Each year, about 600,000 new businesses are started in the United States, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. And last year the SBA backed 100,197 loans to businesses adding up to $19 million in 2005 -- a record amount.

It sounds like a wonderful time to start your next business, but more loans available also could mean more competition. It is equally important to make sure your idea is original and solid. After all, you have to pay the money back.

Here are some smart ways you can research with your fingers.

Use Keyword Search

A step beyond doing a simple Web search, keyword search actually tracks what people are looking for most using Google, Yahoo! and similar engines. You can type in your business product or service and gauge the public interest in finding it.

Keyword search is handy for two reasons. “First, you’re going to be reminded of product niches that you might not of thought of.” says Jennifer Laycock, editor-in-chief of Search Engine Guide, an online guide to search engines, portals and directories. For instance, typing in “babysitting services” may also give the search frequency for “animal sitting services.”

“Second, these services will also give you a guesstimate of how many existing sites already use that phrase,” Laycock continues. “How many existing sites already offer that product.” She says it’s not uncommon for certain keywords to be heavily searched for, but have few site offerings. “In other words, you can find a hole in the market,” she says.

WordTracker and Trellian’s Keyword Discovery are popular keyword search engines.

Find competitor links

If you are going to use a traditional search engine to test business ideas, use it to find competitor links. For instance, typing “link:www.competitor.com” into Google will tell how many sites link to the website. “It is a great way to see a competitor's link development and PR campaigns,” says Shari Thurow, Web expert and author of the upcoming book Search Engine Visibility. “Is the competitor promoting a product or service similar to your own? Maybe you can get publicity because you have a new or better product.”

Read blogs

The newest trend, personal, business and critic blogs are updated much faster than traditional websites -- and can be another gauge of public opinion. You can search them by using Technorati, Blogpulse or Ask.com’s Block Search. “Blogs tend to move at a faster pace and be more informal in tone, so you’re more likely to pick up conversation about a new product type or need on a blog than on a standard web site,” Laycock says.

Conduct online surveys

Online surveys are yet another way to gauge public opinion. Surveys have traditionally been conducted to help do market research about whether an idea or a product will be appealing to consumers. The Internet actually provides a less expensive alternative to in-person surveys or telephone research. Now many companies offer to conduct online research for you or give your company the tools to carry out your own surveying. Some online survey companies include EZquestionnaire, KeySurvey, and WebSurveyor.