Although the Internet wasn't exactly the best place to sell pet food (remember the sock puppet from or streamline your grocery shopping (WebVan became Web-vanished in less than a year), it has turned out to be a nearly perfect medium for tax research.

Boiled down to its essence, the Web is essentially a communications tool like a letter, the phone, or business meeting. What makes it special it that it makes it possible (in theory) for a person, sitting at their computer, to view every single letter sent to the Main Post office in Manhattan, talk with relatives in Timbuktu while viewing a picture of their newborn baby, and read the latest news or IRS ruling online as soon as it’s written.

During four weeks in June and July we put up a questionnaire on asking tax research professionals to answer some questions about how they use the Internet in their practices. The results were illuminating.

Not surprisingly, the survey found that compared to three years ago, an average of all the respondents reported using print and CD-ROM less, while Internet usage has jumped from 27 percent to 35 percent.

And 61 percent expect that their use of the Internet to conduct tax research will increase over the next year.

To be fair, complaints about the medium also surfaced. Many respondents said they had difficulty forming the right kind of question to ask so that they didn’t get back a garble of useless information. And sifting through 100,000 hits for the particular bit of information they needed also posed a big problem.

Some of the frustrations can and should be eased by further refinements in tax research vendors’ products, and by proper training and practice in how to conduct fruitful searches.

But the participants also joyfully recounted dozens of reasons why they enjoy using the Internet as a tax research tool. Topping the list – 24-hour accessibility of the information and the ability to call up the most up-to-date information on the topic they’re researching.

It may not be as cute as a sock puppet, but Internet Tax Research is chugging along nicely, and should be around for a long time to come.

Thanks to everyone who responded to the survey – we were overwhelmed and delighted to hear from all 1,159 of you.

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