Until the recession hit, MainStreet Design Build, in Birmingham, Mich., counted on a marketing budget to generate the 20% to 25% of its business that didn’t come through past customers or referrals. That budget included maintaining the company website. But expectations for the site weren’t high. “Every time we looked on Google, it wouldn’t show up,” owner Steve Ramaekers says. Today, after a $12,000 investment in Web design and search engine optimization (SEO), MainStreet Design Build’s rebuilt site generates more business for the company than any other lead source, including repeat and referral.

One reason is that the new website does everything that experts suggest a remodeling site should do: It shows visitors how the company’s design and construction skills and its customer service practices solve clients’ remodeling needs, with lots of friendly communication.

The result: It gets homeowners interested enough to e-mail or pick up the phone. Better still for co-owners Steve and Christine Ramaekers, if you live in the Detroit suburbs and you type in “kitchen remodel” or “bathroom remodel,” their company’s site pops up on the first page of Google’s organic (i.e., non-paid) search results. So whether someone has seen a lawn sign but doesn’t remember much else, or if that homeowner is looking for a remodeling company but never even heard of MainStreet Design Build, the link to that site is the first, second, or third item they see when they search the Internet.

Search Me

With fewer homeowners seeking renovations, and with the jobs they have in mind often being smaller, many remodeling companies are looking for low-cost ways to bring in business. “I’m hearing more and more about companies going to the Web as their primary marketing vehicle,” says Phillipa Gamse, a West Coast–based Web marketing expert. Why? Because that’s where a majority of consumers in search of a product or service go to look. According to “Digital World, Digital Life,” a study released in December and published on eMarketer.com, 63% of Web users research a product or service before buying it. Even if they’re a strong, solid referral, there’s an excellent chance they’ll check out your site before picking up the phone. For remodeling contractors, the site is a “virtual showroom,” says Tom Audette, of Three Deep Marketing, in St. Paul, Minn., which includes many home improvement companies among its clients.

Of course, first consumers have to find your site. Since most traffic today is search-engine driven, they probably won’t if your site is not optimized. That means its text needs to be written in such a way that it’s heavy with links and keywords or phrases (“bath remodeling,” “kitchen design,” and so on), which Google search engines seek out and tabulate to return relevant results to users. Companies that specialize in search engine optimization “optimize” the chance that your site will be discovered, by embedding that data. There are a lot of companies that sell SEO services, which are less expensive today than they were just a few years ago.

“Companies can get optimized for less than $2,500,” says Martin Gould, of marketing and communications company Focalize Consulting, in Cooper City, Fla. “But you can also literally spend nothing, since most high school juniors can do this.”

Looking to wow prospects once they arrive at your site? Don’t go overboard, experts advise. In the current economic climate, conspicuous consumption is out, value for money is in. And sizzle doesn’t sell; it sends your prospect elsewhere. “Creative, high-end people want their websites to reflect their creativity,” Gould says. “So they overdesign it. Lots of Flash animation, pictures, slide shows.” None of that means much to the website visitor looking to put an addition on his or her home or to add an attic bedroom. If someone has arrived at your site, Gould says, the reason they’re there is because they have a problem and want to know if you’re the one who can solve it.

David Alpert, of Continuum Marketing, in Great Falls, Va., which markets and builds websites for remodeling companies, agrees that remodeling sites don’t need to be extravagant to attract prospects and hold their interest. What a site should do, he says, is to create a “brand understanding” for the prospect and a lead that’s a good match for the remodeler.