Online Research Sites and Tools

Thursday Aug 11th 2005 by Steve Windhaus
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All small business owners need reliable information about their respective industries and, at times, a host of other subjects. The Internet's a great resource, but where to begin? Here are some sites to get you started.

I'm a business planner, and in my line of work research is king. Every business plan requires detailed market research of products, services, target customers, geographic markets, pricing, promotion, advertising and the competition.

Until the dramatic development of the Internet in the mid to late 1990s, research was confined to public and university libraries, phone calls, the Yellow Pages and any other hard-copy data you could get in your hands. How times have changed. The Internet now stands as the premier source of research for just about any topic imaginable. However, you need to address the reliability of the source and depth of the data, be aware of costs and find the right tools to conduct online research.

Reliable Sources
Using reliable sources in whatever research you're doing is critical, both for accuracy and credibility. Over the years I've seen competitors who rely on second- and third-party sources of information. Don't take the lazy way out.

Take newspapers and magazine, for example. Columns, articles and features address a subject of interest and quote part of a research document; the author then puts his or her spin on what that data means.

More often than not, it is a mistake to quote the article and the interpretation of it. There are exceptions, of course. For example, the Wall Street Journal is a very reliable source as are many of its authors' and columnists' interpretations. On the other hand, accepting the Op-Ed opinions of any newspaper or magazine is a bad idea.

Also, I don't advise planning the future based on a columnist's research of the most recent Census data regarding a city's growth over the last 12 months. One year of data means absolutely nothing; you need trends over a period of at least the last four or five years. Wal-Mart may have opened a distribution center in that city, bringing a sudden burst of jobs and population. One year's worth of data doesn't reveal anything about the past or what the future may hold.

Start with the original sources of data. These are agencies, organizations and institutions that specialize in gathering, compiling and analyzing data. There are so many reliable Web sites offering legitimate research data, I could fill this page with hyperlinks. Here are a few examples to get you started:

  • Bureau of the Census— demographics and economic data
  • Rand Corporation— education, poverty, crime, the environment and national security
  • Pew Charitable Trusts— the Internet in the U.S., public opinion, the global climate, the oceans, journalism, Hispanics and more
  • MacArthur Foundation— global security and sustainability, human and community development and many other social issues
  • JupiterResearch— business use of the Internet and other related technologies
  • The Gallop Organization— consumer behavior and attitudes in the automotive, business services, education, financial services, healthcare, hospitality, retail and manufacturing sectors
  • BizMiner— marketing and financial profiles of over 16,000 business categories in the United States
  • First Research — industry profiles and state economic profiles

The Cost of Data
As late as the year 2000, most online research data didn't cost much more than your monthly Internet access fee and the cost of buying the disks to download and store the data. The dot-com bust made many survivors rethink their revenue generation strategies.

The result? Formerly fee-free sites instituted a charge to access to data while fee-based sites increased their rates. For example, newspapers used to offer free access to all their online content. Many of them now allow access to the last seven-to-30 days while others charge a fee simply to access the complete publication.

The Wall Street Journal charges a fee for online access to the last 30 days of its publication, but that comes only with a paid subscription to the hard copy delivered to your door.

Still several free, reliable sources of valuable information remain for those of you who don't have a hefty research budget. Many of these sources include the U.S. Government. Important examples include the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Bureau of Economic Analysis, Agricultural Research Service and even the CIA with its Factbookaddressing information about every nation in the world.

Research Tools
Your primary tool for online researching is a search engine of your choice.

Northern Light has evolved into a premium service for individuals and organizations with annual fees ranging from $500 to $19,500. For those of you who don't want to pay that price, you have free services such as Google, Yahoo or MSN. Clusty, a search engine from Vivisimo, groups the results of searches into folders by similar topics.

Subscriptions to various publications can provide a source of valuable research tools. Premium and free subscriptions allow access to data from publications such as The Economist, Consumer Reports, American Banker and CIO Insight.

You can develop your own primary research data online through several Application Service Providers (ASPs) including Zoomerang, QuestionPro, the increasingly popular SurveyMonkey.com and KeySurvey.com, a provider to major corporations and institutions. Fees range widely, depending on the ASP and the level of survey services you seek. You may want to view a more extensive listing at Ganers.com.

You want to learn about the business of golf? Go to the National Golf Foundation. You want to learn about the growth of HIV/AIDS in the U.S.? Go to the Centers for Disease Control. You want to learn about the growth of small business? Go to the Small Business Administration's Office of Advocacy Research. There are so many sources of reliable information on the Internet. Some are free while other sources require a fee.

The Internet has become the primary tool by which many professionals now conduct research. In fact, I haven't done research at the library since 1999 when the Internet brought the library home to me.

Steve Windhaus is principal of Windhaus Associates, a business plan consulting firm serving small, existing and startup ventures throughout the United States and overseas. His clients range from technology-based firms in software development, e-commerce and telecommunications to retailers of ATV's and watercraft and a variety of service firms. Steve is a published author who also conducts training in business plan development and participates as a judge in business plan competitions. Steve can relate to small biz environments relying on computer technology. His technology skills are all self-taught.

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