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3 Free Tools for Improving Your Returns

In investing, intelligence matters as much as numbers do. By "intelligence" I don't just mean smarts. I mean it in the CIA black-ops sense of the word. When you've figured out something Mr. Market has yet to comprehend, you've got an edge that can produce astounding returns.

Legendary investor Philip Fisher called the process of gathering public company intelligence "scuttlebutt" in his 1958 book, Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits. It still applies today:

The business "grapevine" is a remarkable thing. It is amazing what an accurate picture of the relative points of strength and weakness of each company in an industry can be obtained from a representative cross-section of the opinions of those who in one way or another are concerned with any particular company.

During Fisher's active years as a money manager -- the 1950s and '60s -- scuttlebutt wasn't so easy to come by, unless you were an industry insider with a network of relationships. Today, it's different. Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) and its competitors now allow us to search millions of data sources instantly while social media connects us with not just one by hundreds of grapevines, on demand, with very little effort.

And yet some tools are better than others when it comes to gathering and synthesizing scuttlebutt. Here are three of my favorites.

  1. YouTube. It's easy to think of GooTube as nothing more than an entertainment hub when G4's "Attack of the Show" spends its opening segment scouring the service for the day's goofiest. But if you look closer, you'll find an excellent source of scuttlebutt. Just today, I found iFixit's teardown of Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) hot-selling iPad 2. Over at the (NYSE: CRM  ) channel, you'll find the unedited unveiling of Service Cloud 3 at the company's Cloudforce conference in New York.
  1. LinkedIn. Though positioned primarily as a resume replacement and now a news service, this professional social network offers powerful tools for gathering scuttlebutt. Give this a try. Under the "search" bar at LinkedIn, enter "Google." The resulting page will show you new hires, jobs open, and current employees you're 'linked' to. A related page offers even more statistics, including Google versus competitors in key areas such as headcount growth and employee experience, education, and skill-set.
  1. Quora. A relatively new social network, Quora is based on questions. Participants ask and answer, often in great detail. In some ways, it offers the most detailed scuttlebutt available on the Web. Say you want to better handicap the odds of Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) making a tablet that has a deep impact on the market. Quora has Microsoft experts whose answers lend insight into how Mr. Softy thinks about the category.

Pretty cool, eh? To be fair, all three have the same limitation common to social media. There's chaff among the wheat, and it's up to investors to thresh appropriately. But as the examples above demonstrate, the effort's worth it.

Some final words of thanks
Fisher is to growth investors what Benjamin Graham is to value investors. His 15 points clarify what makes for an excellent business, one worthy of investing in for decades rather than mere weeks. Each time I even think about selling one of my great winners, I return to Fisher's principles. If the underlying business story remains as true as it was when I first invested, I hold firm.

Am I gushing? Yeah, I suppose I am. So be it. As a fellow growth investor, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Fisher. I never met the man, but he taught me as much about the art of investing as Graham did about the science of investing.

Scuttlebutt is Fisher's legacy. Social media has made gathering it easier, but the market's bias toward rapid-fire trading has made using it just as profitable today as it was during Fisher's years of managing money.

Look at how Fool co-founder David Gardner depends on scuttlebutt. His Six Signs of a Rule Breaker borrow heavily from Fisher's principles, and it's helped him to produce several Spiffy-Popping multibaggers for our Motley Fool Rule Breakers and Motley Fool Stock Advisor services. And that's just one approach.

Now it's your turn to weigh in. Are you using scuttlebutt? In what ways? How has it helped you to produce outstanding returns? Share your secrets and celebrate your success stories in the comments box below.

Google and Microsoft are Motley Fool Inside Value picks. Google and are Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendations. Apple is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection. Motley Fool Options has recommended members open a bull call spread position in Apple and a diagonal call position in Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Tim Beyers is a member of the Motley Fool Rule Breakers stock-picking team. He didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article at the time of publication. Check out Tim's portfolio holdings and Foolish writings, or connect with him on Twitter as @milehighfool. You can also get his insights delivered directly to your RSS reader. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Google, and Microsoft and has written Apple puts. The Fool is also on Twitter as @TheMotleyFool. Its disclosure policy is busy searching for Wall Street scuttlebutt.

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