With a half-century under its belt, Malko Electric Co., Morton Grove, Ill., takes rightful pride in its long list of accomplishments. But it's not just looking backward. The company emphasizes a forward-looking approach and an understanding of the importance of keeping pace with technology. That mindset, says president Steve Diamond in a personal welcome on the “Who Is Malko Electric?” page of the company's Web site, has allowed Malko to remain a leading Chicago-area contractor “for most of this century.”

Oops. That's the 20th century he's referring to and, yes, it has been awhile since the company updated its Web site.

“We established it around 1999, and we haven't changed it very much since,” concedes Tim Murphy, an estimator with the company. “But we have a lot of longstanding general contractor customers, and most of our contracts come from word of mouth. So, we haven't seen much of a need to spend a lot of time on it.”

Malko has a fair amount of company. Many businesses, including contractors most assuredly, let their Web sites languish, often to no obvious harm. But at the same time, they might not be helping their businesses by neglecting their Web presence. Even worse, they could be sending the wrong message.

Today, as more people make the Internet a daily part of their lives, there's almost an expectation that any reputable business will have a Web site. Not having one raises red flags, as in “are they a real company?” Moreover, the Web site that looks stale or unprofessional could result in a lot of business surfing on by. That's part of the reason Malko is now planning to dust off the site, bring it up to date and, hopefully, make it work more effectively. While the current site is serviceable, Murphy says a freshening up could boost the company's image and generate even more business.

“We're starting to talk about doing something with the site,” Murphy says. “There's an understanding that a Web site is a direct reflection of your business and that it's the first face of your company a lot of people see. So, we'll look to modernize it and update the design to make it look like something built this century.”

Marketing matters

While simply having a Web site is a plus, understanding how to get the most out of one is just as important. Properly designed and enabled, a Web site can offer a host of advantages. From attracting new business to communicating expertise to keeping existing customers informed and educated about electrical matters and the company, they can be an important component of any company's marketing plan.

“If a company has a Web site, they appear more reputable,” says Chadd Hodges, marketing manager for Best Electric and Air, Bonita Springs, Fla. “We'd probably do just fine without one, but we view our Web site as a way to give people confidence in our company, build our reputation, and legitimize our business.”

Best has had a Web presence for about eight years. The company views its Web site as laying the groundwork for attracting the customer of the future.

“Most of our customers now are Baby Boomers who still open the Yellow Book when they need an electrician, but the 30-and-under crowd is going to the Web,” Hodges says.

Communicating a professional image on a Web site is an exercise in subtlety as well as common sense. A clean, crisp design that uses complementary colors, offers easy navigation from page to page, presents copy that is clear and grammatically correct, and provides high-quality graphics are some of the elements of a professional-looking site. In particular, photos of company principals, employees, and physical assets must be of high quality and, ideally, professionally done.

“When it comes to photography or images, don't skimp,” advises Laura Machanic, president of Washington, D.C.-based New Target, a full-service Web site consultant that works with businesses of many sizes. “Nothing can detract more from an overall presentation than poor-quality images.”

A professional look doesn't necessarily require a site to have bells and whistles. For instance, home pages that use graphic tools such as Macromedia Flash intros to deliver audio and video may make sense for some, but they're probably not right for the average contractor.

“I don't want a site that's too dramatic, where it takes five minutes to download because of videos or Flash,” says Cliff Young, vice president of administration for Certified Electric, Brunswick, Ga. “We want enough interesting features, like flip-through photo albums for example, that it make the site eye-catching and encourage people to read more about our company. ”

Web site essentials

Functionality is also important. A useful approach is to view a Web site as simply an electronic version of printed informational materials. Web designers classify sites that are often used by contractors in such a way as “brochure-style” sites, which differ from “billboard-style” e-commerce-oriented sites that are more geared to generating traffic and page links. The former simply carries the essential information a visitor needs to evaluate a company's capabilities and the information they need to take the next step.

Basic information includes — but is not limited to — the identity of the principals and key employees; general information about the company (commonly under an “About Us” heading); a capabilities or mission statement overview; a brief company history; a listing of qualifications related to licensing, bonding and insurance; detailed contact information; geographic area served; and client project overviews and testimonials. In addition, an FAQ section that supplies answers to logical questions potential customers might pose also can be helpful.

As it launches a third-generation Web site, Best Electric is focused on improving the site's ability to let visitors learn about the company on their own terms — one of the primary draws of the Internet.

“Our site allows prospective customers to privately get to know us before calling for an appointment,” Hodges says. “A Web site is well-suited for selling home improvement and repair services because it's interactive and private. Unlike the phone, a site with the right content allows people to learn about you without having to talk to another person.”

Encouraging interactivity

Of course, learning about a company and taking the next step to becoming a potential client or customer are two different things. To enhance that conversion rate, some contractors are building more interactive capabilities into their sites. Residential-oriented contractors, in particular, can set up their sites to let visitors initiate contact. In addition to giving potential customers a quick way to contact the company, some features can help contractors obtain pertinent information and determine whether the company can handle the problem.

