Editor's note: When I was mulling over the idea of a web-design story, I thought of Brian Kraff and Market Hardware. While their specialty in the HVACR business is contractors, I knew his contribution would be pertinent to wholesalers, too. First, much of his advice applies to wholesalers as well as contractors. Second, if wholesalers believe in their task to help further their contractor customers' sales, they should share with them the tips that Kraff is supplying to our readers.

What is Market Hardware's experience with our industry?

Before we started serving your industry, we did our homework on heating, air conditioning and refrigeration — the business, the services and the types of marketing your customers respond to. Our goal is to not only be experts in websites and search engines, but in HVACR, too.

What are some top suggestions for web design or maintenance that can improve a wholesaler's or contractor's local business's rank on search engines?

While there is much more to say about this topic, here are some things I think are important.

Have a local phone number on the site, not just an 800 number. And make sure that phone number can be “read” by the search engines. Don't use an image to display it, use text.

Keep the content fresh on your site. Add a link to your professional association and make sure they have a link on their site that includes your web address.

Describe or list the areas you service. Don't try any tricks like stuffing keywords onto your page or using link farms; they can count against you.

Overall, what should a business owner look for in an effective home or first web-page?

We give this answer in detail to every contractor that calls for free website marketing consultation. This advice also holds true for wholesalers. Here's the short version.

Your website's first page, that landing page, has 15 seconds to describe visually and in text (1) what you do, (2) where you do it, (3) why you do it better and (4) how to contact you. All of those elements must be prominent on the first page. The graphics, photos and text must look sharp, crisp and clear.

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You have mentioned site maintenance and internal process as a key to keeping a website effective over time? What does that mean?

If we build a website and turn it over to a company, and no one there checks on it ever again, I can guarantee you they will not get top results over time.

Make sure you designate a specific person to review the site completely every quarter. Highlight seasonal services appropriately, and the references to any dates should be correct. If you change some aspect of your business, like adding key personnel or a new service area, that needs to be reflected on your site.

And you need to keep track of where traffic is going or not going. Tracking that helps you build a better website over time.

What is the top mistake people in our industry make when they build a website?

The biggest mistake is building a site that does not look competitive compared to the best companies in the industry. Air conditioners, furnaces and refrigeration units are expensive items. Customers buying high-ticket items will tend to avoid businesses that don't look professional online. And contractors also will question a wholesaler's website that doesn't look professional.

Too many small businesses throw up a one- or two-page site, or they purchase an expanded listing on yellowpages.com and believe they have checked the box, “My business is online.”

The other big mistake is not telling a concise story of why customers should call you and not the other guy. If an industry veteran who has been doing this for 40 years runs your business, a photo and a short explanation will make your phone ring.

Give contractors a reason to stop looking at other companies and call you.

Let's say I do $1 million in topline revenue every year. What should I expect to pay for a competitive website?

Any business operating at $1 million is pretty in tune with marketing. They want a Web presence that properly reflects the quality of their business. A realistic budget to design and build a great website is $2,500 to $5,000.

If you want a ‘best in market’ website, a realistic budget is $15,000 to $20,000. It's a great investment in a tool that sells for you 24/7. Smaller firms can get a custom site that suits their size and goals for $1,000 to $2,000. One-man operations can get a basic, “you-do-it-for-me” website for as little as $400. There are always super cheap DIY options too, but most competitive businesses will look cheap if they buy a site simply on a rock bottom price or try to do it themselves. Wholesalers, who might have thousands of SKUs, should expect to spend more, depending on their specific needs.

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Many HVACR contractors and even some wholesalers realize they need to gain an online presence, but they don't know where to turn. How do they find a competent, trusted advisor who will give them good information and not take advantage of them?

Most important is to find a company that understands their industry. Ask your peers or your industry association for a recommendation. Ask to see some samples and ask what experience they have in your industry.

Make sure you look for a site that has a design optimized to convert site visitors to callers. If the company can't explain how they do that, then I would run away.

Be willing to invest a 30- to 45-minute phone call to give a web design shop a chance to explain their service and their process, answer all your questions intelligently and describe the benefits of Web marketing beyond just designing the site. Remember, too, any firm that does not ask plenty of questions about your business marketing goals before they sell you won't care about you after they sell you.

What should people in our industry ask a prospective website company?

How long have you been doing this? How many sites have you built? What do you know about my industry?

How long will it realistically take to get my site built? What input will you need from me to get it done right? How will I update my site and add content over time?

What practices do you use to make your sites easy for search engines to index? What practices do you use to help turn site visitors into calls and leads?

If the website company provides hosting, ask about their security setup and if they ever have had downtime.

Perhaps most important, after the website goes live, what kind of client support and account management do you provide?

What is the biggest website scam right now that HVACR businesses should be wary of?

