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Speaking of Nets . . .

Franchise research often means a tough hike on the paper trail. The Internet may change all that.

Enter the word "franchise" or "business opportunity" into any of the competent search engines on the Internet, and you may feel a bit like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. A Google search kicks up 2,250,000 franchise listings; Yahoo! nearly 3 million. Head down any of these pathways, and you'll quickly find yourself browsing through dozens of sites extolling the virtues of various franchise and business opportunities, touting association membership benefits, and describing individual franchise and business opportunity investment benefits.

The Internet is an essential tool in the search for the right franchise or business opportunity. It has strengths and weaknesses, of course, but you can't afford to overlook it. Its greatest strength is that it gives you the ability to browse for ideas and prospects. If you have leads you want to check out, or if you're curious about a particular franchise, a quick search will provide at least brochure-level information about the program.

The law has been slow to catch up to the franchise regulation implications of e-commerce on the Internet. The FTC has promised to address the rules surrounding electronic distribution of the UFOC and business opportunity disclosure documents and the posting of disclosure information on a Web site, but the rules are not yet final. Under current law, delivering a document in electronic form does not fulfill the franchisor's obligations. Some states have issued regulations telling franchisors what disclaimers they must display, and you'll find them in the small print of well-managed sites. In essence, the disclaimer says the information on the site does not constitute an offer in franchise registration states. Seeing this disclaimer conveys a subtle but important message: The company is receiving informed legal advice. You should wonder about franchise company sites that don't have the disclaimer.

The Internet's weakness is the low quality and reliability of information. Lists of available "franchises" are littered with nonfranchised business opportunity offerings, and much of the information you see is essentially sponsored advertising. If you understand this inescapable feature of the Internet and make allowances for it, you won't be misled.

The problem with the Internet, of course, is the sensation of trying to take a sip from a fire hose of information. The sites dedicated to franchising and business opportunities go on and on and may cause even an experienced Internet researcher to suffer from MEGO (my eyes glaze over).

The secret to effectively using the Internet for your franchise search is the same as other kinds of franchise research: focus, focus, focus. Know your targets and general interests. Don't be distracted by the glitter, the pop-up ads, the eager virtual experts. Plan to use your computer connection for first-level contact and brochure-level information. Then roll up your sleeves and plan for person-to-person meetings and in-depth discussions about the franchise opportunity.

-Andrew A. Caffey, excerpted from Franchise & Business Opportunities: How to Find, Buy and Operate a Successful Business (Entrepreneur Press)

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