Imagine for a moment that you've been diagnosed with a complex medical condition. No matter how much you trust your personal physician, you'd almost certainly consult with a specialist for more detailed information. No matter how great their skills or knowledge, a general practitioner simply cannot know everything about your condition, let alone keep up with new research and treatments.
The same holds true for search engines. No matter how much you rely on your favorite search engines, they aren't always going to give you the best results for some of your more demanding information needs. In these cases, you're better off turning to a specialized search tool that deals exclusively with the type of information you're looking for.
These "vertical" search tools generally take two forms: Focused directories, compiled by subject matter experts who evaluate web sites before including them in the directory, and targeted crawlers, which are "seeded" with sample URLs from highly relevant pages, and then harvest additional, probably related links from these pages for further crawling.
Portal B from Data Downlink Corporation is a focused web directory designed for business researchers who typically work in information intensive industries, such as banking, consulting, law, accounting and asset management, or large corporations. Unlike most of the search tools covered by Search Engine Watch, Portal B is not a free service, but rather is available only via a site license.
At the heart of Portal B is its directory of more than 29,000 business-oriented web sites, selected by Data Downlink's staff of information professionals.
Each directory listing provides a detailed abstract, noting subject matter, identifying the publisher and cataloging the sites' industry and geographic coverage, according to Data Downlink President and COO Michael Angle. Each listing is further ranked for quality with one to four stars.
This value-added information serves as an effective filter, allowing you to easily pinpoint interesting sites at a glanceand perhaps more importantly, saving you time by helping you decide what not to examine.
Portal B also offers access to more than 20 proprietary site directories, including the names and URLs of the top 100 business schools, 500 law firms, 2,000 trade publications (indexed by industry), 500 trade associations and 300 venture capital and private equity firms.
Portal B offers some advanced search features that are particularly useful for business researchers. Some of these are available directly from the basic search form, including the ability to limit your search to tables or PDF files, or by the type of publisher, such as non-profit or for-profit organizations, or commercial publishers.
"The ability to sort results is what people are willing to pay for," says Steven Goldstein, Data Downlink's Chairman and Chief Executive Officer.
Although searchers familiar with traditional proprietary systems like Dialog and Lexis-Nexis take these features for granted, they're somewhat unique for a web-oriented search engine. The ability to look for information exclusively in tables is useful because the essence of business information is numeric data, and tables are one of the most common ways to organize and present numbers.
In the advanced search area you can further limit your search by selecting one or more organization types, industries, business topics or geographical regions.
A particularly powerful feature lets you create your own category focusing exclusively on the areas that are relevant to your needs. Once your category is built, you can do keyword searches within it, or further narrow your search to specific sites within your personal category by using check boxes to the left of the individual site names that you want included.
Portal B targets serious business researchers willing to pay a premium for an ad-free, high-quality directory of business web sites, and prices itself accordingly, with annual site license fees ranging from $6,000 to $200,000 per year, depending on the size of the organization. The company currently has over 100 customers.
CEO Goldstein says that Data Downlink is willing to negotiate pricing with libraries who want to provide the service to their users but can't afford to pay full price.
The company has no plans to make a version of the service available to individual users. "The subscription model scares me," says Goldstein, adding that the subscription-based pricing model has often proven disappointing web publishers who've tried it.
If your company can't or won't license Portal B, there are alternatives available on the web that provide similar tools and information for the business researcher. Though basic searching in each of these services is free, all offer some degree of premium content for a fee.
Business.com, probably best known for spending $7.5 million to buy its domain name, provides a focused web directory of business sites, offers company and industry profiles, and several other features. The company recently purchased both the domain name and the assets of former competitor work.com, which shuttered its virtual doors in March.
Northern Light's Business Search provides extensive limiting capabilities, allowing you to search for information within specific industries, or by document types such as news stories, government reports, and so on. Northern Light also offers integrated premium content from its special collection drawn from more than 6,000 sources, with most special collection documents available for a modest fee.
Hoover's Online offers a wide range of free information, and is especially well known for its in-depth profiles of public and private companies. Hoover's site subscribers have access to much more extensive information.
These are just a few of the specialized business portals operating today. Enjoy the variety of choices while you can. It's not clear whether the market can support more than a few players in the business portal arena.
This point was dramatically underscored by the recent failure of work.com, a partnership between information industry heavyweight Dow Jones and online services provider Excite@home. The partners opted to pull the plug on the unprofitable service despite spending more than $35 million during little more than a year that the site was online.
Portal B offers an intriguing, comparatively reasonably priced service for serious business researchers. They're playing in a highly competitive field, with competition coming from from both free, advertising supported web sites, and established information aggregators like Dialog and Lexis-Nexis who already have years of relationships with clients that may prove difficult to displace.
By combining a high-quality focused directory with advanced search and sorting capabilities, with premium content from a variety of business information vendors, Portal B offers a compelling value for companies that need authoritative business research. If they remain focused and don't succumb to to the "portalitis" that has afflicted more than one search service, Portal B has a fighting chance to succeed.
Business.com's directory now contains more than 25,000 categories and subcategories and includes more than 400,000 business-oriented web sites, with other features including company and industry profiles and aggregated news from hundreds of sources.
Northern Light Business Search
Specialized searching of industry-focused web pages, market research, economic analysis, and company reports for business professionals.
Hoover's is best known for its company information, with information on more than 12 million companies across 300 industries.
Business and Financial Search Engines
With most of the services listed here, you enter the name of a company or a stock symbol, and then you'll be linked to a page with quotes, financial data, related web sites and much more.
NOTE: Article links often change. In case of a bad link, use the publication's search facility, which most have, and search for the headline.
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