Back in the early '90s, when the EDGAR electronic filing system (which allows users to access SEC filings from public companies) was in its infancy, I got a bird's-eye view while working for a Securities and Exchange Commission subcontractor. (I remember when I first started working there, wondering who this Edgar was.) EDGAR was, of course, a slowly growing innovation back then (hard copies and microfiche were still status quo), and people still paid to have even the electronic filings printed and shipped to them. And while we Fools may emphasize that investors should always read the fine print, EDGAR filings of yore had some really fine print -- the font was literally tiny. Around the time the Netscape IPO hit the presses, though, it was becoming pretty clear to me that one day investors would be able to call up these filings on their very own Internet connections.

EDGAR has come a long way since then. We all have access to SEC filings for free through the SEC's website, no matter where we are, as long as we have an Internet connection. That's one obvious change (and a good one for self-directed individual investors).

And while the EDGAR database has gone a while without any major innovations, there's finally some good news to report. It has now upped its functionality by a long shot by offering a new XBRL enhancement to let users look up executive compensation quickly and easily -- including the new disclosure requirements that give a better idea of true executive pay -- that is, including perks and stock-based compensation.

Kicking the tires
As exciting as this new feature is, apparently it's still a work in progress. As of launch, the executive compensation tool only includes data on 500 companies. This is because the SEC limited the companies to those that a) reported their compensation according to the SEC's new 2006 disclosure requirements, and b) are among the largest companies in the U.S., according to market cap and revenues.

That explains some major discrepancies. For example, we have Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) and Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO) in the pool, but Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), and Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) are nowhere to be found.

A search by industry is a little dicey, too. For example, the aforementioned Google and Yahoo! are both tagged "Business Services," which isn't necessarily the industry that would pop to mind for most of us. So while an industry comparison of compensation is indeed useful, it may not always be as granular as one might like. After all, Google and accounting and finance headhunters Robert Half International (NYSE:RHI) don't exactly strike me as an apples-to-apples comparison.

Who's on first?
Still, the feature is promising. I did a search on the "Business Services" industry's compensation data, and it produced a nice table, ordering executive pay at all the related companies from highest to lowest. Not surprisingly, Yahoo!'s Terry Semel came up on top, with $39.8 million all told. That certainly brings to mind the controversy that led to Terry Semel's ouster as CEO this past year. In fact, Yahoo! had another executive in the No. 3 spot -- Sue Decker clocked in at $16 million.

On the other hand, take Google's compensation data. Four of its executives -- Shona Brown, Jonathan Rosenberg, David Drummond, and CFO George Reyes, all hit the table higher than Google's best-known top brass, with 2006 compensation ranging from $1.7 million to $2.8 million. CEO Eric Schmidt and co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page are toward the bottom of the compensation table overall, with Page and Brin at rock bottom -- Brin's compensation: a measly $1,724. I know none of those guys is hurting because of their stock holdings, but it's certainly interesting in the academic sense.

I'm not taking sides on Yahoo! or Google here -- this was just an example of how easy it is to call up the data and make some comparisons with the new tool. Try it yourself and come to your own conclusions.

A shareholder-friendly step in the right direction
It's great to have an easy way to call up compensation and compare it for like companies and glean clear results. You could always do searches across filings, but I never found those very accurate or intuitive, and finding specifics still often left the overall feeling of searching for a needle in an electronic haystack.

I may have had a cross word to say about a recent SEC ruling that struck me as very unfriendly to shareholders, but I have to give the agency a gold star for the compensation tool. Although it's obviously still got work to do -- we can't do entirely meaningful comparisons until more companies are included, and maybe the industry categorizations could use some tweaking, too -- the fact that the new feature has been unveiled is a step in the right direction. More information that's clearer and more easily obtained is always great for investors, and it looks like better information on the hot topic of executive compensation is in the cards for 2008.

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Yahoo! and Netflix are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. Microsoft has been recommended by Motley Fool Inside Value.

Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy that considers $1,724 a windfall.