The key to any successful business proposal is solid, accurate data. Having the Internet at your fingertips makes researching a lot easier and a lot less expensive than ever, but finding exactly what you need can be as tricky as finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.
In recent months, we've seen several new products and applications designed to refine and define your research experience. Onfolio, Firefox and the Google Desktop search engine are recent arrivals to the world of online research.
Twenty years of business planning and a decade of working online have given me a lot of hands-on experience in researching business projects. Browsers, search engines and proprietary data resources form the foundation of any good research.
Everybody knows about, and over 90 percent of us still use, Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Netscape, once the prime competitor, is relegated to the fading real estate of AOL, and Firefox 1.0 has become the latest rage.
As relates to online research, a browser's greatest is the ability to categorize and file Web pages as Favorites (IE) or Bookmarks (Netscape and Firefox). Typically, when my firm researches a business plan, we create a Favorite with the title of the project or client name. When the plan is completed, we burn all the Favorites hyperlinks with the plan and other documents on to a CD for that client.
There's nothing to it, but one individual in our firm is now taking a stand and conducting all his research in Firefox. His position when conducting online research and performing multiple searches for a client, you have to open multiple windows in IE. Firefox makes that a lot easier with "tabbed browsing".
He opens the Firefox browser to begin a search. He then opens another window in Firefox to take another direction in his searches. In the meantime, the original search window is tabbed at the top of the browser so he can return to that specific task at his convenience.
As fundamental to the Internet as tires are to a car, search engines represent the primary research tool on the net. There are many people who will debate the superiority of Yahoo versus Google as the best search engine. I choose Google, out of habit, as my primary source among the general search engines. Most importantly, I use Google's Advanced Search with the second option (exact phrase). For those who prefer Yahoo, it offers the same option. Regardless of your choice, go withadvanced search to cut down on the clutter of unrelated Web pages.
In larger, corporate environments, often implement customized search engines to search in-house databases, as well as the Internet. Even though most small business cannot afford this type of research luxury, the following options offer an excellent alternative.
- Google Desktop is still in beta, but has proven worthy. Granted, it doesn't search beyond your desktop, nor beyond your hard drive, but for anyone who stores extensive data, it can be a lifesaver. Unlike Windows Search in your OS, this little application limits searches only to e-mail, Word, Excel, PowerPoint and a few other options. It does not search the registry, drivers and all those other files that are simply irrelevant to finding a document. It can even find a document that has been deleted in your present session, but resides in a cache file. In other words, you deleted the file, but as long as it resides in the cache you can still retrieve the content before shutting down.
- Vivisimo is one of the best rated engines for categorical (meta-search) results. For those of you who have been around the Internet awhile, an early, premier search/metasearch engine was Northern Light. I considered it the best search engine in the mid 90's. One of the most compelling features was its categorization of results in a panel on the left side. Vivisimo has taken over where Northern Light left off. The categories are logical and sequenced from the most to the least number of Webpage results.
- Onfolio is a research tool designed specifically for use with IE. It provides an extended option to make notes about a specific Web page you save. You can create a file folder with, for example, the name of the client or project, save a Web page as a link or copy the content to your hard drive, give the Web page a tile and content description. It provides excellent research detail options not offered elsewhere.
Finally, there is the matter of online proprietary data resources. There are literally thousands of sites that offer up premium and free data, but you need to be careful. Thoroughly research the entity that owns the data before you decide to accept its content as accurate. Here are a few examples of reliable sources that cover a variety of data.
- The Census Bureau is considered the bible of demographic data in the United States and for many countries overseas. Access 1990 and 2000 decennial data on all demographic categories from the national down to zip code levels. Economic Census data, compiled in the second and seventh year of each decade provides very reliable, basic trends in virtually every significant business sector. Other federal sources of data include the Dept. of Commerce, Dept. of Labor and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
- The Pew Charitable Trusts may be the most unbiased, non-partisan, private-sector research organization in the U.S. Its research arms address Internet life, politics, religion, the media and more. Other venerable non-profit data resources include Consumer Reports and the National Bureau of Economic Research.
- Numerous universities have gone online with their own research and many listings of other reliable data sources. Among the many are the University of Idaho, University of Nebraska, Stanford, UCLA and the University of Florida.
In short, not all data is free to the public, but the Internet now provides many reputable sources that can dramatically reduce the time and money consumed conducting the research.
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 skills and use of many related technologies are all self-taught.
|Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!|