Search Engine Optimization has always been the biggest scam going. Don't get me wrong, there are good SEO practices out there to make your site more easily found and its content recognized by search engines, but most SEO “experts” don't use sound, long-term practices. Bad actors here will simply manipulate your website's content and code to ‘trick’ Google into giving you a better ranking.

Every business gets spam email for this service every day. Unfortunately, nine out of 10 companies are selling snake oil. These companies sell their service for as much as $1,000 per month with no guarantee of success.

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If they're ethical and good at their trade, it will take them two to six months to get you results. Then snap — Google changes its formula for how it ranks websites and you are gone. Money lost. So, if you are serious about SEO, make sure you are hiring an ethical firm that only uses Google-approved best practices and avoids “blackhat” tactics that could get you banned from Google altogether.

Phone book companies sell websites. Is this good enough for most HVACR businesses?

Well, having a listing on sites like yellowpages.com or even citysearch.com is good, but having a webpage designed by a yellow pages company may put you at a competitive disadvantage.

The mass-produced sites they crank out don't stand out and don't compel many potential clients. If your market is not competitive or if you are the only game in town, then you can live with it. Moreover, phone book companies have a reputation for overcharging, underdelivering and underserving their website clients.

Generally speaking, you need to have a professionally designed site. It doesn't have to be expensive, but it needs to be of a high quality — both in appearance and functionality — so that customers can find you and be convinced you're the quality company they should call. Most importantly, you need to differentiate from everyone else's cookie-cutter website. The most differentiated site wins the phone call.

How would you rate the value of online ads on yellow pages sites or the other directory sites?

It's worthwhile to spend some time or money getting a complete and optimized business profile listing on the major sites. These local listings present a real opportunity.

But when it comes to allocating ad dollars, I would focus on doing “pay per click” or search engine ads on Google, Yahoo! and Bing. You'll spend less, you can optimize those campaigns over time and you can track your inbound calls.

Paying for one banner ad on yellowpages.com or a premium ranking in their online directory is not the worst choice you could make, but there are a lot better things on the menu. For example, I'd rather see every reader try a lead generation service like ServiceMagic, which has a definitive return on investment, than hope an online yellow pages directory can bring in new leads.

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Some statistics indicate that consumers are turning to the Internet first to find heating and air-conditioning contractors locally, and reaching for a phone book less often. Do you think this trend will continue?

Yes. The phone book and newspapers are dying a slow death.

“Google” is not only the name of the most powerful advertising company today, it's a verb. Ask a friend how to find a furnace repair company. He'll surely say, “Google it.”

The penetration of high-speed Internet access, the big switch in consumer behavior to turn to the Internet for information, the increase in the number of phones that can access the Web and the vast improvement in quality search returns for local business info — all these factors look like they will drive Internet usage up. We'll keep seeing fewer and fewer fingers doing the walking.

Can you comment on Google's recent small business offer, a $75 discount offer for the Google AdWords program? Is this something worthwhile?

It depends on the HVACR contractor. If he is Web and marketing savvy and has time to manage the campaigns, AdWords is a fine “do it yourself” way to advertise on Google. They give you some guidance on their site.

But frankly, most of our clients hire us to do it for them because we're experienced. Getting the lowest cost per lead does require some nerd work.

Google is the most-visited search engine (it gets about 65 percent of the traffic) and its ad network is strong. So Google is the best place to start for search engine marketing campaigns.

The $75 deal is a ploy to bring in new clients; $75 for free is nice and better than zero, but it's not a realistic budget.

We all know you have to spend money to make money. In our experience, to advertise on search engines and actually generate additional business, a realistic Google AdWords budget for HVACR contractors in medium to large markets is $2,000 to $4,000 per month. Not chump change by any means. But compare that to Yellow Pages. It's a steal.

When an HVACR contractor optimizes his website for the search engines, what search engines are currently the most important?

Google, Google, Google, Google and Google. And Yahoo! and Bing. Did I mention Google?

The million-dollar question is, “How can I get the top listing on Google or on any search engine?” How would you briefly answer that question?

I can't briefly answer that question! The only short answer is to pay. Advertising is the only way to get instant, guaranteed, page-one ranking on Google, Yahoo! and Bing.

Some firms out there will say you can just do Search Engine Optimization (SEO) to get and stay on top, but that's true only if you are the only HVACR contractor in Cody, WY. If you have any competition and you want to stay on top, start a “pay per click” (PPC) search engine ad campaign and maintain it with a moderate ad budget. It works.


For more information about Brian Kraff and Market Hardware, go towww.market hardware.com. Market Hardware helps HVACR professionals compete on the Web and offers special discounts for some trade association members. You can email any website or Search Engine Marketing question tobrian@markethardware.comor call 888/381-6925.