Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Bumper Crop: Zoominfo's Harvesting and Searching Expand Timely Business Information Sources

Several years ago I visited a scrappy startup called Eliyon in Cambridge, Massachusetts, shoehorned into a mezzanine office space alongside a busy highway. They had a very interesting idea; harvest information about businesses and professionals found on Web pages to build a unique and competitive online business information service rapidly. While the technology had its problems - getting good matches of people to Web content proved to be a bit tougher than they anticipated - the service was building a unique database of business information archives that was indeed difficult to replicate elsewhere in the fast-changing world of Web content.

Eventually Eliyon became Zoominfo, the still-rising online business information service that provides a widening array of information sources to a claimed 4 million unique visitors a month who view and update information on more than 5 million businesses and 50 million professionals. One of the keys to Zoominfo's growth has been continually accelerating the frequency and accuracy of the information that it is harvesting business information from the Web and from client-supplied information sources. This can be especially important for the many small and medium sized businesses that are tracked by Zoominfo, many of which come and go in a matter of months or which are changing their business models and staffing about as often. One advantage that this constant refreshing of information gives Zoominfo is the ability to search for professionals and organizations using keywords that may not fall into the typical taxonomies of business markets. Want to know who's involved in gesture computing these days? Zoominfo lists 111 people, many of whom are working for some of the leading companies trying to marry human movements with computer services. That's a harder order to fill for many taxonomy-oriented business information services.

This week Zoominfo is officially launching its Zoominfo Pro edition, a platform that combines in-depth profiles and Web content, contact information, alerts functions and high-volume record downloads with Zoominfo's enhanced contacts harvesting functions and profile links to social media portals. The contacts harvesting is courtesy of Zoominfo Community Edition, which combines syncing of business card-level from clients' Microsoft Outlook email services with Zoominfo's expanding community-edited contacts database. You might say that Zoominfo CE is a combination of a more robust and permission-oriented implementation of Spoke and an integrated Jigsaw-like contacts sharing and datafeed service.

Like Spoke, downloading the Zoominfo CE application will enable the user to offer updated contact information form their Outlook email service in exchange for updates to basic contact information from Zoominfo. Like Jigsaw, contributors to Zoominfo CE may swap updated contact information for other updated contact information. The potential advantage of this combination of techniques is passive daily synchronization of contact information by individuals who are inputting new information daily in their Outlook services and active daily updates to via the community-driven service for "lean forward" information hounds.

It's surprising to me that it's taken this long for someone to build a service that competes with Jigsaw somewhat directly. Given Jigsaw's substantial advantage in its number of contributors, frequency of record updates and its acquisition by Salesforce.com, it's a tough league to play in, to be sure. But with the combination of the other sources of business information that Zoominfo offers and its unique search capabilities based on its Web content harvesting, the combination of techniques is a promising alternative that has the potential to grow rapidly. With existing hooks into leading CRM services from Salesforce.com, SugarCRM, Microsoft Dynamics and Oracle, Zoominfo can bring this information into many of the platforms that professionals use to manage accounts and sales leads.

Will Zoominfo Pro's sophisticated search tools, high volume contacts data downloads and automated updates make it a hit with business information users? There are a lot of moving parts to the service, so it's hard to give Pro a quick thumbs up specifically on features that may or may not meet an organization's specific needs. On the data front, the improvements to company and person disambiguation in Zoominfo's data harvesting are evident, so there's reason to think that between its years of online harvesting, third party sources and new email syncing and online community updates it can continue to build improved data quality is beginning to form a more competitive business information service that can act as more of a "plan A" business information reference for many business professionals.

Zoominfo will work best as a "plan A" when you're trying to take advantage of fast-moving market segments with "fuzzy" edges to the market opportunities that you're trying to nail down. Zoominfo's ability to combine keywords effectively to whittle down possible matches is really its most powerful feature. Once these opportunities have been nailed down, other services may provide more in-depth information and reports, but for many of the small and medium-sized businesses that are the focus of Zoominfo clients, this depth may be lacking in other services anyway, so Zoominfo's archived Web content mapped to specific companies and people may be a more efficient way to approach researching them than a search engine that may not have much of Zoominfo's content readily available and indexed as specifically. Whichever way you go, it's good to see more companies getting serious about high-quality, well-integrated business information that will give individuals and institutions more choices in approaching fast-moving opportunities in business.
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