No one has to tell you that the Internet is deluging the world with investment information. But unless you've been paying very close attention these past few months, you may not realize just how much good stuff is out there or how easy it is to access and analyze.

Our story begins in the mid-1990s, with the creation of the Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis and Retrieval, or

EDGAR

, database, a repository for all the documents submitted to the

Securities and Exchange Commission

by 15,000 or so public companies. Go to the official EDGAR site (

www.sec.gov/edgarhp.htm), type in a company name or ticker, and up pops a list of its filings in reverse chronological order. Click on, say, a 10-K report, and the document appears in its entirety. Then scroll to the page you want and read or copy the information.

This is a huge improvement over the days when you had to call a company and request an investor's packet, then wait a week for delivery. (How did we ever live like that?) But since these documents tend to be long and convoluted, scrolling leaves a lot to be desired as a navigation method. To really mine this mountain of data, it takes search engines, hyperlinks, things like that. And this year they arrived. Here are four you should know:

FreeEdgar

(

www.freeedgar.com) is a clean, straightforward site that takes the EDGAR format and adds a hyperlinked table of contents. One click and you're at the cash-flow statement; another and you're perusing footnotes. This is among the two or three places I go first when checking out a new company.

EDGAR Online

(

www.edgar-online.com) combines SEC filings with a state-of-the-art search engine. Type in a person's name and up comes all the filings with which they've been associated, along with their salary, stock options, corporate board memberships and insider trading history (divorce lawyers have to be loving this). Or set up a watch list and the site emails you whenever a company or person shows up in an SEC filing. Edgar Online also offers toll-free customer service, a nice touch given the complexity of both the documents and the site. Membership runs between $10 and $100 a month, depending on the amount of information required.

10K Wizard

(

www.10-kwizard.com ) is EDGAR Online for free. Its search engine lets you follow the financial trail of a company or person in ways that would have seemed vaguely illegal a few years ago. Type in "William Gates III," for instance, and you get 27 listings, including filings the

Microsoft

(MSFT) - Get Report

chief submitted for his other companies like

Corixa

(CRXA)

,

ICOS

(ICOS)

and

Castle Gate

. Click on any one of these and the sections that mention Gates appear, with his name highlighted.

10-K Wizard's insider trading stats are confusing and incomplete, listing the people who filed to trade stocks and how much they own, but not how much they bought or sold. But chief executive officer Martin Zacarias promises to fix this within a month, and then to take the site to new levels, by "correlating EDGAR with other corporate information."

Spredgar

(

www.spredgar.com) is a Microsoft program that lets you download EDGAR data directly to an Excel spreadsheet, then generate ratios, growth rates and charts. The current version can't graph companies against each other and doesn't work with data from the cash flow statement. But version 2.0, due soon (Microsoft promises!), is said to address these things. If you have Excel, Spredgar offers a free two-week trial download, and the full version for $49.95.

Which of these is best for you depends on your goals. For analyzing individual companies, using FreeEdgar for SEC filings and one of the mainstream financial sites, like

Yahoo!

(

finance.yahoo.com),

Individual Investor Online

(

www.iionline.com) or

Microsoft Network

(

www.msn.com), for insider trading stats and analyst earnings estimates will give you as much information as most pros had in 1995. That's basically what I do, and it seems like plenty.

If you really want to dig, check out EDGAR Online, 10-K Wizard and/or Spredgar. Each has a learning curve, but with a little practice you'll soon be accessing and manipulating data on a scale that's frankly kind of breathtaking. Creating continuously updated graphs comparing the free cash flow of your favorite companies with their peers will be a snap, as will tracking the Alpha traders of Wall Street and Silicon Valley in real-time. (Is

Warren Buffett

raising cash while nibbling at some obscure company's stock? Is

Peter Lynch

buying several companies in the same industry?) Short of bugging their offices, this is about as far inside as you can get.

John Rubino, a former equity and bond analyst, writes a column on mutual funds for POV and is a frequent contributor to Individual Investor, Your Money and Consumers Digest. His first book, Main Street, Not Wall Street, was published by William Morrow in 1998. At time of publication, he had no position in any stocks mentioned. While Rubino cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he invites your feedback at

rubinoja@yahoo.com.