A year ago Companies House announced that they were going to make all of their company information available free of charge to everyone. The press release was short on detail and many of us wondered what format the data would be in and how easy it would be to use. Daily files containing accounts data registered on the previous day were already available but these are huge zip files that, when unpacked, contain files with meaningless names. (http://download.companieshouse.gov.uk/en_accountsdata.html). Unless you have software that can manage and search the data it is impossible to identify which files contain information on the company you are researching.
For most of us the files are useless. Was this to be the format of the free service? Thankfully, no.
For the officers you can see what other companies they are involved with. What you cannot do at the moment is search by director name from the start. That is a “planned feature” as are disqualified directors search, company monitoring, company name availability, dissolved companies and overseas data. For those options you have to revert to the old WebCHeck service at http://wck2.companieshouse.gov.uk/.
The new beta service is easy to use and at last we have access to UK company documents and accounts free of charge. So, does this mean the end of services such as Company Check (http://companycheck.co.uk/) and DueDil (http://www.duedil.com/)? Not necessarily. Company Check, for example, already has an option for searching by director name and there are also useful charting, monitoring and structure options as well as access to some European companies. They also offer access to risk scores, credit reports and County Court Judgments (all priced). All of these services only allow you to search for companies one at a time: there is no multi-criteria search that you can use to find companies by turnover, number of employees, industry sector for example. Neither can you compare companies or conduct a detailed peer group analysis. For that you still have to use priced services such as BvD (http://www.bvdinfo.com/)
Overall, a move in the right direction and ideal if your needs are simple, for example accounts and director information for a live company. But look carefully at what features are available before you cancel your subscription service.
On one of my recent workshops I was asked if I used Google as my default search tool, especially when conducting business research. The short answer is “It depends”. The long answer is that it depends on the topic and type of information I am looking for. Yes, I do use Google a lot but if I need to make sure that I have covered as many sources as possible I also use Google alternatives such as Bing, Millionshort, Blekko etc. On the other hand and depending on the type of information I require I may ignore Google and its ilk altogether and go straight to one or more of the specialist websites and databases.
Here are just a few of the free and pay-per-view resources that I use.
There are at least a dozen statistics sites that I use on a regular basis but if I’m unsure of where to look or want to make sure I haven’t missed anything I use OFFSTATS – Official Statistics on the Web at http://www.offstats.auckland.ac.nz. A great starting point for official statistical sources by country, region subject or a combination of categories. All of the content in the database is in the public domain and available through the Internet and has been quality assessed by staff at The University of Auckland Library.
Official company information
If I want to confirm the existence of a company or obtain filings and accounts I usually go direct to the relevant official company registry. I have a list of the registries that can be searched online at http://www.rba.co.uk/sources/registers.htm. As many of my enquiries are for UK companies I am a frequent visitor to Companies House at http://www.companieshouse.gov.uk/. Some information is free but filings and accounts are priced. There are several companies that repackage Companies House data and sometimes make extra data or analysis free of charge for example Company Check at http://www.companycheck.co.uk/, which enables you to search by company or director’s name. Risk reports, information on CCJs, and some official filings are priced if you do not have a subscription to the full service.
Share price information
For free share price information I use Yahoo Finance (http://uk.finance.yahoo.com/) and Google Finance (https://www.google.co.uk/finance). Both of these services provide charts and news on shares on the major stock markets. Google’s graphs are ‘annotated’ with labels that link to news articles listed to the right of the graph, so you can see whether or not a particular event or announcement has affected a share price. Both offer free, daily historical share prices in figures. As well viewing historical graphs for share prices you can download the data as a spreadsheet.
For news alerts I use a mixture of bookmarked searches, Google email and RSS alerts, and RSS feeds from a wide range of blogs and news sites. I find that Google alerts are erratic and unreliable but they do sometimes pick up something unique so I still include them in the mix. RSS feeds are my main source of current awareness and when a news feed is rather broad in coverage I use my RSS reader’s search function to identify the articles that are of interest to me. I use a desktop reader call RSSOwl (http://www.rssowl.org/) but Inoreader (http://inoreader.com/) is a web based service that offers similar features and options.
