RESEARCH DIG WITH GENIE TYBURSKI
In Pursuit of Company Secrets
You don’t have to hire detectives to get the scoop on competitors. I pry with my mouse.
Shrouded in mystery and misconception, the phrase competitive intelligence evokes images of dumpster diving, hacking, break-ins and theft. But those activities amount to unethical or illegal corporate espionage—an unscrupulous cousin that most competitive intelligence researchers find offensive. If I were a storyteller, I’d spin a yarn to rival The Firm. Corporate spying makes the stuff of good novels. But in the less exciting world of research, competitive intelligence conveys an analysis of information gathered from trustworthy sources in a lawful, ethical manner. Such intelligence alerts and empowers corporate decision makers.
While much of the information-gathering process occurs by telephone and other offline activities, the Web provides access to a slew of information not easily or widely available a few years ago. It also gives rise to new research, tools that, when employed creatively, may yield data that gives a client a competitive advantage, or a lawyer the opportunity for courtroom one-upmanship. These resources include EDGAR filings, company Web pages, domain registrations, public records and government documents, classified ads, resumes, forums and message boards and consumer opinion sites.
EDGAR filings, or documents filed by public companies with the Securities and Exchange Commission, can prove particularly valuable when launching an investigation into a private company. Public companies frequently reveal private competitors. They also provide brief executive biographies, which may include information about an employee’s former private company and the position held. Zeroing in on such nuggets of information may be as simple as conducting a free-text search of the private company’s name. (That is, the search is not limited to a specific portion of the document.)
You must, however, use a commercial EDGAR service like LexisNexis’s EDGARplus or LivEDGAR (www.gsionline.com). Free EDGAR databases do not enable free-text keyword queries.
Company Web sites vary in the amount, and quality, of competitive information they offer. Savvy companies will involve corporate counsel in the development of their sites. Still, you may uncover business relationships—clients, customers, employees, suppliers or affiliates—by examining links to and from such sites.
While finding outgoing links simply requires a thorough examination of each company Web page, discovering incoming links entails some search skills. The major search engines provide special syntax for unearthing reverse links. It works like this:
P link: www.companydomain.com (Google, AltaVista)
P link.all: www.companydomain.com (AllTheWeb)
P http://www.virtualchase.com (Hotbot; set word filter to "links to the URL")
P www.virtualchase.com (Lycos; set word filter to "Referring URL")
The resulting sites may shed light on unpublicized relationships, concerns or activities. They may also yield substantive, supposedly secret or low-key information about products, services, plants or other things.
You may also find clues about new products, services or concerns by checking domain registrations. For example, Microsoft’s registration of the domain xbox.com, on February 23, 2000, confirmed yearlong speculations about the development of a new gaming device. Similarly, Proctor & Gamble revealed its concern about the false, yet rapidly spreading, rumors regarding Febreze by registering several domain names beginning with febrezekills during April 1999.
Because of recent changes—including the elimination of a public search interface to the master Whois database and removal (with one exception) of the Whois name search option—only a few tools and tactics remain for discovering unannounced domain ownership. Network Solutions’ Whois database provides limited assistance (www.netsol.com/cgi-bin /whois/whois). Enter a company name and check the name radio button to find up to 10 registered domains. Then run a separate query for each relevant handle that the name search yields.
This strategy finds only those domains registered with Network Solutions, and in the case of companies like Microsoft, the 10-record restriction severely limits its usefulness.
NameDroppers.com offers a better tool for those who know enough about a company to search for possible domains by keyword. Enter a company name, product, brand or service as a keyword to find up to 2,000 domain names. For example, the keyword febreze returns 22 registered domain names where the character string, febreze, appears anywhere in the domain. With MarkMonitor, a commercial service available via LexisNexis, lawyers may discover a company’s registered domain names and trademarks. MarkMonitor’s ReverseWhois queries registered domains by owner name. Its TMIQ feature identifies registered trademarks and determines which ones also match registered domain names, not necessarily owned by the same company.
Literally thousands of databases contain public records. You can discover a company’s politics, for example, by searching for campaign donations by employer name at Political Money Line (www.politicalmoneyline.com). Find OSHA violations (www.osha.gov /cgi-bin/est/est1), business filings and UCCs (www.llrx.com/columns/round up19.htm) or environmental problems (www.epa.gov/enviro/index_java .html). Locate copyright records (www.loc.gov/copyright/search), patents (www.uspto.gov/patft/index .html), pending litigation (http://pacer.uspci.uscourts.gov) and more. (See the LINKS box on page 14 for product recall sites.)
The Federal Communications Commission site facilitates access to comment letters it receives via its Electronic Comment Filing System (http://gullfoss2.fcc.gov/prod/ecfs/comsrch_v2.cgi). The free database contains comment letters and related documents from 1992 to the present.
While not always as handy as the FCC database, other agency sites also offer helpful resources for finding public documents. The EPA Office of Pesticide Programs, for instance, provides access to its index of cleared science reviews (www.epa.gov/pestic ides/foia). In addition, the EPA Office of Solid Waste makes the full-text of RCRA documents available (www.epa .gov/rcraonline). The FDA Dockets Management Branch offers an index containing links to various full-text public documents (www.fda.gov/oh rms/dockets). The Justice Department’s Antitrust Division provides an index and digest of business review letters, with current letters online in full-text.
