by Roger Russell

Tax research via the Internet has evolved from a novelty to a necessity, as more and more vendors have added content and functionality to their Web sites. In fact, some providers now supply more information on the Internet than they do in other formats. For practitioners, this means that the ease and power of CD-ROM searches they’ve done in the past translates seamlessly to the Internet.

"Our focus now is on quality content - we’re continuing to focus on practice needs, but it’s much more about the quality of content than about technology," said Gretchen Zekiel, product manager for Washington-based BNA Tax Management. "That’s why we’re adding more and more content to our Web library."

BNA Tax Management now has all its tax resources available in one, integrated Web library - the BNA Tax Management Library. The library gives practitioners more convenient access to BNA Tax Management’s practitioner-authored analysis in the U.S. Income; Estates, Gifts and Trusts; Foreign; and State Portfolios, as well as Tax Practice Series. The library also includes primary sources, new, productivity tools and journals and special reports.

But Zekiel doesn’t believe that Internet tax research has reached its full maturity. "What has happened is that a lot of companies have made it all about technology and that’s where they’ve focused their efforts. What tax practitioners are looking for hasn’t changed - they’re still looking for the right answers and detailed analysis. It’s how the practitioner wants to find it that’s changed. So, in our view, it’s really about leveraging technology," she said.

Riverwoods, Ill.-based CCH now has more material available on its Web site than in print, according to marketing director Charlie Ter Bush. "We added a lot of content over the past year, particularly in the international area."

CCH put a searchable version of the Internal Revenue Code and regs on its Web site for free during the year. "We had very good response to it," said Ter Bush. "The point was to put them on the Web site and show that what we do goes beyond that. We add additional value to the information we sell. Our whole focus is to turn information into action, and help practitioners do something with it."

Ter Bush said that his point is best illustrated by what CCH has done with its ClientRelate compliance/research tool, which identifies clients who are affected by a new tax development through their tax return data. The practitioner can then link to the research sources, determine a course of action and communicate this to clients using sample client letters. "That’s really been the furthest we’ve gone so far in taking information and turning it into action," he said.

Rockville, Md.-based Kleinrock launched the online version of its CD-ROM-based TaxExpert in 2001. It includes analysis and explanation, with code, regs, cases, rulings and IRS publications. Priced at less than $29 a month, TaxExpert is aimed at cost-conscious firms that are unwilling to pay over $1,000 for tax research, according to Alistair Nevius, director of products and services.

Kleinrock’s Internet offering goes in tandem with its CD-ROM version. "Now, if you order the CD-ROM, you get the Internet as well," said Nevius. Customers also receive a biweekly newsletter and an annual tax guide.

RIA’s Internet-based Checkpoint is building on what it did last year, according to Ron Burkert, its director of product development. "Last year we moved the back end to a whole new platform, which enabled us to deliver features that customers asked for," he said. "This year, we’re changing the front end - the user interface - to make the product more intuitive, make certain tasks more streamlined and clean up the general look and feel of the product."

Some of the improvements made to the user interface include easier source selection, intuitive toolbar changes, a link previewer and an improved history feature. An improved linking feature allows the user to link to a destination document without losing his place in the main document.

"The market is becoming more diverse," said Burkert. "Some people are just looking for basic plain-vanilla functionality, while others want more than just to find the answer and get out. They want more sophisticated features, such as document management through the Web, the ability to save a document to a folder or e-mail it to a colleague."

RIA’s Tax Alerts, the first Internet-based compliance/research tool, has satisfied a real demand, said Burkert. It serves as a link between Checkpoint and GoSystem RS, the company’s compliance software. It searches a client’s tax return and specifying the current tax research applicable to particular issues identified on the return.

RIA, which is owned by Thomson Corp., which also owns the publisher of Accounting Today, is based in New York.

According to Phoenix-based consultant Roman Kepczyk, CCH’s ClientRelate and RIA’s Tax Alerts indicate the direction in which the maturing Internet tax research industry will turn. "They both are integrating the research product with tax return applications," he said, adding, "That type of integration is where the industry is headed."

Arlington, Va.-based Tax Analysts has several products and database enhancements released in the last year, according to Lucia Smeal, executive vice president of product development. "We’ve focused on perfecting the concept of continuous publishing," she said. "TaxBase, our comprehensive Web-based tax service, now has a Latest News feature that provides breaking news continuously throughout the day for all three areas of practice - federal, state and international tax. We can post full-text documents on our Web site within minutes of their release from the IRS, Congress, state governments and even world-wide sources."

During the past year, Tax Analysts brought two international tax products online - Worldwide Tax Treaties and European Union Tax Daily - both of which contain integrated research databases. The treaties service combines the full text of all worldwide tax treaties in both English and the language of signature, along with all amending protocols, background notes, legislative histories, administrative documents and current tax treaty news.

The EU Tax Daily provides news and full-text documents from the European Union’s governing bodies and from each member country, along with a set of standard, EU tax documents, such as European Court of Justice decisions.

Despite the increased scope and power of Internet tax research, research on paper will be with us for a while longer, according to David Mellem, the research director at the Appleton, Wis.-based National Association of Tax Professionals.

Mellem and his staff of 12 tax specialists researched about 25,000 tax issues during tax season. "We used every mode of research - paper, CD-ROM and the Internet - from virtually every principal tax research provider," he said.

Mellem said that he doesn’t foresee any major changes in Internet tax research over the next 12 months, "but I didn’t anticipate the Internet 12 years ago."

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