Who is behind a site?
If I am to use any information from the web for business purposes I need to know who is behind the website. DomainTools http://www.domaintools.com/ is one of many services that will tell who owns a domain name, unless they are hiding behind an agent or privacy protection service. There is also a Whois+ extension for Chrome (my default browser) that can be used to run a quick and easy check on the domain name of a displayed page.
If you are interested in finding out more about business information resources I am running a workshop for TFPL in London on March 6th , June 6th 2014. Details are on the TFPL website.
Update: please note change of date for the next business information workshop. It is now being held on June 6th, 2014.
Companies and directors can be searched from the same search box. You then select the appropriate entry from a list of possible matches. The company summary is free of charge and includes a business overview, data on its status and business activities, and a list of trading addresses.
Also free of charge are the accounts and list of directors but you have to register (free of charge) to view the information. There are options for logging in with your Facebook, Twitter or Google account but if you prefer you can register a user name and password.
Five years of key financials (cash at bank, net worth, total current liabilities and total current assets) are shown as graphs and more detailed information is displayed in the Company Accounts Table.
The financial statements submitted to Companies House can be downloaded free of charge as PDFs. Other documents lodged at Companies House such as “Change of director’s details” or “Allotment of securities” are listed under the Documents tab and are £2 each.
The Credit Risk information (risk score, credit limit, payment data and key factors) and Charges (mortgages and County Court Judgments) are priced. For a single company the price is £4.99 + VAT, which gives you 30 days unlimited access to all premium credit data on that company for 30 days. If you are likely to be researching more than four companies on a regular basis it is worth upgrading to the All Companies options costing £20 + VAT. This gives you 30 days unlimited access to credit data across every company and director.
Current directors and secretaries for a company are listed free of charge. Previous directors and secretaries are part of the subscription service. The free director profile includes an overview, their registered details and a summary of the companies of which they are or have been a director. This can be more informative as a way of identifying connections between companies and other directors than looking at the company records in isolation. The full director report reports are £8.99 and include credit risk, CCJs, mortgages and charges, and a summary for each current appointment with key information taken from the associated company report.
For both companies and directors you can set up free alerts and add them to a dashboard. This is an easy way to compare results for companies, with negative and positive changes in key financials shown as red or green arrows pointing up or down.
Company Check is not the only service providing free access to some of UK Companies House and Ireland company data. DueDil (http://www.duedil.com/) and Bizzy (http://bizzy.co.uk) are two others that are worth looking at. I understand, though, that Company Check is working on additional services that are due for launch in the next few months. It will be interesting to see what they come up with.
Towards the end of the afternoon the participants were asked to come up with a list of top 10 tips and tricks. Two more were submitted to me by email soon after, so we have a dozen in total.
Google automatically looks for variations on your search terms and sometimes drops terms from your search without telling or asking you. Neither of these are very helpful if you are looking for a company or a person. Quote marks around phrases or individual words do not always force an exact match or inclusion in the search. If you want Google to run your search exactly as you have typed it in, click on ‘Search tools’ in the menu above your results, then click on the arrow next to ‘All results’ and from the drop down menu select Verbatim.
2. Reading Level
Try ‘Reading level’ if Google is failing to return any research or business related documents for a query. Run your search and from the menu above the results select ‘Search tools’, ‘All results’ and from the drop menu ‘Reading level’. Options for switching between basic, intermediate and advanced reading levels should then appear just above the results. Google does not give much away as to how it calculates the reading level and it has nothing to do with the reading age that publishers assign to publications. It seems to involve an analysis of sentence structure, the length of sentences, the length of the document and whether scientific or industry specific terminology appears in the page.
3. Guardian Data Storehttp://www.guardian.co.uk/data
This section of the Guardian posts articles, charts, graphs and maps on stories in the news using official government data, datasets collected and published relevant organisations and sometimes data obtained via Freedom of Information (FoI) requests. Links to the original datasets are provided so that you can download the raw data.
