When it comes to remodeling and the Internet, consumers are leading the way. Remodelers may be slow to realize the importance of a Web site to their company's success — about 40% of respondents to this month's Reader Panel survey said they didn't have a Web site — but today's consumers are becoming more and more reliant on the Internet for information. So much so, in fact, that consultant David Alpert, president of Continuum Marketing Group ( www.continuum-mg.com), says that a Web site is an absolute must for any company doing $600,000 or more in annual volume, and for any company planning to reach that level. “Even a $400,000 company,” he says, “can afford a $2,000 site.”

That price tag is what you might pay for a basic site if you hired a professional designer or consultant to build it. If you or someone on your staff designs the site, you'll pay a lot less out of pocket; the cost comes from the time that could be spent doing other things.

Whether you design the site yourself or pay someone to do it for you, there are certain things you should keep in mind. Your Web site is your most important marketing piece; it's often the first impression a prospective client gets of your company. Alpert goes so far as to say that in the absence of a referral, Web sites are where prospective buyers go to decide who they are going to talk to. “Unless your site distinguishes you, [prospects] have no reason to talk to you over somebody else,” he says.

Looking Good A big part of the Internet's utility stems from the fact that it's a universal publishing medium. But that virtue can become a vice if you're not careful. With literally billions of individual Web pages kicking around cyberspace, there's a clear line of demarcation between what is professionally designed and what was hastily thrown together. If your site looks like a 14-year-old's blog, it's not going to portray your company well. Some things to keep in mind to avoid an amateur-looking design:

Color. There's a reason that most sites feature dark lettering on light backgrounds: It's easier to read. Stick with black or dark blue type set against white, gray, or beige. Avoid “wallpapers” with patterns on them; in most cases, they distract the eye from the text.

Fonts. You may like the informal cursive of Freestyle Script, but again, the majority of professional Web pages employ one of a few fonts. People are used to seeing Arial, Times New Roman, Helvetica, and Verdana, which are easy to read. Additionally, Alpert points out, not all fonts are installed on all computers, so you risk an awkward design if you use less common typography.

Consistency. You don't necessarily need to use the same colors on every page of your site, but they should be part of a comprehensive scheme. You don't want sections of your site to look so dissimilar that they appear to have been designed at different times by two or more people — even if they have been.

Keep It Simple When the Internet really started to take off as a marketing medium and the technology rapidly advanced, fancy introductions to sites became popular. Mostly created with Flash, an animation software, they've by and large fallen out of favor. The primary reason? “They're so annoying!” Nora DePalma, owner and partner of consulting firm Building Profits (www.building-profits.com) says. A sample of the laundry list of complaints typically lodged against Flash intros: They take too long to load, they feature sound without warning, and they require that the user download additional software to view the Web site.

If you choose to use professional Web designers, keep in mind that their objectives may be different from yours. You're looking for a user-friendly site that makes it easy for prospects to gather information about your company; the designer may be looking for a flashy piece to put in his or her portfolio. So you may have to rein in your designer. If a Flash intro is an absolute must, include an easy-to-spot “skip” button, so visitors to your site can circumvent it if they so desire.

That doesn't mean you have to do away with all “fancy” elements on your Web site. Slide shows for photo galleries can be a nice touch, and Alpert points out that Flash can be used more subtly — in the navigation bar, for instance — to jazz up your site without making it burdensome for the user.

But DePalma cautions that “the sophistication [of your site] should be consistent with your position in the marketplace.” A “virtual tour” of a recently completed project might be appropriate for a high-end design/build company's site, but may intimidate homeowners looking for a more low-cost option.

Less is More It's true that space is virtually unlimited on the Internet, but that doesn't necessarily mean you should make use of it. The Web is still a publishing medium, and many of the same guidelines apply.

For instance, in newspapers, the most important stories are located “above the fold” on the front page, so their headlines can be spotted immediately. The most important information on each page of your site should be located in a similarly accessible location. To give visitors to your site easy access to what they're looking for, Alpert recommends keeping your pages to just one or two screens. Furthermore, keep the most pertinent details at the very top, where the consumer can't miss it. There are plenty of people out there who won't scroll at all, choosing instead to go on to the next remodeler's site.

Avoid making your home page “busy” by cluttering it up with too many pictures, links, and paragraphs of text. Instead, create different pages for different categories of information. Visitors to your site are much more likely to click on a clearly marked button on a navigation bar than to scroll around, searching with no real direction.