Charles Schwab, chairman and CEO of California discount broker Charles Schwab & Co., and Muriel Siebert, chairman and CEO of New York discount broker Muriel Siebert & Co., share the same compelling idea: That investing shouldn't cost an arm and a leg. Over the years, their companies have offered a widening array of services and advice to an increasingly sophisticated investing populace -- while their fees have hovered near the bottom of the brokerage scale. Both offer extensive Web sites where their clients can trade, each with a section just for women. But there, the similarities end.
For my money, whether you're a neophyte, a sophisticated investor, or somewhere in-between, if you want a complete, no-nonsense investing resource online, go to www.murielsiebert.com or www.wfn.com (for Women's Financial Network, which Siebert also owns). If you want to scramble through badly organized pages to reach a lightweight introduction to a complex investing topic, only to find that you'll have to pay or make a phone call to get any real information, go to Schwab online (www.schwab.com).
CUTTING TO THE CHASE.
Quality of information and ease of use aside, the most obvious reason to surf to Siebert's sites is that they offer a ton of information -- free. Schwab.com, by contrast, keeps trying to get you to sign up for courses and other things that may be free or on a trial basis -- or may not be. Experienced Web visitors know what that means -- plenty of fees and lots of spam e-mail.
Beyond the question of what you get for your money is the issue of how easy the information is to find. At MurielSiebert.com, the opening screen has a clear link to WFN -- and you can skip that by going straight to the WFN URL. At Schwab.com, by contrast, the area for women is much easier to miss than all the ballyhoo with which it was announced. It isn't mentioned anywhere on the home page that I could find -- though I have to admit that I got tired of reading all the teeny tiny print there.
If you happen to click on the "getting started" tab at the top of the page, which you might well skip if you thought that meant opening an account, you'll get to a page that has a link to the women's investing page -- a link that you might easily mistake for an ad.
Once you've found the right place on both sites, you'll notice that the clarity of WFN easily outshines Schwab. The latter site dumps you into its flavor-of-the-month article, a generic introduction to some topic like "loss of a spouse" or "divorce" -- although you might care less about either of those topics. The article does have some links within and below the text to other topics, but these do not seem to be presented with any specific organization in mind. The article's text is also invariably presented in type of a size that's unfriendly to myopics, people (like me) who spend all day looking at computer screens, or anybody approaching middle age. Even if you increase the type size of your browser, the graphics are crowded and uncomfortable to navigate.
By contrast, WFN.com is clean and easy to read. Its home page lays out what you'll find under each link -- meaning that you shouldn't end up on the page for opening an account unless you intend to go there. A single link gets you to the part of the site that deals with financial issues you'll face in the event of divorce, retirement, and other life passages. Also on the home page are clear links to the site's learning center, as well as to a site demo. And of course, there are the standard links to plain old financial data -- mutual-fund-return comparisons, money-market returns, a chart of the Nasdaq's trading levels, and Muriel Siebert's own take on the market.
At Schwab, once you figure out what to click on to get to the topic you want to read about, the treatment you'll receive is a bit condescending -- and not all that informative. One recent article reveals that divorce can change your financial picture -- as if you didn't know that already. Frequently, these bits of expositon will end by pointing you to some course you should sign up for or some number you should call to get advice from Schwab. Through sheer luck, I stumbled onto a form that was supposed to help me calculate how much life insurance I need. The calculations I needed to perform were described in such a vague way that I would have had to call a Schwab representative to make sense of them.
WFN, on the other hand gives you practical advice and tools that you can use to take action right away. For example, under the business-owners section I clicked on "raising capital," and then on the link to "angel investors," which had a simple, clear description of the term right underneath. One click put me through to a short list of angel investors and profiles of their companies. I thought I'd better check to see if these angels had paid for this listing. It turned out that was not the case at all. The list was put together after the WFN crew did proprietary research on which investors would be most friendly to women entrepreneurs. Just exactly what I would need if I were trying to raise money for my small business.
I have to admit, I was skeptical when I clicked through to the S.T.E.P.S. (Smart, Tailored, Event-Driven, Packaged Solutions) part of the WFN site, which houses advice for women at each stage of life. I decided to check out what I would need to think about if I were widowed and found a checklist of things to do to get my finances in order. True, the advice was often paired with an unmistakable pitch: There were phone numbers to put you through to Siebert advisors and the opportunity to sign up for courses. But plenty of free, useful information is also available.
I've met both Muriel Siebert and Charles Schwab, and to me their Web sites reflect their personalities. Schwab is charming, well-groomed, and glib. So is his site. Siebert is less image-conscious -- and is constantly pondering the question of what you can do to make the most of your money right this minute. I've never spoken to her when she didn't have some tax tip or other piece of investing advice she had come up with that morning. It's true to her style that her Web site is a gold mine of information.
By Margaret Popper in New York