Business Research on the Open Web, Served 10 Ways
by John Gottfried (Business Librarian, Western Kentucky University Libraries, Bowling Green, KY)
Column Editor: Jack G. Montgomery (Coordinator, Collection Services, Western Kentucky University Libraries)
Column Editor’s Note: As our Business Librarian in the Department of Library Public Services, John Gottfried is a new colleague who has an MBA and a MA in Organizational Management from the University of Colorado. John is a prolific writer and presenter and is our authority on research in business. — JM
“Searching is half the fun: life is much more manageable when thought of as a scavenger hunt as opposed to a surprise party.” — Jimmy Buffett
As anyone who has tried it can confirm, business research is always challenging, sometimes frustrating, and the costs can quickly blast all but the most robust budget to insolvency. In the current business climate, however, timely, accurate information is an absolute imperative for effective decision-making. The payoff, in other words, is normally well worth the pain and the price. Now I can make business research neither cheap nor easy, but I can remove a little of the sting by offering a few tips on finding the most commonly sought-after forms of business information on the open Web, free-of-charge.
1. Company Information
Yahoo Finance — http://finance.yahoo.com/ — Perhaps the most common form of business research involves obtaining information about a specific company. This information may be used to make critical decisions concerning investment, employment, supporting a company’s entry into the community, or purchasing products and services. An excellent first step in accumulating company information is a visit to Yahoo Finance. By entering the company name or ticker symbol, you can obtain a general profile of the company, top executives, financial statements, key statistics, analysts’ forecasts, major competitors, and much more. In fact, Yahoo provides access to at least some of the information described in many of the sites that follow — SEC filings, historic stock prices & charts, complete business news, industry information, and so on — so Yahoo Finance is the closest I can offer to a free, one-stop source of business information.
2. Industry Information
Hoover’s — www.hoovers.com/industries/100003568-1.html — When foraging for free business information, one of the toughest trials involves seeking reliable, complete reports on specific industries. A good place to start would be Hoover’s, which offers sparse but useful industry reports, including some basic facts about the industry as a whole, a report on risks and opportunities, and a few words about the competitive environment. Be forewarned, however, that Hoover’s free reports are woefully short on hard data. Added to some of the industry data found on Yahoo Finance’s industry reports, however, they will help you to form a good general picture of the industry.
U.S. Census Bureau: Business & Industry — http://www.census.gov/econ/index.html — To add to your industry statistics without emptying your wallet, move on to the U.S. Census Bureau, Business & Industry section. Here you will find both monthly and annual data reports by industry, along with e-commerce quarterly reports. Reports include sales, change in sales, and other data appropriate to the specific industry. As with the Websites of many government agencies, navigation through the site can be difficult, and it may take some experimentation to find what you’re looking for — but intrepid researchers will be rewarded for their perseverance.
3. SEC Filings
EDGAR — www.sec.gov/edgar.shtml — Created by the U.S. Securities and Exchange to facilitate the availability and dissemination of important financial information about companies doing business in the United States, EDGAR is a searchable database containing nearly all SEC filings, including financial statements and annual reports. This database is available free, and the SEC has, in recent years, made impressive improvements to its notoriously cumbersome interface. Access is still awkward, and EDGAR content is available in a more user-friendly form in commercial databases such as Mergent Online. For a free resource, however, EDGAR is an effective offering, providing highly useful information for only a small investment of time, patience, and practice.
4. Stock Prices and Analysis
Zack’s — www.zacks.com/ — There are a fair number of sources offering timely access to stock prices, but Zack’s is easily among the best. Similar in many ways to Yahoo Finance (see above), Zack’s offers stock prices both current and historic, with stock charts going back ten years. It provides highly regarded stock ratings and analysis. Zack’s also offers earnings estimates and forecasts, comparison of company performance to industry, financial statements, and news about the company. Additionally, there are numerous links to useful bits of advice on buying and trading stocks and securities, and, of course, more resources are available if you are willing to pay a substantial fee.
5. Small Business/Entrepreneurship
Small Business Administration — www.sba.gov — The Small Business Administration has a big mission: no less than seeking to “preserve free competitive enterprise,” and “strengthen the overall economy of the United States.” They support small business in a number of highly effective ways — for our purposes, the most relevant are an online “virtual campus” offering free courses on a number of useful business topics, and a library containing materials on such topics as marketing, statistics, and business law. There is also a very helpful Small Business Planner, which provides guidance in preparing a business plan, and a number of other resources to aid the aspiring entrepreneur throughout the process of starting and running a successful business. This, along with many other resources, makes the Small Business Administration site a valuable tool for anyone considering an independent business start-up.
6. Business News
Reuters — www.reuters.com/ — In the very competitive business news industry there are many fine contenders, but the overall nod must go to Reuters. When Reuters began, after all, its primary undertaking was to provide the financial markets with reliable trading information. Reuters has since expanded its mission to become a respected international news provider, but its lineage shines through in the form of exceptional business news coverage, organized by industries, sectors, markets, geographic regions, and topics. In addition to the news, Reuters supplies highly regarded opinions and analysis of business issues.
7. Business Law
FindLaw Small Business Center — http://smallbusiness.findlaw.com/ — Getting good legal information without running up an outrageous bill is always a trial, and nowhere is this a greater challenge than in the money-motivated world of business. We have previously discussed the Small Business Administration, and that site offers some useful information concerning business law. Another very good free online resource is the FindLaw Small Business Center. It includes a variety of resources for starting a business (including forms and advice on many legal issues related to business start-ups) along with good segments covering business law for ongoing businesses. In an entirely separate section, FindLaw also offers tips on employment law and employee rights. Finally, this site also provides solid advice on finding effective legal representation, should your situation warrant moving on to this level.
