How do customers find you these days? Tom Audette, national sales manager for Three Deep Marketing, a St. Paul, Minn., Internet marketing company that counts many home improvement companies among its customers, cites research showing that 70% of product and service inquiries from homeowners originate online.

One way to help them get to your Web site is by optimizing it so that search engines such as Google — by far the most popular — will include a link to your site in their search results.

Of course, you also want to be among the first results that homeowners see. Why? Jon Lawrence, vice president of sales and marketing for Lawrence Media Group, in Dallas, points out that 68% of online searchers don't go past the first page of results. Audette has seen surveys that say searchers look at only the top four results before moving on.

HOW TO GET THEM THERE Search engine optimization (SEO) uses embedded phrases plus links to elevate the visibility of a Web site. SEO boosted traffic and leads on the site of Centurion Stone & Exteriors, in Nashville, Tenn., says president Barry Brooks. With SEO costs factored in, Brooks says that his Web leads run at about a 9% marketing cost. But none of this is easy.

“Search engine optimization takes time as well as diligence,” says Bernie Roland, vice president of marketing at K&H Home Solutions, in Denver. The company has been using the technique for more than two years. “The Web is like a storefront for you. You have to do everything you can to drive people to the site,” Roland says.

Bob Priest, president of Burr Roofing, Siding & Windows, in Stratford, Conn., says that following SEO two years ago, his company's Web site became — and remains — its major lead source.

WHAT'S IT COST? The cost of hiring an expert varies depending, in part, on what your Web site looks like and how it reads, Audette says.

Initial optimization can cost several thousand dollars. And SEO is not instant; the optimization may take two to three months to show up on search results.

Also, since results are reconfigured by search engines daily, sometimes hourly, SEO is somewhat of a moving target. An optimized site must be monitored and adjusted, which can be done either in-house or outsourced.

“It's not a one-size-fits-all situation,” says Curtis Amijo, owner of consulting firm Trulium, in Denver, whose clients have done well spending anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars staying at the top of the search lists.

Even with SEO, your Web site should never be your only form of marketing. “While your Web site is important as part of the mix, you need to think of more proactive forms as well,” says Web strategy expert Philippa Gamse, president of CyberSpeaker, in Capitola, Calif.

—Diane Kittower is a freelance writer in Rockville, Md.