You have a question or you need some help while on one of the big-name internet sites. So you look for the Contact Us link, usually found in small text at the bottom of the home page.

You’d expect to find an email link, if not a free telephone number, wouldn't you? Unfortunately, in a test of 12 major sites, most turned the process of finding an actual email link into something of a challenge.

Five of the 12 major sites we checked require four or more clicks to reach an email form (or link, in the case of Travelocity was the only one of the dozen to make its email form reachable within a single click. (Even then, Travelocity's form was below a list of 10 frequently asked questions and a FAQ search box.) On several of the sites, we went down blind alleys before we stumbled upon the right combination of links to the email form we needed.

The good news is that in all but three cases (Craigslist, Google and Yahoo), we heard back from a real-live human within just a few hours, and often in just minutes. The travel sites Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity were particularly responsive (they also make their toll-free, 24/7 telephone number easy to find). Here's a rundown on our email quest.

After clicking the Contact Us link on the bottom of Amazon’s home page, we had to navigate through the site's FAQ pages to reach an email link. (Don't bother clicking "No, this page wasn't helpful" under "Did this page help?" on the right side of the page – this just leads to a feedback form.) The page tells visitors to email customer service if they can't find an answer on the help pages.

Another Contact Us link appears on the bottom of each help page, leading to a "Send us your questions and comments" form. If you're a returning customer, your name and email address are filled in automatically. You have to choose a subject (we picked "Other Questions and Comments"), and you're given the option to enter a 17-digit order number.

After you enter your comment, you click Continue to review the message, and then Send (or Edit to make a change). The message confirming the submission indicates that a reply will arrive "as soon as possible, usually within 24 hours".

Number of clicks to email form: 4
Time to personal response: 5 hours, 38 minutes

This popular internet service has been criticised in the past for being difficult to reach, but its email link and toll-free, 24/7 telephone number were easy to find. The "Need More Help?" link under the "Need Help Joining?" box on the AOL home page leads to FAQs and links to both live chat support and an email form.

The form under the Email Us tab requires only an email address and selection of one of two radio buttons for technical help or help with an account. The message confirming your question's receipt says "You should receive a response from AOL within 24 hours."

Number of clicks to email form: 3
Time to personal response: 1 hour

It took only two clicks to reach this video-rental site's email form, and a personal response arrived in just over two hours. The Contact Us link is prominent on the top of Blockbuster’s home page, and on a tab on the subsequent page. (Like most of the sites we visited, Blockbuster defaults to its FAQ page from the Contact Us link.)

Unfortunately, you must provide your first and last name, email address, physical address and phone number (day and evening), along with a category and subcategory from drop-down lists. Optional categories are an online order number, Blockbuster store and membership number.

You're served up a "Before contacting a customer service representative" screen with more FAQs prior to submitting your question, and then you have to click "Finish submitting question." This generates a reference number for your question, and a message indicating that a response should be sent within two business days.

Number of clicks to email form: 2
Time to personal response: 2 hours, 15 minutes
The site noted for its visitor-generated content depends on its forums to answer your questions and doesn't respond to messages sent to its mailbox at [email protected] The Contact Us link on the bottom of the home page leads to an index of help pages.
Clicking the "Not Covered Here?" link leads to the site's helpdesk discussion forums on the left, and helpdesk subscriptions on the right. After you post your message (using your own email client rather than a form on the site), you almost immediately receive a canned reply stating "this email address is no longer monitored by Craigslist staff." You're then directed to FAQs and the site's help-desk forum.

Number of clicks to email form: 4
Time to personal response: n/a

The Feedback Forum link on the bottom of the site's home page requires registration, so if you're not a member, you get to the Contact Us link via the Help link on the top of the eBay home page).

This link (on the left in the Help Topics box) leads to three multiple-choice boxes. We made our choices and clicked Continue to reach the email link on the Contact Us page. We then selected the last of the three options there to see links to email and Live Help (online chat).

After entering our email address and message (your EBay user ID is optional), we clicked Send to see a submission confirmation indicating that, "if a response is necessary, you should receive it within 24-48 hours."

Number of clicks to email form: 5
Time to personal response: 4 hours, 26 minutes

We found that the Customer Support link on the top right of Expedia’s home page leads to FAQs, an email link and a toll-free, 24/7 telephone number. The email form states that the service will respond within four hours.

You must enter your first and last name, email address, phone number, a subject from a drop-down list and your question (an itinerary number is optional). After you click "Send this information to Expedia," you receive a confirmation message.

