Today, more and more businesspeople are researchingmarkets from the comfort of their keyboards. "It's not unusual for a client tocome to me and say, 'I've already checked out my competitors' Web sites,' "says Janet Gotkin, an information broker in Montrose, N.Y. "Now the clientwants to know 'How much is Company X spending on customer service programs?' "

That's asking a lot. Anyone who has surfed the Internet knows that intelligenceas specific as customer service expenditures is hard to find. But with somedirection, you still can glean a lot about competitors, industry trends andcustomer opinions through online research.

The first step, of course, is an obvious one: go to the Internet search enginesand type in competitors' names. But what next?

We asked information brokers and others knowledgeable about the online world torecommend the best sites and services for conducting furthercompetitive-intelligence research on a budget. We whittled their list down tothe sites here, which are relatively easy to use and free unless otherwisestated.

Digital Dossiers
The financial data on public companies that have always been available are evenmore accessible on the World Wide Web.

Hoover's Online reveals income statement and balance sheet numbers indetailed profiles of nearly 2,500 public companies. The service is free toAmerica Online subscribers (keyword: Hoover) but otherwise costs $9.95 a month.However, Hoover's Online lets anyone download free half-page profiles of 10,000(mostly public) companies.

For official filings from publiccompanies, go to the U.S. Securities& Exchange Commission home page and tap into theSEC's Edgar database. When you need numbers fast, Edgar's a pal, but thissystem is not so easy on the eyes. Likewise, it's handy to have statistics onthe Fortune 500 online, but thesite could be more user-friendly.

Real-Time Research
Getting news about small private competitors can be daunting, but it's notimpossible.

Our own Inc. 500 database of the fastest-growingcompanies in the country provides information onthousands of privately held companies that have made this list in the pasteight years. Included are revenue information, profit-and-loss percentages,number of employees, and Web links.