iShares, VIPERs and spiders each represent different exchange-traded fund (ETF) families. In other words, an individual company offers a range of ETF types under one product line. Because these ETF families are constructed and operated by different companies, you will find differences in terms of how they are made up and what indexes or sectors they cover.

Barclays Global Investors is the company behind the iShares family of ETFs, which offers ETFs that cover such things as the S&P 500 and the Morgan Stanley Capital International Japan Index. The company offers a wide selection of more than 25 funds, which cover a wide range of both U.S. and international sectors and indexes. Barclays is not restricted to equity-based tracking. In fact, it has ETFs that cover the bond market and even one that tracks the price of gold.

Vanguard's Vanguard Index Participation Receipts (VIPERs) are very similar to iShares in that they offer a wide range of ETF types covering several indexes and sectors in 20 different funds.

Spiders (SPDRs), however, differ from iShares and VIPERs because they cover a more specific area of the financial market. Currently, there are 10 spiders that cover the S&P 500, nine of which cover individual sectors of the index. This selection allows investors to place their money in an ETF that covers either the whole market or a specific segment of the market.

Therefore, the differences between spiders, VIPERs and iShares are primarily based on the companies behind these ETFs and which indexes and/or sectors they cover. But if you are looking for exposure to the S&P 500, for example, which is offered by more than one ETF company, look at the more specific attributes of the fund. The biggest thing to focus on in this case will be the fund's expense ratio (a lower expense ratio is generally more desirable), along with how well the ETF tracks the underlying index. See our Special Feature: Exchange-Traded Funds for everything you need to know about ETFs.

For more insight, see Introduction To Exchange-Traded Funds, How To Use ETFs In Your Portfolio and ETFs Vs Index Funds: Quantifying The Differences.

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