It's no secret that the Internet is becoming the leading research tool used by consumers. But did you know that it's also becoming a primary way consumers search for roofing professionals? New research from the Kelsey Group, a New Jersey-based consulting and research firm, shows that 70 percent of adults in the United States use the Internet as an information source when shopping locally for products and services, including residential roofing professionals.

It's no secret that the Internet is becoming the leading research tool used by consumers. But did you know that it's also becoming a primary way consumers search for roofing professionals? New research from the Kelsey Group, a New Jersey-based consulting and research firm, shows that 70 percent of adults in the United States use the Internet as an information source when shopping locally for products and services, including residential roofing professionals.

Your customers are relying less on the traditional methods like print directories and newspapers to find you. Instead they are using Google. The Kelsey Group estimates that local online commercial searches will grow from approximately 10 percent of all online search activity today to 25 percent by 2009. Therefore, online marketing will become increasingly important for small businesses like yours as consumers increasingly turn to the Internet to find information about products and local service providers.

Online marketing is new to many contracting businesses and can seem overwhelming. What generates the most leads? What provides the best return on investment? Should you do it yourself or hire someone? Like any good marketing initiative, you must find an online solution that is cost-effective, targeted in reach and easy to manage. Here are some options.

Build a Web Site For Your Business

While it is not difficult to build a Web site, it can be challenging to get visitors to it and even harder to turn them into actual leads. "Build it and they will come" does not usually hold true on the World Wide Web - at least not without a lot of work on your part. So, how do you get potential customers to your site and convert them into real sales leads? Your Web site must be built to effectively weed out non-prospects and capture enough leads to make it worthwhile and cost-effective. This usually requires the hiring of a professional Web development firm. Assuming you can build a site that generates leads, you need to then drive traffic to it.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Search engines can be a good source of Web site traffic. You can submit your Web site for inclusion in the major search engines. With the right approach (and a lot of patience), your site can be listed within the search engine databases and tagged for keywords that are included in the Web site copy. Search engines study your Web site to determine which keywords are applicable and use those to order search results. For example, a consumer who searches on Google for "roofers in Denver" will likely be shown Web sites containing this keyword phrase. Commonly used keyword combinations regularly change, impacting the placement of your Web site in the search results. As a result, managing keyword combinations can be time intensive and require extensive search engine expertise. Also, the more competition you have for those keyword combinations, the harder it will be to achieve high search-engine placement. Without professional SEO help, it is very unlikely that you will receive significant Web site traffic from search engines.

Pay-Per-Click Advertising

As mentioned above, keyword combinations are essential to a Web site's placement within the search results. Studies show that people typically do not go much beyond the first page in search results. If your Web site is not listed on the first page, chances are most consumers are not going to find you. To make sure a Web site is found, many businesses have begun creating online advertisements and purchasing first-page placement to ensure their Web sites rank highly.

PPC advertising involves bidding on keywords and keyword phrases. For example, a search on Yahoo! for "roofers in Denver" will bring up advertisements related to this topic. The ads will appear on the right-hand side of the page or in the "Sponsored Listings" section above the search results. The order of ads is driven by bid prices. To effectively reach your target audience, you will need to research, create and monitor potentially thousands of keywords on multiple search engines. The price you pay per keyword depends on the amount of competition. Price per click can change at any time as other advertisers increase or decrease their bids. An effective PPC campaign must include close monitoring and frequent adjustments.

To maximize your Web site traffic, you have to think broadly when bidding on keywords. For example, if you own a roofing business in Denver but also take jobs in the surrounding areas such as Aurora, Littleton, Highlands Ranch and Lakewood, you would need to purchase several word variations that included each city name. However, you also need to be careful not to bid on non-targeted keywords. While it may initially seem like a good idea to simply bid on "find a roofer" to capture all traffic, you will end up paying for clicks from consumers who do not live in your service area.

Remember, you are paying for clicks to your Web site, not leads. These clicks must then be converted to leads, which requires a great Web site that is built for lead generation. Most Web sites convert clicks to leads at a rate of less than 1 percent, so consider that when assessing the true cost of PPC advertising.

Internet Yellow Pages

While traditionally consumers have turned to the print Yellow Pages to find residential contractors, the use of print directories is projected to decrease by approximately 20 percent over the next four years, according to The Kelsey Group. Due to the growth of consumer usage of the Internet, the Yellow Pages have attempted to transfer the traditional print version to the new online medium with the Internet Yellow Pages (IYP).

Like other online search mechanisms, consumers typically review the results listed on the first page (usually between 10 and 20 listings). To have your business listed in the top results you will likely need to purchase a sponsored listing.

Like the traditional print Yellow Pages advertisements, seniority and financial investment determine placement of your sponsored listing; the more you pay, the higher you are listed on the results page. Payment methods for IYP ads vary by directory, with some requiring an upfront payment and others offering the PPC method discussed earlier.

SEO, PPC and IYP advertising can be done internally if you have the time and expertise in Internet and search engine marketing. A more common choice is to outsource these activities to search marketing professionals. Be careful about the costs and make sure to measure the actual leads resulting from your efforts and not simply the number of visitors to your site. While it is great to have a Web site and even better to get a lot of visitors, it is only meaningful if you are able to convert the visitor into a warm sales lead.

Online Lead Generation Services

Due to the complexity and risk associated with SEO, PPC and IYP advertising, an alternative method for marketing online has emerged. Online lead generation services specialize in bringing targeted leads to residential contractors in their geographic area and specific to their type of work. Many roofing professionals have implemented these types of services into their marketing campaigns and found them to be a time-effective and cost-effective method, as well as a low-risk alternative to reach today's Internet-savvy consumer. In my opinion, they generally involve much less work and less risk when compared to other online marketing methods.

These services create a way for residential contractors to get broad Internet exposure without having to pay large upfront fees, build and maintain a complex Web site or become Internet marketing experts or search engine gurus. The service does it for them, and they benefit from an increase in targeted consumer demand.

Consumers like to use these online services to find contractors because they reduce the time and stress associated with finding service professionals. Many online lead services prescreen member businesses for state and business/trade licensing and insurance, providing consumers the reassurance that they will be connected with qualified and legitimate professionals. Some services even help facilitate a warm introduction between the consumer and contractor, improving the communication process.

By providing residential contractors with only those leads that match their work type and geographic preference, online lead generation services match businesses with interested consumers they may not reach with other marketing initiatives. As a result, contractors are able to tap a new client base and have access to a steady flow of their most preferred jobs, enabling them to spend less time and effort prospecting, qualifying and chasing down leads. Instead they have potential jobs come to them. And, they only pay when they get a lead.

As the number of consumers turning to the Web for local business information has increased, online marketing has become an important tool for roofing professionals. Select an online marketing method that is within your budget, requires a low time investment, and frees you up from having to become an Internet marketing expert.