You get an email from a company in Spain. They want to place a large order for your product. They’re expecting to pay after delivery – i.e. they want credit. What do you do? Do you cross your fingers and extend credit to them? How do you know you’re not at the receiving end of international corporate fraud?

The first (and probably only) step a lot of us would take would be to hit Google to see what we could find out about the Spanish company. Your search turns up a website (in Spanish), a couple of user reviews and a LinkedIn profile for the company owner. Is that suitable data on which to make a sensible business decision?

The answer is clearly ‘no’, but for many SMEs that’s all the data they think they can access. When researching business data you need to decide whether the source is trustworthy and whether it’s a true data source or just opinion. Remember, a website is not verification that a company exists and user generated content is purely opinion.

Take information from an official registry such as Companies House, however, and you can accept that data as trustworthy fact. The data on such sites is accepted by courts and government bodies to be correct as the liability for its accuracy lies with those who file it, with stiff penalties if the data is found to be incorrect or fraudulent.

The information available via Google, Bing et al is known as the ‘surface web’. The detailed information that is actually useful is found in the ‘deep web’.

The surface web is what we see online every day. It’s all publicly available and accessible, although you may have to register on a website or pay a small charge but there’s no barrier to accessing the data. It’s all indexed by search engines and you could log on to it right now.

The deep web, on the other hand, is the hidden and ‘unconnected’ data. There’s a lot of information available from validated sources that are properly ‘curated’, but you can’t always find it. In the deep web not only will you find company registry information but also credit scores, legal information and even details of late payers, giving you a good view of how a company is doing and also how they’re behaving.

This allows you to make a truly educated decision about working with someone. In the UK we are actually ahead of the curve with Companies House leading the accessibility and availability of company information when compared to our European neighbours (and even further ahead of most countries beyond Europe).

So what is a small business to do? You can’t just surf the deep web. You need to find entry points and professional websites that give the small business owner access and the same tools the big corporates enjoy, to validate business partners and potential business customers.

There are now a number of companies who are helping to open up the deep web to small businesses. They are connecting the different data sources to bring the information you may need to the surface. For example, a number of companies are producing online dashboards that use deep web data but in a way that is open and accessible to all who need it, both businesses and public.

You may have to pay for some of that data but you know it’s high quality as it’s been editorially managed by the data owner or donor. For example, much business information has been curated by companies doing share or risk analysis or financial risk studies. These specialists are now making their deep web data available as they look to broaden the audience (and market) for this type of information – and many small businesses realise what an advantage it can be to them to access and use this data.

One thing to be aware of when exploring this type of data, however, is creating an ‘information bubble’. This is generated because we unconsciously angle our searches towards what we want to discover and things that will confirm our hunches and thoughts, creating an unrealistic ‘bubble’ of information that is only telling half the story. Diving deeper and broadening your searches can help avoid this.

So here are my top tips for using the deep web to find reliable business information online:

  • Make verifying your suppliers and customers part of your regular workflow. Know as much as possible about them before making decisions
  • By knowing more about a business, you can offer them more – possibly even things they don’t know they need yet, as you can anticipate their behaviour based on past patterns
  • Don’t rely on surface web data to prove that a company is who it says it is. A small payment to access the correct data can save you being stung for thousands of pounds in the future.