One explanation I've given for eBay's (NASDAQ:EBAY) premium valuation is the potential it has for finding new sources of revenue. This concept of "real options" is illustrated by the company's recent announcement that it has started selling some of the data generated by its online auctions.

Consider the opinion of Mehran Mikail, an eBay PowerSeller who posts as swapusa on our discussion boards. "Entire businesses are built around the kind of information that eBay has so readily available," he wrote, citing Forrester Research as an example. Nearly any company would be interested in what types of items are selling well and what types aren't. "Just think of how much money can be made in the markets if you knew before everyone else what the fad of the day is," says Mikail. "eBay knows that before anyone."

A company spokesperson told Reuters last month that eBay is selling information to about 20 customers for $10,000 a year. Who is buying?, for one, which used data from eBay's golf equipment sales to create a buyer's guide. Another is Intuit (NASDAQ:INTU), which uses the info to calculate fair value for donated items for use in its TurboTax software.

The valuable information goes beyond prices. As USA Today reports, economists can sift for clues about consumers' attitudes toward the state of the economy. Common search terms in 2002 included BMW, Louis Vuitton, Prada, and Coach. By late 2003, however, Ford, Chevy, and diesel made the top 10, along with "salvage."

The selling of information currently represents only a small part of eBay's current revenue, and no one knows for sure how large the segment can become. But it is a fine example of real options in action. For more on this concept, popularized by Credit Suisse First Boston economist Michael J. Mauboussin, see Putting "Real Options" to Work by Zeke Ashton.