Companies embarking on an expansion or relocation need more than a list of available real estate on which to base their decisions. Business success depends on an array of factors that can range from the availability and education level of local workers to proximity to customers or transportation infrastructure.

Site selection consultants use geographic information systems and in-house databases along with facts and trend information distributed by government agencies and economic development entities from around the globe to help employers choose the best locations for growth.

However, companies without the budget to hire experts have few options to complete an exhaustive search, and often overlook promising places as they focus on the known and familiar.

A new Web site, www.ZoomProspector.com, enables anyone to identify communities that best match their expansion criteria and then compare development regulations, costs, and available incentives to narrow the list of potential markets. In many of the cities and states covered by the free service, the online tool even includes listings of available real estate.

“Smaller and mid-sized companies typically have not had access to community data beyond property listings,” says Anatalio Ubalde, chief executive officer at ZoomProspector. “They’ve essentially been making the most important decision for their company’s long-term success wearing a blindfold.”

ZoomProspector aggregates data from various states, cities and regional government organizations, usually by way of an economic development organization (EDO) that posts the information online to promote the business community it represents. In fact, all of the EDOs represented are clients of ZoomProspector’s parent, San Francisco-based GIS Planning Inc., which has been providing web-based geographic information system applications for economic development for more than a decade.

ZoomProspector provides state-level demographic content from 37 states and information on every community in the nation. The property database currently covers 33 states and is growing, according to Chad Catacchio, the company’s marketing director. “We are actively interested in talking to people about partnerships” to expand the property database, he says.

For companies with the financial means to conduct a thorough evaluation of communities for expansion, it’s a good idea to hire a consultant that specializes in site searches, according to Jamil Alam, principal for corporate services at Endeavor Real Estate Group in Austin, Texas. While some full-service commercial real estate firms have site selection groups, Alam says it makes sense to first choose a community for an expansion and then hire the best real estate firm in that local market.

“You want somebody that is without bias, not only in terms of geography, but somebody who is in that business on a standalone basis,” says Alam, who has helped clients to secure real estate for expansions in several national searches.

One company that can help businesses decide where to expand is financial advisor and investment banker Duff & Phelps. Earlier this year, the New York-based firm unveiled its Incentives Management System, an online program that details criteria for every business incentive offered in every state in the union.

The Web-based Incentives Management System enables clients to track their compliance with incentive agreements established as part of an expansion. Companies risk losing an incentive if they fail to meet filing deadlines or contract objectives such as hiring goals, says Mike Press, managing director and leader of the business incentives advisory services practice at Duff & Phelps.

“They are able to track what incentives they’re eligible for, and most importantly, what they have to do to stay in compliance with these multiyear incentives,” he says. Duff & Phelps initially operated the Incentives Management System as a service, but developed the online platform in response to clients who demanded around-the-clock access to the program. Pricing varies based upon circumstances, including the number of locations tracked, and can be in the five- to six-figure range.

A modern site search still requires site visits and work on the ground before a final decision, but technology has made great strides in streamlining the initial stages of a search, says Jim Colson, president of the site selection group at AngelouEconomics, an Austin-based economic development and consulting firm.

Geographic information systems have made it easier to quickly get a feel for the existing property uses around a site under consideration, for example. “When somebody says here’s a site they’re interested in, I can sit in my office and using Google Earth get a feel for it and the surrounding uses,” Colson says.

In communities that have posted relevant economic development information online, data that once took weeks of faxing and phone calls to collect is readily available. That gives consultants the details necessary to begin forming impact models and to create a list of potential sites, Colson says. “I can do all of that before I make the first phone call.”