John Girard, CEO of Clickability, a software company whose business is to allow non-technical people to publish sophisticated websites, skims a lot of business blogs for tips. Recently, as he was reading Venture Blog, by David Hornik, a venture capitalist, one post caught his eye. It was a piece about what businesses will benefit from the "long tail” economic theory that advocates focusing on a small niche.

“The gist was that aggregators, filters and ‘tools of production’ providers would benefit,” Girard says. “This got us thinking about our position in the ‘long tail’ economy, and we have now incorporated the concept of being a ‘tools of production’ provider into all of our positioning with prospects and investors.”

A “tools of production" provider, he says, is anyone that makes stuff that allows other people to make stuff cheaply. But the point of Girard’s experience is that great business ideas can come out of reading blogs.

Web designer Derek Featherstone always reads blogs both in and his industry and outside of it for advice to apply to his Ottawa-based Web development company, Further Ahead.  Last year, he picked up a tip from 43 Folders, a blog about personal productivity that changed the way that Featherstone did business. The advice? To break down to-do lists into specific actions. By adopting this approach, Featherstone was able to be more organized and efficient.

Blogs are where companies are posting news, individuals are sharing new ideas, and if you're not giving them at least a cursory glance, you may miss out on trends that could help your business. Here are a few ways to make blogs work for you:

Meet and greet

Small business owners should read blogs to make networking connections, says Anita Campbell, editor and CEO of Small Business Trends, a business blog that examines the small business market. “Blogs are THE best networking tool hands down. Even if your business is a brick-and-mortar business, you sometimes can make the most amazing connections in your own backyard, by first finding someone online.”

Campbell also uses “blog networking” to maintain relationships with people she meets at events. “You might meet someone, collect a business card, and then maybe not see that person again for another six months,” she says. “But if the person has a blog, then you can you read the person's thoughts, leave comments, and otherwise keep the networking connection alive and grow it. Then when you finally meet up with your contact in person again, you feel as if you are old friends due to reading the blog.”

The Chattering Class

Reading business blogs can also let you eavesdrop on the conversation going on outside your office. Maybe you haven’t heard about a new regulation? Or a new tool to help your business? Or a new place to get funding? Skimming business blogs can be your eyes and ears.

“Reading blogs in your own niche is essential, a great way to keep in touch with people and see what they are thinking,” says Henry Copeland, founder of Blogads, a network to connect bloggers and advertisers.

John Battelle, founder of Wired and the Industry Standard, suggests that small business owners read them “to keep up on the online conversations that effect their business, and to join those conversations.” Battelle recently launched Federated Media, a company that sells advertising on a select group of blogs that are among the country’s most respected. Federated also aggregates those blogs all in one place for easy reading.

One place to get a window into what everyone’s talking about is Technorati, a website that tracks 56.3 million blogs. Says reader Peg Samuel, president of Social Diva, an entertainment website and blog, “Technorati shows me in a glance what other bloggers are searching for, popular blogs, videos or news. They also have categories so I can segment the information I am looking for--which keeps me on the pulse of what others are interested in reading about.”

Inside the mind of a CEO

Many CEOs of companies small and big, such as Jupitermedia CEO Alan Meckler, and CEO of Sun Microsystems Jonathan Schwartz, have their own blogs where they talk about what issues are facing them. It’s a great way to get access to their insights. It will also give you an advantage when doing business with the CEO’s company. Justin Kitch, CEO of Homestead Technologies, Inc., says he blogs because it’s a “place for communication to customers in a human way.”

Bottom line: You’ll be informed, and as that old chestnut says, “knowledge is power.”