It's been a year since Google Inc. launched its much-anticipated payment service, and I've been curious whether a company known best for its search engine can deliver a money service as good as industry leader PayPal.
In many ways, I found Google Checkout much easier to use. I can pay for merchandise in fewer steps and more easily understand my account options.
But the ultimate test is whether Checkout works with the tasks for which I've been using PayPal, and the answer is no.
Checkout works well as an online wallet, a way to store credit card numbers and addresses so you don't have to retype all that information each time. PayPal functions more like a bank account: You can do much more, such as receiving money, but the array of options can be confusing and add steps to the shopping process.
Both are free to set up and make payments, and signing up is easy.
With Checkout, you provide at the outset an e-mail address — through Google's Gmail or any other provider — along with your credit card, billing and shipping information.
PayPal requires only your e-mail address and basic details to start and asks for your credit card or bank account information later as needed. (Google accepts payments via credit or debit cards only, while PayPal lets you withdraw funds from a regular bank account.)
In terms of buying goods, what I like about Checkout is its consistency and simplicity.
The layout and process are familiar whether I'm shopping at the Web site for Starbucks Corp., RadioShack Corp. or a small outfit called Weloveipod. I simply click on a "Google Checkout" logo, sign in, review my order and accept. There's a pull-down menu at the review stage where I can choose standard, express or other shipping option.
PayPal's look and feel vary, and it's not as seamless as Checkout.
Like Checkout, PayPal offers merchants various ways to integrate the service with their own online stores. That's good because sole proprietors will have different needs from a large merchant like Southwest Airlines Co. or Toys "R" Us Inc. But while the back end may vary, Checkout manages to make the front end appear consistent to the customer.
It took seven steps — compared with Checkout's four — to place a Starbucks order with PayPal. First, I encountered a PayPal screen where I must verify the information I have with the payment service. I then had to choose a shipping option separately and create a separate account with Starbucks.
It's worse at Toys "R" Us. I had to retype my billing and shipping information even though PayPal had all that.
But Checkout isn't accepted where it counts. Google claims tens of thousands of merchants accepting Checkout, compared with millions claimed by PayPal.
Online auctioneer eBay Inc., which owns PayPal, doesn't allow its auction sellers to accept payments from Checkout. And some smaller merchants take PayPal only (Some merchants accept Checkout but not PayPal, but none are places I'd regularly shop at.)
Unlike Checkout, PayPal sometimes lets you make one-time payments without creating an account, though the merchant then gets your credit card information to complete the transaction.
Normally, PayPal, like Checkout, limits what it shares. Of course, merchants will need your name, shipping address and sometimes your phone number.
Checkout will sometimes give merchants your billing address and the last four digits of your credit card as well, while PayPal says it won't unless you use the one-time option. On the other hand, PayPal shares your e-mail address with merchants that request it, while Checkout lets you keep that private — and Google will forward receipts and other important e-mails to you.
PayPal is better abroad. You can buy goods from about 190 markets with PayPal compared with some 140 for Checkout. With PayPal, you can receive money in about 50 countries, while Checkout accepts U.S. and U.K. merchants only. And while PayPal is offered in 17 currencies, Checkout deals only with dollars and pounds.
Most importantly, Checkout won't let you receive money with regular accounts — you'd need a special merchant account and provide a Social Security number or federal tax identification number. I haven't used PayPal often to receive money, but it sure came in handy when I've needed to.
Of course, PayPal's versatility also leads to complications.
With Checkout, you either have a regular account for making payments only or a merchant account for receiving payments.
PayPal offers three types of accounts, all letting people send and receive payments, but each with different fees and restrictions. You also have additional options within each account type to boost your trust level.
For example, you can connect a PayPal account with a regular bank account to lift spending limits. But doing so makes subsequent payments by credit cards more cumbersome — PayPal obviously wants to avoid their higher processing fees.
With both Checkout and PayPal, consumers are charged nothing to send money or make payments.
Merchants are charged based on transaction amounts.
Checkout's rates are much easier to understand: It's 2 percent plus 20 cents per transaction; fees are waived through the end of the year and beyond that merchants can receive subsidies by spending money on Google search ads.
With PayPal, fees depend on your account type, monthly sales amounts and whether the buyer is sending money from a bank account or credit card.
Simplicity wins any day. Unfortunately, until Checkout is more widely adopted by merchants and begins to let regular accountholders receive money, I must accept PayPal's complexities to fully engage in e-commerce.