Use the filetype: command to limit your research to PowerPoint for presentations, spreadsheets for data and statistics or PDF for research papers and industry/government reports. Note that in Google filetype:ppt and filetype:xls will notpick up the newer .pptx and xlsx formats so you will need to incorporate both into your strategy, for example filetype:ppt OR filetype:pptx, or run separate searches for each one. In Bing.com, though, filetype:pptx will pick up both .ppt and .pptx files.
Include the site: command in your search to focus your search on particular types of site, for example site:gov.uk. You can also use -site: to exclude a site or group of sites from your search, for example:
to run the search on UK government web sites but excluding the new www.gov.uk site.
6. Duedil chart
Duedil (http://www.duedil.com/) is one of several companies that repackage Companies House data and makes some of available free of charge. The workshop participants particularly liked the company Group visualisations.
7.Company Checkhttp://www.companycheck.co.uk/ and Company Director Checkhttp://company-director-check.co.uk/
Like Duedil, both of these services repackage Companies House data. Company Check provides 5 years of figures and graphs for Cash at Bank, Net Worth, Total Liabilities and Total Current Liabilities free of charge and lists the directors of a company. Click on a director’s name and you are taken to the Company Directory Check where you can view other current and past directorships for that person.
10. Domain Toolshttp://www.domaintools.com/
A useful tool for identifying who owns the domain name of a web site. Alarm bells should start ringing in your head if the owner is hiding behind an agent or a privacy protection service.
A single point of access to the official company registries of 22 European countries. As well as searching for companies your can search company appointments and personnel for some countries, and verify VAT numbers. The amount of information that is disclosed varies depending on the country and details of what is available is included in the price list at http://gbrdirect.eu/priceList.aspx. The information that it finds will be in the original language.
12. Numeric range
This command is unique to Google. Use it for anything to do with numbers – years, temperatures, weights, distances, prices etc. Simply type in your two numbers separated by two full stops as part of your search. For example: world oil demand forecasts 2015..2030
This workshop is being held again on Thursday, 19th September 2013 in London. The content will have changed by then – in fact, some things have already changed! – and participants are encouraged to let us know the areas and topics in which they are particularly interested and areas of research that cause them problems. This enables me to tailor the event to the needs of those attending. Hands-on practical sessions are included so that everyone has a chance to try out the sites and techniques for themselves. Further details of the day are on the TFPL website.
The search interface and the results are in Hebrew but if you are using Google Chrome the built-in translator does a reasonable job of translating the text into English.
Free information on a company includes type of company, address, legal status and purpose of the company.
Additional information such as details of directors, total authorized capital, division of share capital, shareholders, charges and liabilities is priced. It is at this point that the Google translation starts to fail, so if you need more than just confirmation that the company exists it is best to use a commercial service that can run your search and translate the documents. One such company is IsraelBizReg (http://www.israelbizreg.com/).
IsraelBizReg is a division of KYC Israel, an Israeli due diligence firm. They offer English translated company reports in three formats: basic, detailed, and a full company file. You can search the database free of charge to see if your company is in the register. If you cannot find it IsraelBizReg will perform a company search free of charge. The basic report costs $50, detailed is $100 and the full company file is $150.
Another company that provides similar services is UK based 7Side (http://www.7side.co.uk/). Like IsraelBizReg it is pay as you go and they offer a translation service.
The Registre de Commerce et des Sociétés – Accueil (http://www.rcsl.lu/) is the official register of companies and associations in Luxembourg. The search options are limited to company name or number and the interface is in German and French. Searching and company name, address and contact details are free of charge. Documents are priced.
Legilux Sociétés et Associations has more search options at http://www.legilux.public.lu/entr/search/index.php and it provides a history of the documents filed by a company. This is a free service but for the documents themselves you have to go back to the Registre de Commerce et des Sociétés where there is a charge per document.
