Company Websites have passed from the trendy to the crucial, and many contractors are finding that in order to stay competitive they must have a visible Web presence. According to David Squires, president of Contractor’s Online-Access Inc., Web consulting firm, and a 33-year HVAC veteran, a Web presence is more than just a colorful page with a few graphics and some words. Establishing and maintaining a profitable Website is an exercise in dedication, and the contractor with a solid and thriving Web presence concentrates on two things - visibility and usability.
WHAT YOU SEE IS WHAT YOU GETVisibility is a major component of Website success. It is important that customers can find a contractor’s Website. Customers, however, aren’t the only audience that needs to see and interact with a company’s Website. Search engines, such as Google, Yahoo, and AltaVista, also need to see and interact with each page’s content.
According to Google, the devices that search engines use to “catalog” Web content are passive entities that can be easily stopped or sidetracked. When this happens, the search engine will only retain partial if any information about a Website. Fancy features, code errors, and broken links are the primary search engine inhibitors. A graphic-heavy Website, one that relies heavily on graphic tools and displays, doesn’t yield good information to a search engine either. In fact, it might not even report the site at all.
Customers are often not too impressed with the flashiness of a site either. Many site owners are finding that solid content and easy navigation are what keep Web surfers on a site.
“Many comments from our clients and average Web surfers tell us how impressed they are with the fact that we are not trying to hard-sell them with flashy pages,” said D. Brian Baker, president, Custom Vac Limited, Winnipeg, Manitoba.
RISING TO THE TOPOnce a search engine knows that a site exists, it begins ranking it for display in its search results.
Being nearest to the top on the first page of Google’s search results, however, can be a challenge. Website owners often seek the help of a search engine optimization (SEO) company to increase their position among the multiple Google rankings. According to Squires, however, search engine optimization is simply learning how the major search engines work, and playing by their rules.
“To engage an SEO company to improve your rankings without making the effort to post current information or real content is a short-term exercise in frustration,” he said. “Initially you will see improvements in your rankings, but to maintain those rankings, you have to generate traffic and give other sites a reason to link to you.”
The amount of new information and the number of sites linking to a contractor’s site are the two major factors that will help keep a Website climbing in the rankings. Contrary to popular belief, purchasing advertising or paying money of any sort will not affect a company’s ranking.
“Inclusion and ranking are free services,” said Google. “We don’t accept payment to expedite inclusion or improve a site’s ranking for particular keywords.”
“What good would a search engine be if the best results went only to the companies paying the most, since what they pay has nothing to do with how useful the content is?” asked Squires. “People use search engines that give them good results for what they are seeking, and search engines know this. That is why they are constantly improving their processes to keep people from rigging the system.”
BILLBOARD VS. BULLETIN BOARDOnce visible, the Website must be usable. In Squires opinion, there are two common usage theories that sites are often designed around. The first is the billboard theory. According to this theory, contractors should design Web pages that are short, sweet, and to the point, so that customers “clicking by at 70 mph” will get the information quickly as they speed past the site.
“This approach proposes that the site should not be about the informational content, but based strictly on quick impressions, assuming that people won’t really read it anyway,” said Squires. “The result is designers build a good looking, professional Website that really only tells who you are, where you are, what you can do, and how to contact you.”
The bulletin board concept is built around customers’ needs. It provides a company the ability to have ongoing, real-time communication with its customers about what’s happening currently in the company. A bulletin board site often includes answers to typical questions, product information and manuals, and newsletters.
According to Squires, most consumers are searching for bulletin boards. Those searching for billboards often use the phonebook, leaving the billboard site less frequented because of its lack of information. “I doubt there is anyone who hasn’t been frustrated with a site that has nothing more than a ‘billboard’ when they wanted real information,” he observed. “I don’t think, however, that anyone has ever left a Website frustrated because it had more info than they were looking for.”
DESIGN BASICSWhether contractors choose do-it-yourself or professional Web designing, there are some basic principles that Squires suggests contractors follow consistently.
•Design the site around what the customer wants, not around the company’s ego.Purple text on black backgrounds may look great to an individual, but it can be difficult to read.
•Supply current content that provides answers to common questions.Make the site a customer resource and be sure to include a search function.
•Provide a clean, easy-to-follow menu system.Users should be able to get anywhere in the site from anywhere in the site.
•Use pictures that represent the company, not just the products sold.People deal with people. Don’t just show a unit; show an employee installing a unit.
•Insert the company logo as part of the format template.
Squires also cautioned contractors not to get to caught up in the extras.
“As crushing as it may be, no one goes to an HVAC Website because they are just bored,” he said. “Don’t overdo the bells and whistles if you want the customer to perceive you as professional and not as annoying. Entertainment is not why people go to HVAC Websites.”
