As Internet access to specialized financial and legal information grows, so does the theory that do-it-yourself investors will be able to electronically sidestep intermediaries - brokerage houses, analyst groups, law firms - and take charge of their own financial futures.
Yet despite its robust search engines and deep data sources, the Web still can't provide what a living human being can: customized information that fits, say, an investor's unique circumstances.
So a small number of Web sites are coming online to provide that human touch.
These so-called "expert sites" serve a vast virtual marketplace where people with questions connect with people who have answers - or advice - to sell. Think of these digital go-betweens, as one CEO does, as the "eBays of human knowledge."
Sites typically work like this: Users go to a site and select a topic from a variety of categories such as pet care, law, or personal finance. Then they type in a question like "what is the best 401(k) for me?"
Experts - from hobbyists to Pulitzer Prize-winners - normally respond within two minutes or several days.
Asking a question is always free. But answers, which arrive via e-mail or online tutorials, require cash. Costs depend on the site's pricing strategy and the expert's credentials, which are always posted for you to see.
If the site has a public board on which to post questions, it's possible to get multiple, competitive offers for the same question. Prices vary. One professional credit specialist contacted for this story provided tips on choosing a credit-repair agency at no cost. Another (a self-proclaimed cook) wanted $10 to compile a list of sage recipes. A third (a "cyberflirt" author) wanted $50 just to answer a single e-mail on anything.
John Smith, a financial adviser in Chicago and an expert on AllExperts.com, says that the expert-site user typically "doesn't understand or want to learn the information that's out there [online]. Or it's the do-it-yourselfer who just needs a little guidance, or thinks his case isn't large enough to warrant major attention."
AllExperts offers answers from a bank of some 10,000 volunteer experts. At ExpertCentral.com, which has nearly 5,000 experts in 18 categories, the experts decide if and how much to charge. Most of them will dole out at least some free information before discussing money.
But at ExpertCity.com, which currently only serves technology questions, questioners usually get bids for services rather than free advice. Exp.com publishes rates before a question is even asked and Inforocket.com, a site slated to go live in early 2000, will let questioners state how much they're willing to pay for an answer.
Though many expert sites either offer or plan to offer a range of categories, at least one is geared specifically for the online investor.
At iExchange.com, users buy and sell investment ideas.
The site invites people, or "analysts," to make stock predictions that are then graded for accuracy and ranked.
For a few dollars, buyers can purchase "reports" generated by the most accurate predictors. iExchange's take is 50 percent.
David Eisner, CEO of iExchange, says his site brings order to chaotic information by giving investors a framework of accountability.
In June, iExchange received $5 million from the reputable venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, based in Menlo Park, Calif.
While iExchange ranks everyday prognosticators and offers a forum for buying their prophesies, specific investment questions may be better suited for expert sites such as AllExperts or ExpertCentral, where users have more direct contact with experts.
Michael Stern, CEO of Infomarco.com, set to go live early next year, says companies like his are building "the other side of e-commerce" by allowing everyday people to sell the knowledge they have. But because these sites rarely screen experts or monitor the information they dish out, how do you know whom to trust?
The user, of course, bears the responsibility for reviewing experts' performance. And All Experts founder Steve Gordon says users should look at advice from experts only as guideposts for further research. Mr. Gordon stresses that user reviews will weed out the weak.
"If someone is pretending to be something they're not, we'll know," he says. "If I got complaints that an accountant didn't know what a spreadsheet was, he just wouldn't be with us very long."
Use with caution
Consumers who use expert sites should keep the following ideas in mind:
*Pay attention to user reviews and steer clear of those "experts" who have low ratings.
*Question all advice. Remember that expert sites usually don't conduct background checks.
*Never make important financial or legal decisions based solely on information provided over the Internet.
*Conduct your own cross-checks and research. There's no substitute.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society