Enhanced customer dialog features can be superior to the traditional pop-upe-mail format, says Machanic. More detailed service-request forms — even live chat formats — give the contractor a way to disperse information quickly, she says.

“An interactive form can be a better way to pre-qualify an inquiry than an e-mail link because people usually don't supply all the information the company needs for deciding how urgent something is,” says Machanic. “Going the live operator, instant messaging route can be good, but you have to staff it consistently. If you don't, the feature can do more harm than good.”

Certified Electric's Web site has had an online service request capability for two years. Third-party hosting, however, has limited its ability to quickly retrieve and respond to service requests that have gone through host servers. As part of a site upgrade, the company will host the site itself. That, says Young, should route requests almost instantaneously, improving customer response times.

Getting noticed

Of course, before contractors can use their sites to educate, promote, and initiate customer contact, people must navigate to it in cyberspace. A low-tech but effective way to do that is prominently noting the Web address in anything that reaches the public, from advertising to service vehicles to business cards.

A more challenging yet potentially more useful way is relying on Internet search engines to drive traffic to a site. Securing prominent positioning on the likes of Google and Yahoo! requires an understanding of how such search engines operate. Merely having a Web site doesn't necessarily mean it will pop up prominently in search results by potential customers. Sites generally need to make it through search engine vetting processes that ensure users get highly relevant search results.

“One of the things they look for is keywords on the site that people would type in when doing a search,” says Art Burkhart, a principal of Savvy Sites Web Design & Marketing, a San Diego-based consultancy. “When they look at your site, they're looking for those keywords, so they need to be strategically and prominently placed on a site. They can't be hidden in the background.”

Companies like Savvy Sites and New Target can help companies design sites for maximum exposure on search engines. Such optimization services focus on tweaking and adjusting a site's content so it has the best possible chance of landing near the top of keyword searches.

Another method of gaining prominent search exposure is via paid placement. For a fee, a company can have its site show up in a sponsored results area that's usually on the right side of a search engine results page. While more prominent and more assured of coming up in searches of a possibly broader scope, paid search results may be viewed more skeptically by those looking for reputable service providers, Machanic says.

“More than half of Web users say they're more attracted to left-side, ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ search results,” she says. “But many contractors will often do pay-per-click, rather than rely on their sites coming up in an organic search. ”

Search-initiated Web site traffic clearly is more of an issue for residential electrical contractors, but it also can work for those serving the commercial market. Certified, says Young, landed a job with Merrill Lynch after the company used the Internet to search for electrical contractors to work on one of its new satellite offices.

Expanding the view

As the Internet matures and more people use it to communicate and learn, contractors can use company Web sites as more than just a way to generate immediate business. For instance, a Web site can aid in recruiting employees, serve as a marketing tool for educating people about the broadening range of services electrical contractors provide, and even serve as a portal for sharing detailed project information with clients and other contractors.

“A good third of the companies we talk with say one of the prime targets of their Web sites is potential employees, because finding quality employees to service customers is key,” Machanic says. “So it can be good to include an employment section on the site where you can talk about why it's a great company to work for.”

The steady advance of Web-based project management could also translate to a bigger collaborative role for contractors' Web sites. Establishing secure log-in areas where clients, suppliers, contractors, and others could view, edit, and post key project-related documents could allow contractors to squeeze more tangible value out of their sites. While that's just one example of the type of functionality that could cause more contractors to pay closer attention to their Web sites, it's probably a long-term proposition at best. In the meantime, there are plenty of reasons for them to devote more resources to ensuring their Web identity is as professional and functional as possible.

Zind is a freelance writer based in Lee's Summit, Mo.



Sidebar: Catching the Eye

In the business of electrical contracting, looks don't usually much matter. But they probably do if a contractor is trying to get noticed on the Internet. Evidence suggests that a Web site's design goes a long way in determining how people judge a Web site.

A 2002 study done for Consumer Reports WebWatch by Stanford University's Persuasive Technology Lab, Stanford, Calif., found that in evaluating Web sites, people commented about a Web site's look more than any other site feature. Design look was noted by 46% of respondents who were judging the merits of multiple types and styles of sites. The next most noted feature was information design/structure, noted by 29%, and information focus, noted by 25%.

“Our results about the connection between design look and perceived credibility suggests that creating Web sites with quality information alone is not enough to win credibility in users' minds,” the report said. “In most cases Web site designers also need to focus on the impression that the visual design will make, creating a site that achieves what many of our participants described as a polished, professional look.”

Although the study is several years old, Art Burkhart, a principal in Savvy Sites Web Design & Marketing, San Diego, says its findings are likely more accurate than ever.

“If it looks like your son or daughter designed the site on the cheap, it's probably going to translate that way,” he says.