In 1997, with lots of help from some very smart people, I launched what became HeatingHelp.com. Amazon.com was two years old that year. I was buying books from them. The guy who was babysitting our site told me that we should have a Links page.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s a place on the site where you can tell your visitors about other interesting sites. It makes your visitors like you.”
So I shrugged and told him to link our infant site to Amazon.com, but he had never heard of them. “I buy old books from them,” I explained.
“They’re never going to make it,” he said.
“Well,” he explained, and with great conviction, “I’m an Internet expert, and I know that if someone was looking to buy books the last place they would go would be to a site called Amazon.com. What the heck does that even mean?”
Keep in mind he’s talking to someone who was already an Amazon.com customer. A year or so later, we found a better Internet expert and fired the first guy.
Last May, The Lovely Marianne and I sold HeatingHelp.com to our daughter, Erin, who now sends us checks each month, which is a nice way to retire. Erin worked with me for 12 years before she took over. She was the brains behind just about everything I did on the Internet.
Here’s some of what Erin and I learned about what makes for a good heating website.
- Ask why. Why do you want a website? Is it because your customers expect you to have one? Does not having one make you seem like a company that’s behind the times? Are you doing it because everyone else seems to be doing it? Those are all good reasons, but what’s yours?
Before you do anything else, ask why, and then as you build it, don’t lose your focus.
- What do you want to achieve? What do you expect the site to do for you? I ask this because a lot of heating companies don’t have a good answer to that question and you can see that in their muddled sites. They build, or have someone else build, with no real goal or purpose in mind. Many of these sites go up cheap with just a single page, or worse, multiple pages with “Coming soon!” appearing on each otherwise-blank page. I know of some sites where stuff has been “Coming soon!” for years. It just never seems to arrive. People notice that.
When we built HeatingHelp.com, our purpose was to sell books and other stuff. Along the way, it evolved into a community and a source of lots of technical and historical information that anyone in the world is welcome to browse, but we never lost our focus that the site’s main purpose was to sell stuff. The community and the content help us do that.
So what do you want to achieve? That’s the second question you need to answer before you build.
- Content matters. And it matters a lot. If you want to attract an audience you have to provide a reason why they should come to your site and not go somewhere else. Content also is what gets Google and the other search engines to notice you. Erin is brilliant at choosing just the right words to title and lead the articles that we post on HeatingHelp.com. The right words get searched, and that’s how you gain visitors. It works. I just typed the word “heating” into Google. Wikipedia came up first and second; we came up third. You can’t buy that, but you can help it happen by knowing what you’re doing or finding someone who does.
And if you don’t have content that will interest the people you’re trying to attract, hire someone to develop it for you. Craft everything toward your visitor’s self-interest and they’ll stick around. The content should be heavy with useful information. Think about the questions your customers ask you and then answer those questions. Write in a conversational style so that it sounds like you’re talking on paper, as I’m doing right now. If you don’t know how to do this, hire a writer who does know. This could be the best money you’ll ever spend.
- You’re not trying to attract contractors. Heating contractors have their own language, especially when they talk to each other. They’ll rhapsodize about ECM motors, mod-cons, hydraulic separators, microbubble reabsorbers and blah, blah, blah. You and I get that, but if someone isn’t in the business, they have no idea what we’re talking about. Oh, they’ll listen and nod their heads, but then they’ll go away and probably never return.
Realize that while we love those components for all their mechanical and electronic wonderfulness, the customer cares only about what those things deliver, and what those things deliver is intangible. They care about comfort and value, and whether you’re able to do the work without disrupting their lives, not about smart pumps and condensate neutralizers. Note how quickly the Nest thermostat grew massively in popularity without the manufacturer once explaining the inner workings.
Don’t sell what the thing is on your website; sell what it does. Spend time thinking about what makes you valuable to them and focus on that.
- Do you want to answer questions? HeatingHelp.com has The Wall, which is one of the oldest bulletin boards in the HVAC industry. On our first iteration of the site, we called the board, Wethead Graffiti. The techie who designed it for us made the first post, which read, “Welcome, Wetheads! Feel free to write on the wall.” Within a week, all our visitors were calling it The Wall, so we listened, scrapped Wethead Graffiti and went with their choice of names. When Mark Zuckerberg used that name at Facebook, I smiled because we had it first.
The Wall is a place where visitors answer each other’s questions. Erin and I sit back and moderate. It’s a strong community and people are very nice to each other. They’ve built an enormous, searchable resource with their posts, and that attracts the search engines and even more people.
But before you open up your site to questions, ask yourself who will be answering them. If you include free Q&A services, such as Disgus, beneath your content, people will post questions there, and someone will have to answer those questions. Who’s going to do that? Will you have time?
Keep in mind, too, that if you open your site to questions, you’re going to get them from all over the world. That works for HeatingHelp.com, but it might not work for you. But then again, if you do answer, your potential customers are going to be reading your answers, and if they’re good answers, those people will think you’re the best in the business, and they’ll want to hire you.
- Build confidence. I’ll let you in on a secret. There are a few very smart contractors posting on The Wall at HeatingHelp.com. They stop in daily and they take the time to answer people’s questions, no matter where those people live. Over time, they’ve each built a sizable and searchable gathering of what they know, how they handle customers, how they’ve solved tough problems once and for all and so on. People who are looking for a good contractor lurk on the site, often for months. They read posts and they learn. They gather what these very smart contractors have to say and they like what they’re hearing.
The very smart contractors will also post photos and descriptions of the recent jobs they just finished. They’ll explain things in a way that someone who’s not in the business can understand. The jobs go up and the very smart contractor’s peers on the site praise his work. The people lurking are reading this praise that is forever searchable.
The very smart contractor will also have an ad in the Find a Contractor section of our site. This costs him less than a dollar a day. The lurkers use that ad to hire the very smart contractor.
One contractor told me he stopped counting when the inexpensive ad made him more than a million dollars, and every bit of that business came out of the blue. “What I like about it,” he told me, “is that instead of the customer qualifying me, I get to qualify him. The business just shows up and I grab it.”
So sometimes the best website is someone else’s website.