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There are many thousands of reports available and they can be located through several sources, for example, Market Search,2 Reports Index3 and Findex.4 Information on organisations providing marketing information and online data can be found in The UK Marketing Source Book5 and The Source Book.6 Database source books include: On-Line Business Source Book,7 On-Line Business and Company Databases8 and Directory of On-Line Databases.9

GOLDEN NUGGETS ON A LONG AND WINDING ROAD

Getting lost on the information superhighway? Online business information services can provide the shortcuts to show business users where they need to go.

The Internet is a goldmine of information, but searching for that elusive nugget often yields nothing but frustration.

Online business information services provide better and quicker ways of finding information on the Internet - albeit at a price. And through the Internet, these companies can reach a global market of information seekers and offer new products.

Business information has been available online for many years. Initially, access was only via proprietary terminals and private networks, on Reuters and Lexis-Nexis, for example. But the growth of the personal computer has led most services to move to PC-based access with a Windows-based interface design to make searching for information easier.

Many information services use agency distributors, including big online networks such as CompuServe, to extend their reach around the globe. But in the Internet age, these traditional delivery channels are costly and old-fashioned. So providers of business information are adapting their proprietary services to allow access from the Web.

'The Internet allows us to serve our existing market with new products,' says Gerard Buckley, marketing director with Dun & Bradstreet, a leading US business information provider. The company opened its global information database to the Internet in July.

Web surfers can search free of charge the D&B GlobalSeek database, which has details on more than 45 million companies in 200 countries. They also can buy a synopsis of the business operations of a particular company. The report is purchased by credit card directly from the Web for $5 (£2.95). D&B's existing contract subscribers can also buy reports on the Web using the password they use to access the traditional proprietary service.

FT Information, the business information division of Pearson, publisher of the Financial Times, recently announced a new Internet-based product: FT Discovery for the Web. It provides users with news alerts and international business information including news, company information and market intelligence. The product is designed to appeal to smaller businesses and is thus offered at a fixed price - £99 a month for each user - and can be accessed using a standard Web browser and Internet connection.

Dialog, which claims to be the world's oldest and largest online information service, celebrated its 25th anniversary this year by launching an Internet-based service. Called Dialog Web, the service is accessed via a standard Web browser using the same command language adopted for the proprietary Dialog service. Dialog comprises more than 470 databases from a broad range of disciplines, including business news, patents and trademarks, science and technology, as well as consumer news. It is the flagship product of Dialog Corporation, formed last month from the merger of MAID, a fast-growing UK information provider, and Knight-Ridder Information, the online division of US newspaper publisher Knight-Ridder and previous owner of Dialog.

KRI's information empire comprises more than 900 databases, 9 terabytes of data and 160,000 customers. The smaller MAID has 4700 corporate subscribers - a single subscription may, however, cover hundreds of users. Its core product is Profound, which offers around 100 million pages of information from more than 5000 content publishers, including market research reports, business news, company statistics, brokerage research and stock market prices. Profound uses MAID's proprietary InfoSort data-indexing technology that allows fast, accurate searching ►

across all the databases. The service was launched in 1995, initially just as a dial-up service. But in mid-1996, MAID added access via the Internet.

At the end of 1996 an intranet version of Profound was launched that can be custom designed for an organisation at a fixed price and offers the security advantage of an intranet. The intranet (a private network) system also uses the InfoSort technology to allow each company to define its information needs and index information in predetermined categories. This facility aims to overcome the information overload problem common to online information services and ensure that only information relevant to the company is provided on its intranet. British Telecom plans to use the intranet version of Profound to offer large business customers a complete managed intranet service, including customised information.

Financial analysts were surprised when loss-making MAID, whose 1996 sales were just £21m, announced in August its plan to buy the much larger KRI, with revenues last year of almost $290m. KRI's parent Knight-Ridder justified the sale by saying it wanted to focus resources on expanding its newspaper empire.

Online information services have proved a thorn in the side of many media groups because of their heavy upfront development costs. The Internet creates further uncertainty in the online market, and the big consumer-oriented services, such as CompuServe, have lost subscribers because of the Internet's growth.

Analysts say business-oriented online services are not as vulnerable because of their sophisticated search engines and high-value data. However, much of the bread-and-butter information they offer, such as company results, and magazine and newspaper articles, can often be found for free on the Web. This is, however, assuming users have the patience to search for it. The rapid rise of the Web browser as a standard, easy-to-use interface has left online service providers wondering whether they should continue to sink money into developing and supporting proprietary software.

CompuServe, for example, announced in October it would make many of its databases and technical forums available to Web surfers on a pay-as-you-go basis, as well as continuing with its traditional proprietary service. Gerard Buckley, of Dun & Bradstreet, believes proprietary services still have the edge because of the effort that has gone into optimising the software used to acess the service. But their longer term future looks less certain.

'There will always be people who will need value-added (proprietary) software, but increasingly we are moving to the Internet,' he says.

Source: Nairn10 (reprinted with permission)

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