INFORMATION BROKERS

Information brokers provide, for a fee, information retrieval from publicly accessible data sources, most often online databases. Information brokering first emerged as a business opportunity for individuals in the mid-1950s. Also known as independent information specialists, brokers often do much more than gather the information. In this day and age, when almost anyone can access huge amounts of data over the Internet, brokers provide a number of special services, including: writing reports that analyze the data they obtain, creating internal databases for clients to manage their in-house information, maintaining current awareness services that update a client whenever new information on a given topic becomes available, and more.

A good broker can save a client time and money. While it may be tempting to try to jump on the Internet and do the research yourself (especially for a small businessperson with limited financial resources), searching for data can be an arduous and time-consuming process, especially if you are not an expert in the realm of online searching. In addition, most brokers subscribe to online databases that are not available to the public, even on the Internet. Subscriptions to these databases, which often contain high-level professional, business, and/or scientific information, can cost up to several thousand dollars a year. Clearly, that cost is prohibitive for many small businesses, especially when a one-time information search is all that is needed.

Finding a good broker is important. A good broker will tell you when you actually can find the information yourself for free, but will also make it clear when his or her services are needed. Check to see what online services the broker subscribes to, and how long they have been in business. The growth of the Internet and commercial services such as America Online and Compu Serve have led to an explosion in the number of people who call themselves information brokers or specialists, but not all of these businesses are legitimate. Relatively new information broker businesses may be perfectly legitimate, but business consultants still urge small business owners to be careful about selecting a specialist without first conducting adequate research into the company's history and other clients. Analysts indicate that the best information brokers in the field often have a background in library science (many brokers have been employed at public or corporate libraries) or have started out actually working for one of the large database provider companies. Other factors to consider include education, rates, specialty areas, subcontracting capability, and business practices.

Be aware that information brokers can do more than collect online data. They can search public records, conduct competition checks when you are starting a new business, or visit a local library to comb through materials there. Perhaps most importantly, they can, if needed, conduct phone research by interviewing people and then preparing a report based on those interviews. As one broker said in Searcher magazine, "The most desired information is, and will continue to be, in people's heads."

HOUSEBROKERS If a one-time search is needed, one should also keep in mind that many of the online services maintain their own in-house information brokering services. Sometimes known as "housebrokers," these in-house retrieval specialists work for one of the data providers. For example, LEXIS/NEXIS, which specializes in legal information, maintains a staff of information retrieval specialists for customers. A businessperson can call LEXIS/NEXIS, explain that they need a one-time search (as opposed to a full-time subscription to their databases, which again can cost thousands of dollars), and the company will hand the job off to one of their housebrokers, who will conduct the search and provide the clients with the results for a reasonable fee. Using a housebroker can be advantageous if the information you need is limited to one topic and will not require extensive searches of numerous databases from several vendors. In the latter instance, however, it may be preferable to secure the services of a private broker who can take advantage of many sources.

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