What used to cost pounds 50 now costs nothing, but beware the curse of the bulletin board.
It is far too soon to describe the Internet as a mature medium but it is now firmly established. It is also proving to be a significant factor in driving down the costs faced by us as individual investors looking for information and analysis on which to base our investment decisions.

A couple of years ago you would have had to pay up to pounds 50 a month to access the quality of material now routinely offered free by many websites, including historical price data together with powerful charting tools and calculators. Several sites also now offer portfolio management tools which make redundant software packages which would have cost you hundreds of pounds not very long ago.

The world wide web contains millions of pages of information. Fortunately for our sanity, we can ignore most of it and concentrate on the relative handful of websites which are really useful. The two longest-established personal finance websites which are aimed at UK investors, Moneyworld and Interactive Investor, are also among the best. These two have been online since 1995 and have grown considerably from their relatively humble beginnings. Both are also now receiving substantial investment.

In November 1998, the venture capital firm Hollinger Digital, part of Conrad Black's Hollinger Group invested several million pounds in Interactive Investor in return for an equity stake. Last month, Moneyworld was purchased by The Exchange for a total of pounds 9-million in cash and shares.

Both Moneyworld and Interactive Investor aim to cover all personal finance issues and both are worth a regular look. Few other sites match either of them for depth and breadth of coverage. Interactive Investor has been developing transaction channels with links to product providers while Moneyworld has been concentrating on providing information and analysis.

However, following the takeover by The Exchange, which has its own website MoneyeXtra, which we will return to shortly, Moneyworld is likely to add transaction channels.

Among the competition, the Motley Fool UK stands out. This website was established in 1997 as an offshoot of an existing US-based investment website. This year it picked up the New Media Age 1999 Best Finance Site and Creative Freedom Awards 1999 Best Electronic Media. This is another site worth visiting on a regular basis but it is also one which has fallen victim to the curse of the bulletin board.

The bulletin board, message board, chat room or forum, whatever the site you visit calls it, can be a great way of finding out what other people think about corporate performance and share prices. They are also a great way of being caught out by somebody who is trying to manipulate a share price by starting false rumours. If you remember that you do not know who has written the message you are reading and that you do not know what their personal agenda is, you should not be taken for a ride.

The Motley Fool UK was the first UK-based website to have its message board abused in such a way. It has not been the last. Among the more extreme examples, in July, Dialog shares fell by 7 per cent in one day as a result of a message posted on the Hemmington Scott website. The company forced a retraction and apology from Hemmington Scott and the banning of the message writer.

MoneyExtra was The Exchange's debut in direct dealings with individuals. The organization was originally established and its main business continues to be as a transaction channel for independent financial advisors. However, the website MoneyeXtra, which is a joint venture with Microsoft, has the best coverage of Individual Savings Accounts and their providers. It is also the only website among these generalists which is regulated under the Financial Services Act. This means it can sell investment products directly from the website although it doesn't yet.

For beginners, Moneyworld or the Motley Fool UK are probably the best place to start. Unless you are interested only in shares rather than unit and investment trusts as well, Moneyworld may have the edge thanks to its Powersearch facility which allows you to review fund performance using a variety of criteria defined by sector and time period.

If you have a clearer idea of what you want to put your money into outside the stockmarket then Interactive Investor's various "Centres" are worth checking out but if it is an ISA you are thinking about and you want to find out what's on offer, be it shares or cash, maxi or mini, go to MoneyeXtra.

Moneyworld, Interactive Investor and the Motley Fool UK all carry share price data and regularly updated stock market reports as does UK-iNvest, the investment channel of Freeserve, which now offers live rather than delayed share prices. If you sign up for the "club" services offered by these sites they will also send you regular e-mails with daily market reports and weekly diaries.

All these sites have portfolio management tools allowing you to keep track of your investments as well as increasingly sophisticated charting tools. For example, Moneyworld's PowerCharts allow you to generate graphs for individual shares or comparing multiple shares with indices or sectors over time periods varying from one day to 10 years. You can also see the moving average of a stock from five to 250 days.

If you don't have a stockbroker, all the websites already mentioned provide commentary on the existing online services. One, UK-iNvest, has also announced its own plans to offer a dealing service in the near future. If you are having trouble making up your mind about which broker to choose, try e-traderUK, which was launched last month. This is a specialist site solely devoted to online investing in equities and offers a guide to the available broking services.

Use Hemmington Scott's hemscott.net as an Internet service provider and you get access to the company's price data, financial information database and broker forecasts. Market-eye from Primark, which supplies services to City professionals, offers you free access to delayed prices, including commodities and futures as well as shares.

If you want to look further afield for the niche websites which focus on particular issues you should go to the Find website, established purely as a directory of UK-oriented personal finance sites or try Moneyworld's Start section.