Though the Internet has imposed many changes on database publishers, one significant impact is just now being felt: the growth of decentralized and virtual business entities. We did a study a few years back and found a remarkable 23% of all business Web sites provided no physical address for the company. Rarely is this just a sloppy oversight. In the majority of cases, these companies are actively trying to disassociate themselves from a physical location. Why? In some cases, the company has no physical location. In some cases, the company is trying to mask that it is a home-based business. In a good number of cases, the company wants all its customer interaction to be via the Web. For some online merchants, a fixed location is viewed as a potential detriment to sales, because some prospective buyers might judge them to be less responsive or less accountable given their distance.

Further complicating the situation is that many of the same companies also rely exclusively on toll-free numbers, further masking their physical location, and 8% of these companies offer no phone number at all. Not surprisingly, these companies rarely offer much in the way of executive names on their sites either. Clearly, it is becoming increasingly difficult to gather contact information on companies that offer only limited information on their Web sites and only want to do business by email.

This, however, is only part of the problem. There is also a trend towards organizations with lots of physical offices but no clear headquarters (something I see increasingly with law firms and consulting companies). Closely coupled with this trend is the growing number of company employees that are not associated with any fixed location, generally because they are in constant motion, so even a nominal address for them is largely meaningless.

Another rapidly changing part of the business environment is the move towards home-based workers. Should they be listed at their home addresses? Should you even list home addresses at all? Are they doing business on their home phones? Are these lines subject to consumer telemarketing restrictions? It's not clear And if all of this isn't enough, we will likely soon feel the impact of voice over Internet (VoIP) telephony technology. One of the nifty features of VoIP is that it, too, is not beholden to physical location. A VoIP customer in New York can have a San Francisco or London telephone number on request.

All of these changes are pushing data publishers to re-consider their database structures, the relationships between individuals and organizations, their data integrity checking logic (remember area code/zip code concordance?). As an industry long associated with contact information, we've developed data compilation strategies and data verification tricks based on what was terra firma: the need for business entities to have fixed locations and for employees to be associated with those locations. But increasingly our new value proposition will be based on how well we are able to provide contact information when there is no "there" there.