Sooner or later it's likely to happen: Your business will be on the Web. When it happens will vary, depending on your situation and your ability to resist change. It may be after the new customers from your telephone book ad start to dwindle or it could be when you decide to keep up with your new competition.
A Web presence will make your business easier to find, and it doesn't have to cost you a cent. A simple (and free) way to start off involves getting your business listed with as many construction/home-improvement directories as you can find. Most of the good ones are only too happy to list your business for free because it increases the value of their directories and makes their Web site appear more attractive to potential advertisers. They have simple forms to fill out and some will even let you choose a password so that you can later edit your listing.
They will also usually offer “upgraded” listings that would give your business a higher profile and make it more likely to be seen. Before you pay for such a listing, you should ask yourself: “What are they doing to promote your business and put your listing in front of prospective customers?
Another thing you can look into is free Web sites offered by some Web communities. Many come with online creation tools that can create fairly sophisticated Web sites with just limited basic skills. If you don't have a need for really complicated features, these may be your best bet to get you started. (See sidebar).
Why are they free? Well, because they usually come with a banner ad space at the top, which offsets the cost of the software and server space. If the ads bother you, they can sometimes be removed for a small monthly fee. They are, however, usually generic in nature and non-competitive so they are not seen as a problem.
One Web-site expense that might be worth your money is a domain name. Most free Web sites will have a long URL (name that must be typed in) and it may be hard to remember.
You can purchase the rights to a domain name for $35 per year or less. This would allow you to name the site what you want (say www.mywebsite.com) — as long as the name is not already taken — and you can usually get it redirected to your existing free Web site. That means that someone could get there by typing in the original (long) name or the new one that you chose.
OK, you've got your site up (put a little ‘hit’ counter on it too) and are waiting for people to come to buy stuff, ask questions, or simply to see the counter move. This is where many get quickly discouraged and often give up. Why aren't people coming? It's because the Web's a really big place and no one knows you're there yet. It can be like having a phone but your name's not in the book.
The various directory listings can help (make sure that your Web address is in the listing too). Get listed in as many directories as you can.
As far as search engines go, some may eventually find your site and some may not. It's best that you ‘submit’ your site to the search engines so they can catalog its information. You can either submit your site to each individually or use a service to submit to multiple search engines simultaneously. You can also join a banner exchange program or trade links with other compatible sites.
The key thing to remember is that the Web can be a great advertising medium for your business, but first you'll need a little understanding and a lot of patience. Go for it!
Bill Addiss, a licensed master electrician, is president of Addiss Electric, Centereach, N.Y., and Webmaster for the Electrical Contractor Network and www.Electrical-Safety.com.