In Belgium the KBO Public Search (http://economie.fgov.be/nl/ondernemingen/KBO/Pubd/PuS/)
enables you to search for public information on every registered active enterprise and establishment. Search by company number, name, branch number or name, address and municipality. Each record provides name, company number, activities, address, contact details and links to other sites for official documents and annual reports. The search interface is available in Dutch and French. The information is in Dutch or French and is free.
The CBSO (Central Balance Sheet Office) section of the National Bank of Belgium (http://www.bnb.be/) has the accounts of companies, associations and foundations active in Belgium. The search interface is available in Dutch, French, German and English and the services is free.
Many thanks to Inez de Bois for the information and updates.
There is a lot happening in the UK business information sector at the moment. From two of my earlier postings on company information you will probably have gathered that competition between the providers is hotting up. And if you need statistics then the open data initiatives provide direct access to raw data – possibly.
If you are interested in business information and want to get up to speed with current developments I am running a UKeiG workshop on the topic on Thursday, 8th September. It is being held in Bristol at the Frenchay Campus of the University of the West of England. Further details are on the UKeiG web site at http://www.ukeig.org.uk/trainingevent/keeping-good-company-quality-business-information-web-karen-blakeman. The emphasis will be on free and pay per view services. Please note that you do not have to be a member of UKeiG to attend, and the workshop will be relevant to all types of organisations.
There are numerous services that take UK Companies House data and repackage it. Some of the data is offered free of charge but more detailed information and additional analysis such as credit reports are priced. bizzy (http://www.bizzy.co.uk/) is one such organisation but uniquely it also offers free credit ratings for many UK limited companies. (Note that it is the overall rating and not the full report that is available free of charge.)
To search bizzy simply enter the name of a company and bizzy presents you with a list of likely matches. Click on the company you want to view and as well as documents available for purchase you can see free of charge the names of the directors together with a list of the other companies of which they are directors, industry sector, date of incorporation, registered address, and a list of competitors and peers.
To see the credit rating of the company you have to register with the site. Ordinary registration is free but there is also a bizzy PLUS account (£9.99/month or £99/year). The PLUS account allows you to view credit limits, mortgages and CCJs, includes a Risk Tracker for monitoring companies of interest, and gives you a 15% discount on all purchases. If you have the bizzy FREE account you will only be able to see credit ratings that are from 100 down to 30. Those below 30 show “Not public for this company” for their credit rating. If you have signed up for the bizzy PLUS all credit ratings are displayed.
The bizzy credit scores are as follows:
85 and 100 – ‘Excellent Creditworthiness’,
70 and 84 – ‘Very Good Creditworthiness’
50 and 69 – ‘Good Creditworthiness’
30 and 49 – ‘Creditworthy’
15 and 29 – ‘Credit Against Collateral’
0 and 14 – ‘Caution – Credit At Your Discretion’
I ran a check on a company for a friend of mine. They had heard rumours about the company and were uncertain as to whether it was safe to do business with them. Would the company go under? There was little to go on at Companies House as the company was filing abbreviated accounts and had not filed documents for the previous year. I used bizzy FREE to run the search and no credit rating was displayed. In order to see how bad it was I bought the credit report (£11.99). bizzy gave the company a rating of zero and the long list of outstanding CCJs for unpaid bills was all the evidence we needed to avoid the company like the plague. (The company concerned has now gone into liquidation).
Official documents filed at Companies House and bought direct from them cost £1 but can be bought via bizzy for £0.99. That is only 1 pence less than the Companies House price and might not be enough on its own to tempt you onto bizzy but the additional free information might. An important part of company research is uncovering what the directors are up to and bizzy makes it very easy to view a list of directorships held by a person. On the Companies House web site this is only possible if you subscribe to the full service rather than the free Webcheck option.
I have found that the information on bizzy is often more up to date than that provided by some of the larger credit rating companies and bizzy covers every UK limited company, even very small ones. I tried searching for three small companies using http://www.do-business.net/sbc, which I have often used in the past, and none of them were in the database.
