (as did 83 percent of the survey's broadbanders).

The findings rebut the stereotype of older Internet users as people who employ Web technology for little more than sending snapshots of their grandchildren.

As you can gather from the chart, wired 50-64-year-olds are more likely than their young-adult counterparts to have researched potential purchases online, and a majority of the 65-plusers have done the same.

Nor do younger Internet users have a monopoly on the practice of posting online product reviews.

While 33 percent of the survey's online 18-29-year-olds said they've posted such reviews, so did 35 percent of the 30-49s, 30 percent of the 50-64s and 31 percent of the 65-plusers.

Pew's polling finds that the presence or absence of broadband at home is more of a dividing line than age: Broadbanders were twice as likely as non-broadbanders (35 percent vs. 17 percent) to say they have posted online product reviews.