Say you're surfing the Web one day, thinking about life insurance. You don't know how much you need or what kind you should buy. Your search brings you to InsureMarket by Quicken, Intuit's wildly popular personal financial software.

You don't have a lot of time to spare, so you click on the button marked "60 Second Selector." You answer a series of questions, passing through a number of screens, until your insurance choice pops up--say, a variable insurance policy. Below that is a description of John Hancock Life Insurance Company and a button that will allow you to view a selection of agents in your area.

If the process had turned up "term life" as the appropriate product for you, you'd have been able to fill out an application to get quotes in real time from several companies. You could then choose the company from which you'd like to purchase the product, submit a few more details, and be contacted by a call center representative or agent to complete the process.

Quicken InsureMarket plans to add online quotes and purchasing of auto and home insurance by next year, as well as lead-generation for annuities and long-term care and disability insurance.

Some big names are participating in Quicken's site--John Hancock, Allstate, MetLife, Zurich Kemper, and others. "Companies have noticed that there is a significant number of people out there who are getting online and using the Web to make financial decisions," says Mark McCrery, vice president of marketing for InsureMarket in Alexandria, VA. "It makes sense to put insurance information out there."

As to whether or not companies are banking on big sales, he says no. "These are huge companies. They sell millions of policies a year. And the Internet has been untested until now." InsureMarket, however, now gets hundreds of thousands of hits each month and delivers thousands of quotes, McCrery says. (The company is choosing not to release actual sales data until early next year.)

Web insurance sales fit different companies in different ways, McCrery points out. For example, some companies look at it solely as a way to provide their agents with higher qualified leads. (The average income of an InsureMarket visitor receiving quotes is $69,000; the average face value of a term policy sold through InsureMarket is $750,000.) Direct writers, on the other hand, see the Web site as a way to capture additional direct sales.

"It's whatever the customer chooses," McCrery says. "Look at how these people would buy insurance off line. Some would buy through a call center; some would buy through an agent. It's not just the direct purchasers who are coming online."