8. Business Plans
One of the most important — and fearsome — tasks facing anyone starting a new business is the creation of a concise yet complete business plan. The business plan not only clarifies your own goals and strategies for the new enterprise; it is perhaps even more important as the primary means by which you communicate the value of your business to potential lenders, investors, partners, and other stakeholders. Once again I will begin with the Small Business Administration’s Small Business Planner, which offers complete, step-by-step advice on creating your business plan. Other excellent free sources include:
Inc. Magazine: Guide to Business Plan Writing — http://www.inc.com/guides/write_biz_plan/20660.html — Inc. magazine’s Business Plan Building, Section by Section is another free, very helpful guide to creating your business plan. While not as detailed as the offering from the Small Business Administration, the advice in Inc. has been produced by seasoned business writers and practitioners, providing more of an insider’s view. Note too that this is only one of a group of excellent, practical tools on the Inc. Webpage. There is an employee schedule template, for example, legal forms and documents, and a lot of good general business advice.
Bplans.com — www.bplans.com — A good addition to the above resources is Bplans.com, which offers over 500 free sample business plans in a number of industries and disciplines. There are, for example, 33 plans for construction and engineering, and 39 plans for consulting. Bplans also offers a number of valuable reports and articles on running a business, including materials on such topics as financing your business, running an online business, and buying an existing business. There are links to blogs, tips on writing a business plan in the United Kingdom, and many other constructive resources.
9. Management Issues
Entrepreneur Magazine’s Management Advice & Guides — www.entrepreneur.com/management/index.html — Even the most astute practitioners in any field seek out some advice occasionally, and business managers should be no exception. When stumbling through the information jungle that is the Web, however, a lot of the advice, particularly the free advice, may range from questionable to the outright loopy. Fortunately, there are some excellent free resources available online, among them Entrepreneur Magazine’s Management Advice & Guides. This group of articles offers quick, effective how-to advice on general management issues, legal problems, operations, human resources, and much more.
Free Management Library — http://managementhelp.org — If you prefer a second opinion, try Free Management Library, a free management advice site originally sponsored by the Management Assistance Program (MAP) for Nonprofits of St. Paul, Minnesota, but now operating independently. The Free Management Library offers advice on over 650 topics through links to Wiki-like contributors. None of the links on this site are allowed to ask for a separate registration, none may charge for information, and all must offer substantive information on the topic.
10. Human Resources & Labor
Workforce Online — http://www.workforce.com — Every business is, ultimately, about people, so constructive advice and pertinent resources to help deal with human resource issues are always valuable commodities. A great place to prospect for HR advice is Workforce Online, which provides a surprisingly wide array of resources covering a large number of topics in human resources and labor. Their Research Center supplies a searchable database containing thousands of articles, while the Community Center offers forums and networks to connect with HR professionals. The site also includes HR news items from across the country, and a good directory to HR services and vendors. Registration is required to use some of the resources, but the registration is free.
HR Tools — http://www.hrtools.com/ — Another extremely useful site is HR Tools, a largely free site providing support in all areas of Human Resource practice, including hiring, benefits & compensation, training, leadership, policies, and law. Each section (many with numerous subsections) offers articles, guides, checklists, forms, and more. There is legal advice, HR news, and opinion pieces on virtually every topic. As with virtually any “free” site, if you drill down deep enough you get to some paid resources, but much of the site is truly free, and truly helpful.
And so forth…
The few resources described above should provide a useful stepstool to the broader world of effective Internet business research on the cheap. Clearly, it is only the bare beginning. To find more sites, you can simply place your topic in any major search engine and sort laboriously through the results. You can also try the sites below, which will supply you with a generous collection of links to many more free business research resources on the Web:
Library of Congress Business Reference Services: BEOnline Internet Subject Guides — http://www.loc.gov/rr/business/beonline/subjectlist.php — The Library of Congress started the BEOnline project in 1996 to provide a rich supply of research resources available online. BEOnline now offers Subject Guides on roughly 90 topics in business research, updated on a regular basis. It is basically just a big list of links available by subject or alphabetically by name, but it has been presorted for you, and is definitely easier than rummaging through thousands of random Web pages.
New York Public Library – Best of the Web: Business & Finance — http://www.nypl.org/weblinks/1358 — You might also try the New York Public Library’s Best of the Web: Business & Finance. It is a good collection of sites, organized by both topic and site name, but perhaps more selectively chosen than those at the Library of Congress. It includes many commonly sought types of business information, including some good leads on finding data & statistics. NYPL also offers resources for entrepreneurs and small business start-ups, and some good links to federal documents and free legal research resources.
And there you have it — not an end in itself, by any means, but at least a good start on carrying out free yet effective business research. It is my sincere hope that this turns out to be one of those rare cases in which free advice is worth a lot more than what you paid for it.
Leah was appointed Executive Director of the Charleston Conference in 2017, and has served in various roles with the Charleston Information Group, LLC, since 2004. Prior to working for the conference, she was Assistant Director of Graduate Admissions for the College of Charleston for four years. She lives in a small town near Columbia, SC, with her husband and two kids where they raise a menagerie of farm animals.