Bizzy also searches official information and sells credit reports on companies in other European countries. It is not obvious how you do this until you start searching on the company name. Above and to the right of the list of companies on the results page is a ‘Search Country’ box and it is from the drop down menu that you select the country.
Remember, though, that the amount of information that companies have to disclose varies from country to country and may consist of little more than name, registration number, status and address.
If you are researching UK companies I recommend that you consider including bizzy in your toolkit, but should you go for a FREE or PLUS account? It all depends on how much company research you think you’ll do in a year. If it is just a handful then perhaps the free option will suffice but more than that and bizzy PLUS with its 15% discount and standard display of credit limits, mortgages, and CCJs makes more economic sense.
One of the most frequently asked questions that land in my inbox is “Where can I find information on [insert company name of your choice]”. The enquiry is often about a UK company and comes from ordinary Joe or Josephine Bloggs who knows nothing about sources of business information. Those of you who, like me, have these resources at our fingertips may roll your eyes heavenwards but let’s heave a huge sigh of relief that these people are bothering to ask about checking up on a company. On further investigation, many of my correspondents admit that they have been approached over the phone regarding a “once only opportunity” involving the company concerned and are suspicious of the offer. Unfortunately, I also receive emails from people wanting to find out about a company after they have parted with their money.
The first port of call for official information on UK companies is Companies House (http://www.companieshouse.gov.uk/). Not every form of company or organisation is required to register at Companies House: for example, in the UK I am a sole trader and therefore do not have to register or file accounts. I have noticed an increasing number of comments on the web and social media from small businesses who have decided to de-register because of the bureaucracy. The absence of a registration at Companies House is not necessarily cause for concern but then most of us do not cold call people with an “exclusive investment opportunity”! An easy way to check if there is a problem with a company of any sort is to search for them on Google and include scam or hoax in your search. That may seem obvious but so many victims who contact me never considered that strategy.
So if you have been approached by the likes of Trotters Independent Traders ltd. plc go to Companies House and use the free Web Check option which is in the centre panel on the home page.
You can search for currently or recently dissolved names, dissolved names, previous names or proposed names. Free information includes name, registered number and address, status (for example active, liquidation), nature of business, date of last accounts. Further information and documents such as accounts and certificate of incorporation are priced at GBP 1 each.
Several other services re-package and sell information from Companies House and in some cases provide some of the additional priced Companies House information free of charge.
Company Check (http://www.companycheck.co.uk/) are part of UK Data (http://ukdata.com/), which re-sells Companies House documents and provides credit reports. The latter include current and historical credit risk information, director details, ownership and group structure, CCJ information and up to five years of accounting figures including turnover and a profit and loss account if filed. All documents cost GBP 18, which is far more than that charged by Companies House but the credit report may be the better option if you need a detailed report and assessment of the company.
The Company Check free information includes name, registered address and number, telephone number, activity, status, thumbnail of the web site and cash at bank for the last five years. There is also a graph showing the number of website visitors from Compete (http://www.compete.com/), but this information may not be available for smaller companies.
Another source of free company information is the SME Hub Company Accounts Information (http://www.thesmehub.com/benefit/accounts). This is available to SME members only but registration is free. The company address is not displayed but there is a link that takes you to Companies House where you have to re-enter the company name to access the data. There is also a link to Credit Safe for credit reports (http://www.creditsafe.com/).
There is a very useful graph showing trends for the company in net worth, cash and total liabilities. The most recent accounts plus a downloadable PDF are also free of charge.
I had problems with the SME Hub when looking at companies that had recently gone into liquidation. Company Check gives its standard information plus the status as “Liquidation” but the SME Hub leaves you guessing by presenting you with an empty template.
Company Check and the SME Hub are quick and easy ways to access the free and some of the priced Companies House information. Company Check offers the Companies House free registration data and five years of cash at bank: the SME Hub provides a trends graph of net worth, cash and liabilities plus latest accounts but no basic contact or status information. Both can alert you to potential problems with a company but, ultimately, Companies House is the place to go for the original data.
News and comments on search tools and electronic resources for research