On 25 February I delivered a well-attended webinar for the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals (SCIP) on some of the methods I use to collect information about private (and other hard-to-research) companies on the Internet. As promised, I wanted to follow up on the Questions that came in via the chat channel here on this blog. Here that is:
How reliable is the information contained in premium secondary sources such as Hoovers?
Admittedly the financial and company information is not 100% reliable. I generally consider the financial information to be indicative of the magnitude of the operation I am researching. Information about executives tends to be up to a year behind in its updates. The Hoovers database contains information on many thousands of companies, and those updates can take quite some time to make it through their research channels. While I consider Hoovers and Business & Company Resource Center (BRC) a good place to start I do not consider them definitive or completely reliable.
Keep in mind that the first step of my research process is to abstract away from requests for specific pieces of information to plan your research strategy based on the business decision the product of your research and analysis is intended to support. With this in mind you can relax somewhat on the tactical reliability of any individual piece of information, and likewise you’re not going to expect any single source to fully answer your question (my second commandment of secondary research) or meet all of your needs).
Aside from Hoovers, are there any other secondary sources you could suggest that can give insight into the financials of a private company?
I also use Gale’s Business & Company Resource Center because it is available for free at my public library. Other premium sources are available. For the purposes of this exercise I want to focus on the free or low-cost options.
How do you acquire Annual Reports for private companies?
You usually don’t. Private companies are not obligated to issue a public report that is made available publicly. Most good private companies will provide financial reports (audited or otherwise) to their investors. Those reports will not be published anywhere on-line. There is no regulation or law compelling or requiring a private company to make annual reports or other financial data available on-line. Remembering my first commandment of Internet research, if there is not a self-serving or legally compelled reason for information to be published on-line it won’t be.
I am being very simplistic here, also. There are circumstances why private companies have to file some financial information with agencies such as the SEC, and these differ widely from country-to-country. Examples include private equity funding or bond sales for the SEC and institutions such as the UK’s Companies House. A good background exercise to understanding the availability of these sorts of filings for private companies is to understand the various requirements for filings (financial or otherwise) that are imposed by national, state/provincial and local governments in the jurisdictions in which your private company operates.
Does the View Source function work in password protected sites? Can “view source” be used on actual company sites?
“View Source” can be used on any and all web pages. There are zero exceptions to this. If you choose the “view source” option on the log-in page of a password-protected page you will see the code for that page. This may reveal useful details about that page, but it is not likely to give you any way to access the materials hidden behind that user log-in.
For CI ethics purposes misrepresentation or cracking username/password log-ins for sites to which you do not have a legitimate purpose to access (including appropriate representation of yourself, your employer and your function at the time you request any log-in credentials) should not be considered ethical. There have been incidents of competitors gaining access to password-protected Internet-based resources that have resulted in successful litigation against the offending parties.
Is there a way to identify upfront those companies that track access to their web sites? How do you protect your identity when visiting websites to avoid recognition? Do you use a product like anonymizer for web security?
Assume that all companies track access to their web site. There is no way to know before, and most companies do track access. I protect my identity first by accessing all competitors’ web sites from my home Internet connection so that I show up as just another broadband customer. I also purge my browser’s cache of all cookie and history files before I conduct said research just to be safe. I also use a virtual private network (read: NOT the same VPN I use to access my company’s network when I work from home). If you want to protect your identity further you can install The Onion Router (TOR) to further anonymize your web access. I do not use any commercial anonymizing software.
What about your search engine strategy? Would you recommend a search vehicle like Dogpile.com which uses various search engines vs. google alone or is there a downside to that effort? Google vs. Yahoo: How do you choose which to use?
I strongly recommend using more than one search engine for each of your search activities. I use both Google and Yahoo! religiously and also use Microsoft’s search from time-to-time. Meta-search engines like Dogpile, Klusty, Kartoo and many others are also useful. Each engine has its own strengths in terms of what kinds of search are possible and how they index and rank sites. It still surprises and pleases me how something I cannot find in Google is readily available in the top results for the same search in Yahoo! or Microsoft or vice-versa.