There is also congressional testimony, which can shed light on information of interest to competitors. While you should query fee-based sources like Westlaw’s USTESTIMONY or LexisNexis’s LEGIS/HEARING database, you might also investigate the Web sites of the House and Senate. A quick and dirty (and probably incomplete) way of doing this involves the use of a search engine that permits limiting queries by domain name.
For example, connect to Google’s advanced search page. Enter the company name as a phrase and then limit the query to house.gov. Try another search of just the senate.gov domain. You can perform similar queries using most major search engines.
Ads and Resumes
Scout around job sites for classified ads and resumes. Monster Board (www .monster.com) and CareerBuilder (www.careerbuilder.com) are excellent sources for finding classified ads. Also, remember to check the company’s Web site for job listings.
You can pay a hefty fee for access to resume databases, which may be worth the price if you need to conduct this type of research frequently. For one-time investigations, try entering a combination of the company’s name and "resume,"c.v." or "curriculum vitae" (with spelling variations) at the major search engines. The number of resulting resumes may surprise you.
Discovering public messages and opinions involves a number of search strategies. Browse or query popular message forums like Raging Bull (www.raging bull.com) or Motley Fool (www.fool com). Even though these focus on stocks and investments, posters often mention private companies.
Google Groups (http://groups .google.com) offers a database of messages posted to various Usenet groups since 1981. Querying a company name may locate consumer opinion, as well as resumes or messages posted by employees. Naive posters sometimes reveal information they would rather keep confidential. To see examples of this, run the query: resume "confidentiality requested" with quotations.
Use Google to query messages posted to Yahoo Groups, which does not offer its own engine. Connect to the advanced search page and then limit the search to the domain groups.yahoo.com.
Finding sites with a beef requires some creative searching. Try adding sucks, or other colorful language, to a domain name. The search capability of NameDroppers.com might come in handy. Enter the company name, a space and an ill-mannered term to find registered domains that lead to live disparaging Web sites.
Discover individual derogatory Web pages with Google’s allinurl search command. It works like this—allinurl: companyname foulword. Be warned: This strategy almost certainly will unearth pornographic Web pages that trap your browser. If such a page won’t release you, try the command Control+W. If that fails, reboot.
Web Site Changes
Finally, to monitor changes in key Web pages that your research uncovers, use a Web tracking service like InfoMinder (www.infominder.com), TrackEngine (www.trackengine.com) or SpyOnIt (www.spyonit.com). Unlike search engines, these watch services do not crawl through a Web site in search of information. Rather, they detect changes to a specified Web page and then notify the user.
Imagine that your research un-covers a message board that seems likely to mention your client or competitor. Let any of the above services monitor the Web address where the discussion occurs. Enter the client’s—or competitor’s—name as a keyword limitation. This means you will receive notice only when the client’s name appears.
In another scenario, you discover the existence of a document on a competitor’s server that the company didn’t intend to make public. Perhaps it’s a Web page in development, containing information the company plans to make public in the future. Grab a copy and begin monitoring changes to it. How might you discover such a document? Two search methods come to mind.
Robots exclusion files. First, look for a robots exclusion file in the root directory. A technical standard respected by major search engines, the robots exclusion file—named robots.txt—instructs search engines to stay out of certain areas of a Web site. A Webmaster, for example, may not want an engine gathering and indexing the site’s copyrighted image files. In this case, robots.txt would indicate the name of the folder containing the graphics. Discover the existence of such a file by entering the site address plus robots.txt, like this: www.companydomain.com/robots.txt.
Typically, robots exclusion files contain the names of folders a Webmaster does not want an engine to crawl. Finding files within the folder requires lax security on the part of the Web site. Try entering the folder name following the site address, like this: www.companydomain.com/folder/. If you see a list of files within the folder, these files are publicly available—whether or not the company intended it.
Proprietary file indexing. Second, before late 2001, Webmasters could place non-HTML files on a Web server without much concern about an engine’s ability to find them. Even if the files were found, the engines wouldn’t index such documents. But recent enhancements at Google should make Webmasters think twice. The engine now indexes many proprietary file types, including Word and Excel documents. Discover them by connecting to the advanced search page. Then look for all proprietary file types available at the company’s domain.
The Thrill of the Hunt
Certainly, conducting competitive intelligence research online fails to generate excitement on a par with reading a corporate espionage novel. This kind of Web hunt lacks thrill. Did I say I wasn’t a storyteller? But competitive intelligence findings, while they stimulate no rush, do stimulate advantages for business clients and their lawyers. Therein lies the thrill.
GENIE TYBURSKI (email@example.com) is Web Manager of The Virtual Chase, a service of Ballard Spahr Andrews &Ingersoll, LLP.
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PRODUCT RECALL LINKS
You can find product recalls at these agency sites:
P The CPSC: www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/prerel/prerel.html
P The FDA: www.fda.gov/opacom/7alerts.html
P The NHTSA: www.nhtsa.dot.gov/cars/problems/recalls/recall_links.cfm