All businesses should have some kind of Internet presence, if only to help the occasional Web searcher find a nearby store.

Wordtracker.com shows its subscribers the approximate number of online users searching for a phrase in top search engines during an 8-week period.
All businesses should have some kind of Internet presence, if only to help the occasional Web searcher find the phone number to a nearby brick-and-mortar store.

Like most corporations, many HVAC and sheet metal companies today want their Web sites to go beyond a simple online brochure, but they also need to get a decent return on investment to justify operating, promoting and maintaining an engaging Web presence. Here are some ways to ensure your Web site stands out.

An effective Web site not only needs to be attractive, it has to be easy for visitors to find and use. It has to create interest in a company's products or services. Ideally, it will make visitors want to buy, or at least call a company for more information.

Thanks mostly to software and a growing online-marketing industry, companies now have full control over how and where they appear online, and company officials can know exactly how many people come to their Web site, where they come from, what they do and how much they buy.

These companies paid to have their names appear on Internet search engines under the phrase "sheet metal." Image courtesy of Overture Services Inc.

Internet exposure

Some online customers know a company's Web address and type it into their browser directly. When that happens, it's an indicator of good branding, which is mostly established through off-line marketing efforts. The best way to catch this valuable traffic is by selecting a good Web address, sometimes called a "URL." Preferably, the address will include the company's business name or a brand name people commonly use when referring to the company (usually without the "Inc." and "Corp." attached). Addresses should avoid hyphens, if possible, and officials should buy similar, available Web addresses that people might type in when looking for the company. These additional Web address can then instantly redirect visitors to the main Web site.

To capture those potential customers who don't know a company well enough to type in a direct address, a Web site needs to appear in online databases called "search engines." Popular examples include Yahoo, Google and Alta Vista. A search engine scans the Internet for Web sites that contain a certain word or phrase.

To maximize online marketing efforts, a corporation's Web site should appear in the No. 1 position when someone types in the company's name. Ideally, the Web site should appear prominently when a visitor types in any phrase that relates to what the business sells. Some manufacturing companies don't bother pursuing good search-engine listings, figuring their potential clients are not searching for information or products online.

How listings appear on the search engine Google.com. Image courtesy of Google Inc.

No need to guess

But no company needs to guess whether people are looking for them online. Software and Web applications are available that can tell officials approximately how many Web users are searching for their products. One of the most popular Web-based tools is WordTracker (www.wordtracker.com). A one-day subscription is available for $7. This software gives its users a list of how many people search for a phrase. These statistics can give Web site owners an idea of which phrases are more searched than others in a particular industry. (See Figure 1)

Appearing under any phrases in a search engine is a bit more complicated than it looks. Most search engines provide two types of listings for searches: sponsored listings and free listings. Companies can appear in both of these types of listings.

Exposure in the free listings is determined by the search engine itself, which searches online for Web sites to index in its database and then determines, based on a Web site's code and content, where it should appear in the free list of results for particular phrases. This method explains why most Web sites appear when someone types in their business name. The Web site content usually contains that name multiple times, basically telling the search engines that the name of the company is an important phrase for the Web site.

There are ways to encourage a search engine to see the Web site as important to other phrases beyond the company name. This is called optimizing a Web site for search engines and an entire online-marketing industry has developed to help companies optimize their Web site for free search listings in Google (www.google.com) and other search engines.

Pay for placement

Most companies, however, direct their online-marketing efforts towards a simpler task: paying to appear under the sponsored listing section in multiple search engines. There are many places online to pay for placement, but the two most common search engines offering paid placement are Google and Overture (www.overture.com), which serves as a distributor of paid listings to the search engines such as Yahoo and MSN. Both these engines let Web site owners bid on a per-click cost for a sponsored ad and let the company determine what phrases it would like that ad to appear under. Web site owners then pay every time a user clicks on their sponsored ad.

WordTracker software also helps subscribers know how much a particular phrase costs on the search engine Overture. (See Figure 2)

Although search engines are the most popular and easy way to increase a Web site's online exposure, companies can also buy "banner ads" - ads that appear across the top of a Web page - and listings in industry-related Web sites and newsletters. Associations, press publications, and related industry or online-resource Web sites offer advertising to qualified buyers in Web site directories, through banners on front and internal pages, and within their online newsletters.

Tracking traffic, volume and behavior

Once a Web site has a decent online presence in general search engines and industry-related Web sites, traffic will increase and, hopefully, so will customer leads and sales. But companies don't need to rely on hope to determine if their Web site is bringing in buying traffic. Web sites are hosted on servers that track basic information about site traffic in what's called a "server log." Software is available to help companies compile this log information and organize it into reports that can tell a company where users specifically come from, what pages those users go to once they enter the Web site, and how many of those users buy products or request more information on the Web site, among other things.

The amount of details available about traffic volume and behavior within a Web site is dependent on the software used to compile that information. One of the largest Web site server-log software is WebTrends (www.webtrends.com), available by subscription in several versions, depending on a Web site's statistical needs. There are, however, hundreds of software packages available, each offering companies something different in compiling capabilities. Some compile reports that indicate general trends of traffic volume and behavior, while others can tell companies details like how much they paid for an ad in Overture, which products those Overture visitors bought online, and then what the specific return on investment was for that phrase and ad in the Overture engine for a month's time. Other software helps companies gather information about visitors, which can then help the company compile reports about a specific visitor's behavior on the Web site each time he or she visits. Online bookseller Amazon.com is one well-known example.

Once a company chooses the best software for its needs, reports can be generated to answer questions like:

  • Is the marketing attracting qualified traffic?

  • What Web sites refer buyers and leads?

  • How does traffic move through the Web site?

  • What pages do users typically leave from?

  • What percentages of users buy or request information on the first visit?

  • How much does it cost for every online lead or buyer?

    Making sales

    Compiling and analyzing Web site statistics can only be effective if the Web site design and marketing has been done with goals in mind. Companies that want an effective Web site need to have a business and marketing plan for the site and not operate it haphazardly. If the Web site is more than just an online brochure, it can represent the company as a mini-business in a virtual world.

    Most companies want online visitors to buy product or services from them, but that goal is typically too simplistic to be effective. Online-marketing research indicates that most first-time Web site visitors don't purchase a product or service during their initial exposure to the Web site.

    One commonly quoted figure estimates that on average, only 2 percent to 3 percent of Web site traffic will perform a "most-wanted-response" during a Web site visit, even if that response is not a purchase but a request for information or signing up for a newsletter. Web site goals can be even harder to determine when a company sells products through a distribution network.

    Since most people need to return to a Web site multiple times before requesting information or making a purchase, some of the most effective goals for a Web site involve keeping the visitor engaged with useful information and capturing e-mails and names to entice visitors back to the Web site until they're ready to buy.

    The most common way to capture information is by offering an industry newsletter that provides valuable resources or information on a weekly or monthly basis. But contests, request-for-information forms, and free trials or products can also be good customer-retention goals for a Web site and can all inspire qualified leads to give an e-mail address, name or phone number.

    Once a company establishes some activities for visitors, they can track the conversion rate between the total number of visitors and those that perform the desired actions on the Web site. If those goals are clearly established and analyzed, the information about how visitors find and interact with the Web site can justify changes in the marketing plan, content creation and Web site design. This information will also justify the costs of owning and operating the Web site, and can give companies hard figures about online lead costs and the costs of sales conversions.

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