Is there a link to the Roger Phelps podcast about using LinkedIn for primary source targeting you can provide us?
Roger’s interview was episode 20 of the Competitive Intelligence Podcast and can be listened to or downloaded here: CIP 020 Roger Phelps on Primary CI and Using LinkedIn.
Do you know how often Google Maps refereshes the images?
Image refresh differs based on location. Urban areas are updated more often (and in greater resolution) than rural areas. For example, I can see updates of Washington, DC since Nationals Stadium was built two years ago.
If you know about a problem on Google Maps you can submit a request for a correction here: http://maps.google.com/support/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=98014.
As far as your lists of core resources when you begin a project?
As I mentioned in the webinar, my standard set of core resources are:
- Premium sources (Hoovers, BRC)
- Target company’s web site
- News sources local to the target company
- Social networks (LinkedIn, industry and trade social networks)
- Leading general and industry-specific job posting sites
- Google Maps
Any guidance on how much time to budget for a research project?
This completely depends on the scope of the project, ease of information discovery and your skill level. I also find that countries in the US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand are easier and faster to research than companies in other countries. The need to conduct primary research always adds a significant amount of time to a project.
As you become more familiar with this kind of research you’ll gain a strong sense of how long it is going to take to conduct the research.
Can you explain the searching for different types of files on a website?
This is a great use of the “filetype;” operator in Google to look for a specific file format such as Adobe PDF or Microsoft Powerpoint. When you combine filetype with the “site:” operator you can look for all of the files of a specific format within a specific web domain or company web site. So for example:
returns all of the Adobe PDF files on the Raynor web site.
The values for the filetype operator correspond to the three-letter extensions that are standard in Windows. So here are some useful examples:
PDF = Adobe PDF file
DOC = Micorosft Word
XLS = Microsoft Excel
PPT = Microsoft Powerpoint
TXT = Text
This method can be used for any file type (including the latest filetype extensions DOCX, PPTX and XLSX for the new Microsoft Office).
One research practice that I regularly apply is to look for all of the Word, Excel and Powerpoint files published on a target company’s web domain.
How to search on companies that are publically traded such as Siemens, but they are a conglomerate co and don’t really report at the business unit level?
In instances when I am researching a business unit or joint venture of a publicly-traded company I rely on the target unit’s web site (if they have their own) as well as information contained on the parent company or companies’ web sites and their annual reports (if one or more of the parent companies is publicly traded). I search the parent company’s annual report for all mention of the business unit or joint venture. Likewise I use the “site:” operator in Google and Yahoo! to find all mentions of the venture on the parent company’s web site. For example
+”business unit or venture name” site:parentcompanydomain.com
What about searching in forums and groups to find unofficial information?
Customer and user forums are a great place to find information about competitors’ products and services. In public forums, discussion boards and blogs (as well as micro-blogging platforms such as Twitter) customers and sometimes employees share information that may be useful or relevant to your collection process. Combine industry-related keywords from your keywords lists with words like “discussion forum” or “blog” to find relevant information.
Do you have a standard approach to “packaging” your results and report?
This depends entirely on the nature of the request, the project and your customers’ preferences. I like to provide a complete report including an executive summary of no more than 1 page that includes any conclusions or recommendations. My philosophy on the executive summary is to write it as if it is going to be the only thing my customer reads. In the more extensive deliverable I include the intelligence product as well as an appendix combining supporting data of information.
What about other countries such as Australia and New Zealand. Are Google and Yahoo equally effective?
I’ve tried as best I can to create a search methodology that works independent of country or jurisdiction. That being the case, though, the methodology is impacted by the variability in use of the Internet as a business tool. This is why I focus on a method of developing keywords lists instead of providing lists of specific sources. I find that Google and Yahoo! function equally well globally, at least from a technical perspective.
How do you search for the companies which are situated in ‘not-well-documented-regions’ such as Russia, Middle East, India, etc.?
I still use Hoovers and BRC as my first step for exploring companies of all sizes in various countries. Two sources that I use for other countries are kompass.com and alibaba.com. These are both multi-national business directories comprised mostly of company self-reported data.