Is Internet Information Worth Paying For?

Coach Karen called us up a couple of days ago. She has a client who wants to find some specific information and Karen figured we might help. And then she said the magic words, “And she doesn’t want to pay for it.”

I’m writing this post while attending Web Search University in Washington, D.C. Yes, we admit we don’t know it all, and call us old fashioned, but we still believe in continuous learning. When it comes to searching the Internet, it’s always about continuous learning.

Most of the sessions at this conference have to do in one way or another with online business resources, and often specifically address the question of pay vs. free.

Much of the Internet is off-limits. That’s because you have to pay a fee or purchase a membership to get to some of the best business information. Kind of like a private country club, really. Google and Yahoo are the public golf courses. The business pay sites are the private clubs.

The problem is that entrepreneurs and small business owners seldom have the budgets to play the private courses. So Coach Karen’s client is not chintzy, she’s just needs to be sure that what she spends her money on gives her a good return on her investment.

By the way, Coach Karen is really Karen Van Cleve, a friend of ours, and a great business coach who is a certified by the Anthony Robbins coaching organization. You can find her (and hire her) at

The amount of free business information online staggers the imagination. Still, that gargantuan amount remains only a fraction of the total. And the problem is that much of what is hidden behind the gatekeepers and the tollbooths of the private clubs is crucial to starting and running a business these days.

So, what is Coach Karen’s client to do? Let’s assume that she has determined that the information she is seeking is not available from the general search engines. Here are just a few examples of the many other ways she could find information for free:

Google Answers – Karen’s client could ask Google her question, but not in the traditional way. She would need to go to – not At Google Answers, she’ll type in her question, offer a fair price ($2.50 being the minimum) and send it off to Google’s squad of 250 researchers. Or, she could do a search of the Google Answers database to see if someone else has already asked her question. She’d look for the search box labeled “Search Google Answers for” on the Google Answers home page. If someone has already asked (and answered) a question like hers, she won’t have to spend a cent!

Google Scholar – This is a kind of quick run at scholarly information. Google offers a way to access academic papers and studies at

Free Library Resources – Karen’s client most likely has a public library card. What she probably doesn’t realize is what a valuable business tool that card is for her. It allows her access to databases and information that would cost her far more than the taxes she pays to support her local library. And, she can get to this information from the comfort of her own computer, in the comfort of her own home. She will need to follow all rules and regulations of the library road.

Call the Reference Librarian – Or, she could pick up the phone and call the business reference desk at her local library and ask them for the answers she is seeking. Is this a great country, or what? No, I am not kidding, you need to try this at home, children.

There are many other ways to get to free information, but the fact remains that there are times when shelling out will be the only way to get the information you need. These days, almost every business is about expertise. Your customers demand expertise from you, your lead generation process requires it and your competition makes it mandatory (or they will rip your little operation into Chiclets).

But, who you gonna’ call? There are a zillion information sites and services, specializing in everything from sales leads, to news retrieval, to competitive intelligence, and on and on. Only one of them, in our opinion, offers a range of spectacular business resources aimed specifically at the small business owner for an indecently low price.

Or, to put it another way and to paraphrase a popular television ad: “Looking for the definition of affiliate marketing? Call Google. Looking for the telephone number for a local dentist? Call Anywho. For everything else there’s James J. Hill Business Reference Library.”

You’ll find the online version of this oldest honorable business profession at James J. Hill members have access to a wide variety business news and information databases that, purchased individually, would cost many times the $50 monthly fee for Premium membership. Your $50 gets you into Dun & Bradstreet’s Million Dollar Database, EBSCO Business Source Corporate, ABI/Inform, Newsbank, ProQuest and others.

These databases alone make the investment a steal for a small business owner – but you also have those Hill graduate-degreed researchers at your beck and call. Call, e-mail or instant message your questions to them for no additional charge – and they’ll lead you to the best answers. Lots of bigger companies don’t even have that kind of information retrieval support!

Here’s a recent example of the Hill library’s expertise. Our search for “job stress” “interior designers” was not yielding enough good results. One of the databases included with a Hill subscription is Business Source Premier, which is searched through EBSCO Host. It includes a journal called “Work and Stress” – and the back issues of this journal are searchable. Just ask Google if it can do that!

There is a ton of information available on the Internet for free. There are also hundreds of ways to pay for quality business information. But, there’s only one James J. Hill Business Reference Library (probably time once again, folks, to let you know that we do not receive payment from any of the sites or services mentioned in our blogs or workshops).

So, it comes down to this. Sometimes Karen’s client won’t have to pay at all. Other times, she won’t have to pay much. Today, she has great business information at her fingertips – more by far than the best professional library researchers had just 10 or 15 years ago – she just needs to take a little time to learn where and how to find it. That’s certainly a business investment worth making.


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