When John Raasch wonders what the competition is up to, he turns to his computer and navigates to some of his competitors' websites. "If somebody else is moving to promote some of the services that I do, I want to make sure I have my ducks in a row," explains Raasch, owner of Bellingham, Wash., Web developer Mindfly. Almost all developers post client portfolios on their websites, so it's a snap for Raasch to see what they're doing.

Over the last decade or so, the world of competitive intelligence has been reshaped by the availability of vast quantities of online information about other businesses, including increasing amounts of government data, says John McGonagle, managing partner of competitive intelligence consulting firm Helicon Group in Blandon, Penn, and co-author of The Manager's Guide to Competitive Intelligence (Greenwood Praeger, 2003).

"One thing that's exploded is access to state documents and even local documents -- things like tax assessments and lawsuits," says McGonagle. Zoning permits represent another new and rich online source, he adds. Zoning applications can reveal details such as size, configuration and use of an expansion or renovation that a competitor is planning, but it used to require a trip to the local zoning commission office to get the facts. Not any more. "Chances are one in three that a local zoning board has at least some of its actions on line," according to McGonagle.

Almost any interaction with a government entity can spawn information that, today, is available online. Not sure where to look? "Sit down and think about all the different places you have filed things," McGonagle recommends. Chances are your rivals have deposited interesting information in the same places. You may have to phone the office that puts the data online to figure out how to access it, McGonagle says, but the effort can be richly rewarded.

Federal government sources are also fat with competitor intelligence. One of the most broadly useful online troves is the Patent and Trademark office at www.uspto.gov. Patent applications and trademark registrations can give clear signals about the future direction of a rival's technological and marketing initiatives.

In addition to checking competitor websites and government sources, take a gander at local newspapers and trade journals that report on your industry. Expanded online news from local sources is another big change affecting competitive intelligence, McGonagle says. City government websites often list links to local newspapers, where you may find interviews with company executives revealing strategies, press releases describing new products, and more.

Specialized sources such as these can help you once you know what you're looking for. General-purpose online reference tools can get you started in the right direction, and sometimes do much more. One of McGonagle's favorite all-purpose online intelligence gathering tools is Refdesk. "It's a huge page that takes you to news sites and an index to state-by-state local newspapers," he says. "It used to be local newspapers were a lot harder to get to."

McGonagle has even used Google Maps, www.maps.google.com, to get inside information for a client interested in a competitors' announcement of what was described as an important new distribution facility. Searching for the address of the new warehouse, he learned it was in a development that hosted only small tenants. "They were saying it was a big place," he said, "But it wasn't."

Not all online information trends are favorable from the perspective of competitor intelligence. In the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, security concerns led government at all levels to slap tighter restrictions on many kinds of information, including some of interest for competitive intelligence.

As one example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website used to post data about chemical factories and storage facilities that described any hazardous chemicals stored there as well as the businesses' plans for dealing with an accidental release -- information that could help an intelligence-gatherer determine the facilities' operations and capabilities. But in 2002, the plans were removed from the website and made available only in government reading centers.

"After 9/11 they pulled a lot of stuff," McGonagle says. "But there's still a lot out there."

For Raasch, competitor intelligence does more than alert him to his competitors' strengths. His rivals' online portfolios provide him with invaluable marketing tools for highlighting his own strengths. One of those strengths is in developing websites that conform to accessibility standards so that people with disabilities can use the Web. "That's one of our big things and how we differentiate ourselves from other people," Raasch says.

All he has to do is check a competitors' website against a tool for evaluating adherence to World Wide Web Consortium accessibility guidelines, and he knows whether he can differentiate himself with that feature. When he points the difference out to prospects, it helps him close more business. It wouldn't happen as easily without online competitive intelligence. "My competitors give me the ammunition I need to give to my clients," Raasch says, "so they can make their own decisions."

Mark Henricks is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas.