Viewpoint -- Personal Computing: You Get What You Pay For Regarding Business Research

Sometimes it pays to hire a professional, or at least buy quality content.

The Web is a gargantuan repository of information. Many popular Internet search tools index billions of Web documents. With numbers like that you might think that the Web contains everything you could possibly need to know. Not so. Professional researchers know that good research involves more than just searching the Web. More than two-thirds of the publications used most often by knowledge workers either don't have Web sites or don't make their material available on the Web for free, according to a study by Outsell, a global market research firm that focuses on the information industry. The Web also can be a source of information that's biased, outdated or inaccurate. It often makes sense to start with free Web sites when searching for information. But when the information you need is for critical business purposes, it can be smart to go beyond the Web. Traditionally, libraries were the places to go when you needed information, and they can still serve that function well. One resource used by librarians and professional researchers alike is commercial research databases. There are countless scenarios for using a commercial research database, but two common ones are looking for information about a possible business partner and doing market research on potential customers and existing competitors for a new product or service. These days you can access commercial research databases yourself, though you may not always want to. In the past, the world of commercial research databases was a forbidding one, where information was difficult to get at and expensive once you got it. This has changed somewhat in recent years, with the big three commercial research databases offering easier-to-use Web interfaces and lower-priced options. Dialog, LexisNexis and Factiva are more accurately referred to as information aggregators. They gather information from hundreds of third-party databases and let you quickly search through any or all of them using the same search procedures. Each service has its strengths, says Cindy Shamel, president-elect of the Association of Independent Information Professionals who runs her own research company, Shamel Information Services, in San Diego. Dialog is the oldest of the three, created in 1972 as the world's first online information retrieval system. It is a strong source for scientific, technical and intellectual-property material, as well as general and business news. LexisNexis is a combination of Lexis, the premier source of in-depth legal and regulatory information and public records, and Nexis, a good source of general and business news, market research and company information. Factiva is a joint venture of Dow Jones and Reuters. The premier source of breaking business news and global content, it combines the full text of the Wall Street Journal with the Dow Jones and Reuters newswires. For information about worldwide business and international affairs, it provides material from nearly 1,000 non-English sources in 118 countries and 22 languages. Each service has different pricing options for individuals, small businesses, large businesses and information professionals. For individuals and small businesses, a pay-as-you-go plan makes the most sense. Additionally, searching through databases and viewing headlines are free. Each article or record you read in its entirety costs around $3, though fees can vary widely. The possibility of an expensive search is one reason to hire a professional researcher to do the searching for you, says Shamel. "You need experience to do cost-effective searching," she says. Another good reason to hire a professional researcher: It saves time. "You can find yourself spending so much time searching for information that you don't have enough time to run your business," says Penny Leidtke-Sienkiewicz, principal of the Philadelphia-based research company On-Target Information Services. The Web site of the Association of Independent Information Professionals lets you search for researchers by services, subject matter and geographic area. For more on online researching, check out David Novak's Information Research FAQ. Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at [email protected] or www.netaxs.com/~reidgold/column.

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