Myth has it that the Web, with its 100 million-plus pages, is a vast storehouse of free facts. Don't believe it. Oh, maybe the information you need to flesh out that new business proposal or research new opportunities can be found for free on the Web, but how much time do you actually spend hunting it down? Use the major search engines (Excite, HotBot, InfoSeek and the like), and you can expect to spend hours patiently ferreting to uncover exactly what you need.
But wait: There's a better way. Cut to the chase by signing up at one of the Web's three big research libraries-Electric Library (http://www.elibrary.com), Encarta Online Library (http://www.iac-on-encarta.com) and Northern Light (http://www.northernlight.com). Their research doesn't come free, but they do offer quality sources, fine-tuned searches for faster results, and nominal access costs.
Unlimited retrievals from Electric Library cost $9.95 per month or $59.95 per year. Encarta Online charges the same fees; individual articles can be bought by nonsubscribers for $1 each. Electric Library offers a 30-day free trial, and Encarta provides 25 articles or a 14-day free trial, whichever comes first. As for Northern Light, a la carte pricing rules-items cost $1 to $4 each, and if you're ever unhappy with a purchase, there's a simple, instant refund process. (Note: In the past, Northern Light gave a $25 start-up credit to new users who logged in via Barnes & Noble, http://www.barnesandnoble.com. Check the bookseller's site to find out whether the freebie can still be had.)
The sites' added bonus is the availability of premium sources-well-known magazines, newspapers and more. Electric Library, for instance, serves up 150 full-text newspapers, plus a few hundred magazines, from The Economist to World Broadcast News. Encarta, with more than 800 titles, is weaker on news but stronger on magazines, especially professional journals. Or consider Northern Light, the motherlode of online research libraries-just the titles of its 5,400 sources (newspapers, magazines, special reports) fill a 600KB file.
Which service suits you? Certainly the subscription deals at Encarta Online and Electric Library are dynamite, at least for frequent users. If you need premium research content only on occasion, either Encarta or Northern Light should serve you well. But for heavier users, the advice is clear: Get a subscription and save. In fact, the real irony of Web pricing is you'll probably save by using these sources rather than going to the content's originator. Case in point: Electric Library subscribers can download all the Los Angeles Times articles they want-but go to the newspaper's Web site (http://www.latimes.com), and individual stories from the archives cost $1.50 each.
All things considered, research subscription services may save you both time and money money-a pretty unbeatable deal.
Robert McGarvey started exploring the online world over a decade ago with Genie, and has been writing on--and complaining about--the Net ever since. He writes about the Web for Entrepreneur, BizTravel.com and Upside.