for professional networking and lead generation.

I don’t know if that’s true. But there seems to be quite a lot to like about ZoomInfo.

One difference between ZoomInfo and any other business-related networking site is its self-stated vision: to create an “open directory,” a map of the entire worldwide business landscape.

ZoomInfo says that its current database exceeds 50 million business employee profiles and five million business profiles in a dozen major industries, and it’s adding 2,000 business and 25,000 employees per day.

In this respect, ZoomInfo bears more of a likeness to Hoover’s (about 65 million companies and 85 million individuals).

The other part of ZoomInfo’s vision is to provide business information to the world with no barriers (e.g. payment).

That likens ZoomInfo to LinkedIn. While Linkedin is free, it’s also a site for individuals. That gives it a good social media-style presence.

But company profiles on LinkedIn are not generally used as a main component for generating leads. Also, perhaps because of its do-it-yourself model, C-level executives are less likely to appear at all on LinkedIn.

As a result, the company profiles on both ZoomInfo and Hoover’s are much more robust and detailed. Both companies offer sophisticated Web tools to help navigate and parse this vast information into targeted lists and qualified leads.

At first, the impact of ZoomInfo’s grand “no barriers” vision appears minor: I’ve never been able to access a complete company profile on Hoover’s without paying for it. I can on ZoomInfo.

But neither solution gives you full database access unless you make a commitment.

For Hoover’s, that commitment can be a premium subscription (you have to call for pricing) or an “essentials” subscription available for $899 per year or $89 per month. In return, Hoover’s allows you to view full, detailed company profiles (including its own) instead of just “teaser” paragraphs. You can also purchase variously-priced company and industry reports without a subscription.

ZoomInfo shows full profiles, but limits the contact information. Here you can simply sign up for its Community Edition. That’s basically a transaction where you gain full database access in exchange for downloading an e-mail plug-in. This function adds the basic signature contacts in your Outlook mailbox to the ZoomInfo database.

Each of your contacts receives an email invitation to join the database individually. It’s all opt-in for them - and for you it’s still free.

ZoomInfo really starts to fulfill its “open directory” vision when it comes to what it does with its database to ensure its information is always up-to-date.

Where LinkedIn depends heavily on voluntary participation from its database members to keep the information current, ZoomInfo uses three overall data sources to add and update content: the multiple business contacts it collects from voluntary community subscribers through Outlook, content mined by a proprietary Web crawling technology and the content that individual users add themselves.

A very cool feature of the Web crawler is that it pulls in related Web articles for each company or individual. So along with work history, biography, education and affiliations, each profile automatically includes up to a decade of Web references.

Through a proprietary matching engine, all of this new info is matched to the existing data set. This matching technology is pretty smart; it can distinguish, for example, among 200 John Smiths at 37 companies named Acme Solutions.

All three websites have at least some provisions for organizing information into powerful lead generation functions for Sales, Marketing and Recruiting. LinkedIn has recently updated its dashboard with new metrics that will save recruiters time. Hoover’s offers software applications for fast list generation and export along with several payment plans to access targeted information.

For its part, ZoomInfo offers ZoomInfo Pro which lets you search its pre-tagged database by keyword or key phrase across any combination of 20 criteria. The company also sells lists through ZoomInfo Lists and offers several ways to use the database to update your current, outdated lists with the most up-to-date contacts.

What I like best about ZoomInfo is that it's balanced - it's great for lead generation, marketing and networking from the middle-management part of the workforce outward.

As I mentioned, I’m still not sure if ZoomInfo is currently the second most-used site for generating leads. But I’m staying tuned to see if ZoomInfo can indeed accomplish its goal of mapping out the entire worldwide business landscape.

Tags: Linkedin, Business networking, Business networking sites, Professional networking, Technology, ZoomInfo, Lead Generation, Company networking websites, Hoovers, Networking websites, Staff networking websites, ZoomInfo recruiting, ZoomInfo staffing