PICKING AND POSTINGMultiple companies offer Web designing services that range from simple and inexpensive to elaborate and costly. Picking the right designer that will provide the best fit for a contractor can be tricky. According to Squires, however, there are a few things that contractors can take into consideration to help ensure their Web creation experience is a success.
He suggests that contractors choose a Web provider that offers customer support at no additional charge and that the provider understands the industry.
“This is essential because you are not an expert,” he warned. “Understanding what it takes to be online is a learning cliff, not a curve. ”
He also suggests using a Web provider that makes provision for unlimited updates without additional cost. “Nothing is more of a disincentive to an effective Website than knowing you’re running up a tab by keeping it fresh,” noted Squires. “Lack of updates also kills many contractors with their site placement in Google. Updated sites will rise in the rankings; non-updated ones will be demoted.”
According to Squires, taking the burden off of the provider to perform is not a good idea. Subsequently, contractors should avoid long-term hosting agreements.
Finally he warned that contractors should pick a provider with their eye on the future.
“It won’t take long before your brand-new site will be out-of-date,” he said. “Use a provider that provides technology, forms, and feature updates as part of your package.”
Having picked a provider, gathered content, and posted the site; the contractor’s work is far from done. “Now to be successful, the owner must commit to integrating the site into the company, to use it, and to keep it visible.”
LEADING THE WAYOnce the site is online and customers have access, contractors have to find a way to drive traffic to their Website and make their investment profitable. One of the top benefits Website-owning contractors report consistently is more leads. Eric Kjelshus, owner of Eric Kjelshus Energy, Greenwood, Mo., said that his Website is a great way for him to get more leads cheaper and quicker.
“We recently did a custom house install that was a direct referral from our Website,” he explained. “More of our high end leads are coming from the Web.”
“The number of leads we receive keeps growing,” echoed Baker. “Our greatest number of leads comes from people who are educating themselves on our site.”
Measuring return on investment (ROI) can be a challenge. The numbers don’t always add up to dollars and cents, but they do yield both monetary and nonmonetary benefits. Theo Etzel, president of Conditioned Air Corp. of Naples Inc., Naples, Fla., measures the captured statistics of hits, pages viewed, files accessed, etc.
“While I can’t assign a dollar figure to the value of the Website directly, we hear over and over, and with more frequency, that customers found out about us or solidified their trust in us by viewing our Website,” he said.
Etzel uses his company’s Website to enhance the communication between his customers and specific service and installation departments. “Our contact forms can be filled out on the Web and sent directly to the appropriate departments for quick and accurate responses,” explained Etzel. “The Website also gives us the ability to advertise employment opportunities and have people upload their resume directly to our HR department. This has been terrific.”
In order to drive traffic to their Website, successful Website owners often have their Web address on all of their business materials. “We use our Web address on our entire business materials list including business cards, stickers, magnets, envelopes, hats, coffee cups, pencils, pens, etc.,” said Baker. “We have achieved our best results from our mini-CD business card.”
These mini-CD business cards have Baker’s company Website address and coupons without expiration dates.
Kjelshus also uses coupons to help drive traffic to his site. “When customers call, I get them to check out our coupons or a special offer on the Website,” he said.
TECHNOLOGY SPEAKSProperly choosing and using a Website, allows contractors the opportunity to establish solid, healthy real estate in the public’s ever-changing perception of HVAC contractors. It helps establish a link to the customer and provides company information that is often the determining factor in a customer’s contractor choice.
According to Baker, Generation Y is not looking at the Yellow Pages anymore. “They look online,” he said, “and that is a reality. It’s a technology thing for the younger generations who can tell what kind of company you are just by looking at how your site is designed.”
“With our Website, we get to tell our story,” noted Etzel, “not just deliver a message.”
Online Access Inc. currently works with and hosts Websites for over 250 active HVAC contractors. For more information, contact David Squires at 810-985-6603 or visit www.online-access.com. See this week's Video Spotlight for more on Website design.
Sidebar: EvaluationsThe NEWSrecently asked contractors to submit their company’s Websites for evaluation by David Squires, president of Contractor’s Online-Access Inc., Web consulting firm, and a 33-year HVAC veteran. After viewing multiple entries,The NEWSand Squires chose a representative sampling of contractor Websites that highlight some of the do’s and don’ts of Website creation and upkeep. Each contracting site chosen received a 90-minute seminar DVD that not only instructs contractors how to create successful Websites, but also how to use them effectively in everyday business. Those chosen were also given the opportunity to discuss their company’s Websites one-on-one with Squires. The winners are as follows:
• ARCO Heating & Air Inc., West Paducah, Ky. - www.arcoheating.com
• Custom Vac Limited, Winnipeg, Manitoba - www.customvac.mb.ca
• Conditioned Air Corporation of Naples Inc., Naples, Fla. - www.conditionedair.com
• Eric Kjelshus Energy, Greenwood, Mo. - www.ericsenergy.com