Providers unveil new online tax research apps

Both proprietary services and free online resources are growing as researchers utilize the latest in technology to find answers to their tax questions.

Tax research at the Atlanta-based firm of HLB Gross Collins has been strictly Internet-based for more than five years, according to Sheryl Shephard, a principal at the firm.

"Before, we had to wait for the service provider to print the material, mail it out, and file it. We can't wait for that now because tax law changes too frequently and we need to keep up with everything. We also need to keep up with discussions in Congress for our planning purposes. You just couldn't do this with paper."

Moreover, Shephard said, eliminating the need to file releases every week is reason enough to use a Web-based research service. "I had to file when I was an intern, and I don't miss it at all," she said.

HLB Gross Collins subscribes to content from three major providers - BNA, CCH and Thomson Reuters. "A lot of our researchers also use Google, especially if they have just a quick question or a state instruction page that they need to pull up. The IRS and state Web sites have a ton of information," said Shephard.

INTELLICONNECT

Meanwhile, major publishers of online research products continue to add to the offerings available on their platforms, as well as enhancing the platforms themselves.

CCH is in the process of rolling out IntelliConnect, its next-generation platform. While the content remains the same as that which currently resides on its Tax Research Network, the platform is described as a "quantum leap" above platforms of the past.

"We interviewed hundreds of customers and spent thousands of hours looking at all the tools they use to do any kind of research," explained CCH president Mike Sabbatis. "We decided to get a new model to leverage the way people work today - that was the 'Aha!' moment. While integration is important, it's really how are people getting their work done."

IntelliConnect is designed to be a central portal for users' work. It simplifies the search process, since users don't have to pre-select what to search. Instead, the entire subscription is searched, with filtering performed at the results level, thus allowing users to start broadly, and then narrow their search.

"You don't have to be an expert in the research engine and the process of conducting research," said Sabbatis. "IntelliConnect enables you to leverage your most valuable asset, which is your knowledge."

Work on IntelliConnect began more than three years ago, with a beta version introduced at the CCH User's Conference last November, according to Tanya Rose, director of product management at CCH. "Our demos have gotten a lot shorter because it's so easy to use, customers 'get it' right away. As people understand the functionality so quickly, the questions are more on how to do tax research not from a functionality but from a content standpoint."

As people come out of school they have less and less formal training, Rose noted. "They will know how to use our platform because it's just like any other platform they've used. We made it easy but we know that some researchers still want to look at Google hits occasionally. We made it easier to do all in one place."

The new platform went live in April, and current TRN subscribers will transition to IntelliConnect over the next few months. There's no price increase, and fees are based on the content in the subscription.

For smaller offices or those wishing to spend less on research, CCH has kept Kleinrock's Federal TaxExpert on its traditional platform. It includes analytical and primary source material, including 25 volumes of analysis linked to 20 libraries of primary source material.

PROJECT MILLENNIUM

Thomson Reuters' Checkpoint will be adding a number of improvements under Project Millennium, a multi-year program that will add significant enhancements in productivity and decision tools.

"We have all sorts of customers for Checkpoint," said Steve Zelman, senior vice president of content operations at the Tax & Accounting business of Thomson Reuters. "Some people are people using it for the first time, and some are sophisticated researchers who prefer a certain style of research. We have to find a way to serve all of them."

Checkpoint has a customizable home tab, which allows the user to set links to the libraries or sources that they most frequently use.

"We've developed a way to jump to an area you're looking for from the line of a return, and a way to link directly from Securities and Exchange Commission material into related tax content," said Zelman.

"What troubles people the most is finding the right word to start with," he said. "That's why we have extensive topic indexes, and a tax dictionary to look up a word. Researchers can look at the dictionary, understand the term, and link directly to analysis. They can also jump to anything they like from the home tab, or browse the totally interactive table of contents. The idea is you can start research anyway you want."

There are two parts to a research session, according to Zelman. "First is to get as quickly as possible to the relevant place. Once you find the right area, you want to feel comfortable that you've looked at all the relevant material. So our philosophy is to give you a jumpstart to get to the right place, and provide extensive linking and establishment of relationships. For example, with one click you can look at the discussion of a particular case in every single WG&L treatise."

"The key is navigation and giving people an assist so they're never lost and always see the next place to go," he added.

There's a lot more interaction between accounting and tax rules than ever before, said Zelman: "That's why we created links between tax and accounting material, not just that it's all available on the same platform but that we've done the editorial work so the researcher can make that leap from one discipline to another."

Thomson's Tax Alerts and CCH's ClientRelate, add-ons to their platforms, both integrate tax research with tax compliance by searching returns for clients affected by particular developments, or who might need specific planning services. ClientRelate integrates with CCH's ProSystem fx, while Tax Alerts integrates with Thomson's Ultra Tax CS and GoSystem preparation software.

PLATFORM-AGNOSTIC

BNA, meanwhile, continues its platform-agnostic approach by making its content available on a number of platforms, including Checkpoint, IntelliConnect/TRN, LexisNexis and Westlaw.

"The need for quality doesn't change," said Holly Flater, product manager for BNA Tax and Accounting. "Our objective is to give people the option to get our information on the platform of their choice. All the publishers realize that BNA content is unique - that's why these arrangements came into being."

"Overall, our goal is to make searching our information as intuitive as possible," she said. "With the downturn in the economy, there's more of a crunch for resources, and many firms can't rely on outside consultants. They may not be able to hire a top tax attorney or CPA to talk about risk rules, but the portfolio walks them through everything they need to know."

BNA launched a new platform two years ago, with Google-like search capabilities, according to Flater. "It automatically searches all content in the subscription, with quick keyword searches. A keyword search will produce hit results based on portfolios, and you can drill down from there. We tried to make it as intuitive as possible."

TAXALMANAC

TaxAlmanac, Intuit's free Web-based platform, provides users with a research library of the Internal Revenue Code, Treasury regulations and other topical articles, along with discussion forums. Although about 60 percent of its users are Intuit customers, the balance use other preparation software.

Tim Doyle, senior product manager for TaxAlmanac, sees free services as an adjunct, not a competitor, to the proprietary platforms. "This is a way for people to look up information and bounce ideas off other preparers," he said. "Even with the proprietary services, you're often not sure of the answer. Sole practitioners that worked for larger firms in the past miss the opportunity to walk down the hall and ask a colleague a question. This gives them the opportunity for a virtual walk, and gives them feedback and confidence that they're preparing returns correctly."

This year, people from 188 countries and territories have visited TaxAlmanac, according to Doyle.

The busiest day for visits to the TaxAlmanac site since it began has been the day before the due date for returns. This year, there were 28,000 visitors on April 14, a 23 percent increase over last year. "We're amazed how much it is used and how much customers enjoy using it," said Doyle.

(c) 2009 Accounting Today and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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