Number of clicks to email form: 3
Time to personal response: 3 hours, 21 minutes

As you might expect from one of the best designed, most visited and least commercial sites on the internet, Google is easy to contact, but difficult to hear back from.

The Contact Us link on the site's About Us page brings up a list of FAQs. We clicked "All other topics about Google" to see a list of potential contact subjects, several of which include "instant answers".

You need to choose one and click Continue to be presented with an email form requiring only an email address, subject and message. After clicking Submit we got a confirmation message, but no indication of when or if we were going to receive a response. In fact, we never did hear back from the site, although we weren't exactly holding our breath.

Number of clicks to email form: 4
Time to personal response: n/a

Acknowledging that the MSN site is packed with links and other information, it was still a challenge for us to find its email form.

In the absence of a Contact Us link on the home page, we first tried the Feedback link on the bottom of the page. The resulting "Would you recommend this page?" form was no help, but there was a Contact MSN Support link at the bottom of the form. The support page shows links by service type, including a "Provide general feedback" link that offers only general feedback with no personal response.

If you have already logged into the service, choosing any option on the support page (such as " and My MSN") shows "type of support" options: interactive chat, email and phone for customer or technical support. (If you haven't logged in, you are presented with an email form only.) You enter your name, email address and message, and then choose the "frequency of the issue" and "type of Internet connection" from drop-down menus below the message text box.

After clicking Submit, you receive a support-ticket number, but you don't get an indication of when you can expect a response. Curiously enough, we received two separate responses from MSN: one from customer support stating only that the message would be forwarded to technical support, and one from technical support several hours later with the information we were looking for.

Number of clicks to email form: 2 (not logged in); 3 (logged in)
Time to personal response: 10 hours, 12 minutes; 18 hours, 2 minutes
Finding the email link on the Netflix site was another guessing game. The Contact Us link on the bottom of its home page leads to several FAQs and links, none of which is labeled "Email".

Eventually we found the right combination of clicks to bring up the form we needed: you click Help to be brought to the site's Help Center, and then click any of the topics listed to see an FAQ page that has an "Email Customer Service for further information" link.

This leads to a multistep process for sending your message: first, you choose a topic and click Continue, next you select a category from the list, and then you enter your message and click Send. The resulting confirmation screen summarises your message and indicates only that you'll receive a response "as soon as possible."

Netflix was by far the fastest responder, answering with a canned "message received" email in just six minutes, and then sending a personal response with the information we requested a half hour later.

Number of clicks to email form: 4
Time to personal response: 6 minutes (canned); 36 minutes (personal)

Getting to this site's email form requires just two clicks: the Contact Us link on the bottom of the Orbitz home page, and the "send an email" link under the Travellers section of the resulting Contact Us page. The company's mailing address and toll-free, 24/7 telephone number are equally prominent.

After clicking "send an email" we saw a list of FAQs and a FAQ search box. Under this is an "email your questions" link leading to the email form itself. We only needed to supply an email address and topic in addition to our message. The submission confirmation page states that "we do our best to respond within three hours." And Orbitz succeeded.

Number of clicks to email form: 3
Time to personal response: 2 minutes (canned); 2 hours (personal)

One click was all it took for us to reach the site's email form. You choose the Customer Care link on the top right of the Travelocity home page to see a list of 10 FAQs, a "Browse All Help Topics" index, and an Email Us box.

You must select a topic from the list provided and enter your email address (no other information is required apart from your message itself, although you can also enter your Travelocity Trip ID). This page also lists the service's toll-free, 24/7 telephone number, and it offers a "Send a copy of this email to me" option.

After you click Send you see a message confirming its submission stating, "We strive to respond to emails within four hours, but sometimes a high volume of emails prevents this," and again listing the company's toll-free phone number.

Number of clicks to email form: 1
Time to personal response: 1 minute (canned); 3 hours, 38 minutes (personal)

As with Google, a site with so many visitors and so much information may be expected to be less responsive to email inquiries than a site focusing on commerce. In fact, there is no Contact Us link on Yahoo home page,) but clicking the Help option on the bottom of the page leads to an Ask Yahoo Help text-entry field and a list of FAQs.

The "How do I contact Yahoo Mail Customer Care?" link led us to a feedback form where we entered our name, Yahoo ID, email address, type of feedback (from a list), problem area (from a drop-down menu) and frequency of occurrence. After we clicked Send, we didn't receive any indication of whether a response would be sent. No promise was broken: we didn't receive a response.

Number of clicks to email form: 3
Time to personal response: n/a