Using the Web to Find Local
Business and Market Information

By Marcy Phelps

Foreword by Mary Ellen Bates

"This book covers an area of business research that simply hasn’t been addressed before, and it fills an important gap in any researcher’s toolkit."
 - Mary Ellen Bates, Bates Information Services, Inc.

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Several years ago, I spoke with a conference program planner about my upcoming presentation for her organization. I had sent her several topics related to business research, on which I frequently speak and write, and the purpose of our call was to narrow down the list of possibilities. After a few minutes of discussion, she said, “Marcy, these are great topics, but could you possibly talk about local market research?” I did, and it became one of my most requested speaking topics.

As with any new presentation, I invested a lot of time in researching this topic and talking about it with other librarians and information professionals. I looked back on my own experience with client projects that involved finding and analyzing information about small local areas, and I spoke with business professionals across a range of industries.

Through my research, I found that even in our global economy, businesses are still hungry for targeted, localized information about customers, companies, and trends. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in a Fortune 500 company or a one-person operation. If you’re entering a new market, tracking competitors, identifying possible strategic partners, getting to know your buyers, or raising funds, you’re probably asking questions about specific—and sometimes very small—geographic areas. And as with any type of research, you’re looking for answers on the web.

Entrepreneurs deciding on a location for their new businesses depend on neighborhood-level demographics. Large organizations seeking partners to help them connect with customers in certain geographic markets want information about local companies, events, or issues. Nonprofits need community-level information to help them learn about potential donors and monitor awareness levels.  In an age of limited budgets and high accountability, people are discovering that each county, city, town, and neighborhood is unique and that national- or state-level information won’t always tell them what they need to know.

What I also found through my research for the presentation on local market research and through my work with clients is that adding the element of geography to any search topic—especially for counties, cities, census blocks, or any other substate area—will make any project a lot more challenging. For several reasons, even the most experienced business researchers expressed frustration with this topic.

First, the people I talked and worked with said they need high-quality information since they use it for making important business decisions. Too often, inserting a local aspect into a search means a search results page full of city guides, restaurant reviews, and meet ups. While these can yield some useful information, most searchers needed more business-oriented, reliable sources—and they weren’t finding them.

Second, Google and other general-purpose search engines don’t do a good job of localizing search results. Few web resources go to the local level, and those that do can be expensive. Many sources frequently offer information that’s out-of-date, not very in-depth, or lacking in local feel. It can be quite time-consuming to drill down to information about just one particular place or to compare information about several small locations.

Finally, many people I spoke with said that even if they could find local demographics and other numbers, something was still missing. Without any insider knowledge of the target group and location, they risked making mistakes in their critical business decisions. They wanted to check statistics, gather some opinions, and get the “real story.”

For all these reasons, finding business information on the local level became a popular speaking topic for me and is why I wrote Research on Main Street. If you are involved in starting, running, or building a business in any way, at some point you are going to need to find local-level information to help you fill in the gaps or make decisions. But it shouldn’t be such a difficult task. Although they’re sometimes hard to find, good local sources exist, and new ones are introduced almost daily. You just have to know where to look, and you need a few tips to make the process go quickly and smoothly.

About This Book

Research on Main Street is a guide to using free and low-cost options on the web to find business and market information about local places. It also shows how to use local sources for more in-depth research into people, companies, and national issues that impact certain parts of the country.

This book covers how to approach this type of research, key resources, and practical solutions to specific questions. My goal is to help you find better local-level information in less time—even if you don’t have a big budget.

This book is organized as follows: Chapters 1 through 3 provide a framework for researching local information. They introduce you to local business research, including what makes it unique, how to approach it, and what types of resources will give you the best results. Chapter 3 is devoted to making sure you’re using quality sources, avoiding online scams and misinformation, and respecting copyright, among other topics.

Chapters 4 through 8 examine various types of local information, with chapters on local demographics, economics, companies, people, and issues. Each chapter includes strategy tips and resources, and—to show you how it’s all put into action—a section of examples illustrating when each type of information might be needed and how it can be found.

The last chapter of this book and the two appendixes offer several advanced tools and resources that streamline the process of local business research even further. Chapter 9 covers using fee-based information sources to find local information. Appendix A lists all the resources mentioned in this book, arranged by chapter, with a brief description of each, providing useful topic-based guides to key local sources. Appendix B includes short guides with everyday business and market research questions and sites for finding the answers.

As a bonus, all chapters include valuable Tips From the Pros. These short sections spotlight expert researchers, who share their advice for finding local business and market information.

While the book as a whole will give you a comprehensive overview of the topic, each chapter can be used as a focused and practical stand-alone component. This way, Research on Main Street can be read straight through or a chapter at a time. I recommend, however, that you at least scan Chapter 1, Planning the Trip, before starting the others. It lays the foundation and explains the rules of the road, including some of the challenges involved with local research and suggestions for working around them. 

What You Won’t Find in This Book

To make this book as practical as possible, I have focused on U.S. information and sources. While you won’t find specific resources for other countries here, the principles and general framework presented can be applied globally. I encourage you to see how the strategies discussed in Research on Main Street can be used for other regions.

You also won’t find coverage of public records research. Many local research projects involve searching publicly available government documents. Public records research, however, requires a very specialized set of tools and skills and is best left to the experts.

Often, the quickest route to local information is not through the web but through “offline” methods such as focus groups or phone conversations with experts. Research on Main Street focuses on web-based research and shows you how to use the web to identify people to contact when what you’re looking for isn’t online or when you need to verify what you have found. It also provides some tips for preparing for your conversations and getting people to answer your questions.

Local is becoming synonymous with mobile. I’ve chosen not to include sources that are available only through mobile search since, at this time, 1) business-grade content and applications are few and far between and 2) most business researchers don’t do professional research on their mobile phones.

Finally, this book doesn’t attempt to cover all local-related resources, and it would be impossible to try. Consider Research on Main Street as your guide, brimming with useful strategies and sources for finding quality local-level business information on the web.

Latest News

Upcoming book signing:
Computers in Libraries conference
April 7, 2014
Washington DC
Hope to see you there!

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Research on Main Street is also available from:
Colorado Chapter, Business Marketing Association
(Proceeds go to BMA Colorado)

Research on Main Street is available in e-book format!
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