Thinking About a “Free” Website? Think Again.
If you spend any time listening to the radio, you’ve probably heard the commercials about how you can get a FREE website when you sign-up for XYZ service for your business. If you’ve been thinking about building a website for your business, this might seem like a pretty sweet deal. You need XYZ for your office and, as the commercial mentions, “if you don’t have a website your business is invisible” – it seems like a win-win offer!
But is a “free” website really going to help your business as much as the commercial implies?
A lot of business owners think a website is a website and, as a result, a lot of business owners buy their website based on price. “Website A is cheaper than Website B, so I’ll go with site A,” or, “I only have enough money for Website A, so I have to go that route.” Thinking this way is a death trap for ANY type of B2C home service business where a well-optimized website can generate hundreds of thousands of revenue dollars per month. In the small business world, we’re not talking about huge dollars. Website A might range from “free” to $3,000 and Website B might range from $4,000 – $15,000. Even a micro-business can typically come up with $15,000 if it meant tripling or quadrupling the size of the business over the next 1-2 years (who wouldn’t make the investment??!).
If these business owners really understood that even with Website A, they are still going to be INVISIBLE on the web while, with Website B, they are going to generate hundreds of leads per month (and thousands of dollars in booked jobs as a result), they’d FIND the budget for Website B (even if it means downgrading their 7-series BMW to a Honda Accord!).
How Free Sites Stack Up
So how do various types of “free” websites measure up to the alternatives? If your business is invisible without a website, how visible will it be with a free website? If you’re a small business owner with eyes on growth, will a “free” website really be the foundation you need to take your business to the next level? These are all great questions to be asking!
Let’s do a quick analysis and see exactly how some of these “free” websites stack up!
Website and Internet Marketing 101
Before we get started, it might be helpful for us to give a brief overview of our perspective on websites and online marketing. Let’s start with the idea that a website is not a brochure; it’s a sales rep with a built-in sales funnel. At the highest level, your goal as a business owner is to cost-effectively drive as many qualified visitors to your website as possible and use special website tracking tools to monitor (and continually improve) your website’s ability to turn (or convert) visitors into leads (which will ultimately turn into booked jobs, revenue and profit).
There are no silver bullets for success except one and it’s a process: TRACK > TEST > TWEAK > REPEAT®
There are a number of cost-effective ways to drive qualified visitors to your website, but being highly visible on Google for keyword searches relevant to your product/service continues to be the big one – even with the explosive growth of social media websites like Facebook (which you should also test/invest in!). With only ~10 paid ads and ~10 organic listings (not counting the local listings) and fewer than 10% of searchers venturing past page one, search engine marketing success is all about one thing: Cost-effectively maximizing your first page real estate.
Generally speaking (and exceptions DO apply), the best way to maximize your businesses first page search visibility is to invest in pay per click (PPC) advertising as well as search engine optimization (SEO). But beware – both PPC and SEO are data-driven, analytical marketing strategies. Savvy advertisers leave little to chance and use their advanced knowledge of available tools and technologies for financial gain. It’s not uncommon for unsophisticated, new or novice advertisers to waste thousands of dollars learning the ropes.
Sound like hype? Go to any local chamber of commerce event and ask other business owners that have tried PPC advertising on their own what they think about it. Most will ramble on about what a big waste of money it is. Now call some of the biggest home service businesses in a geographic area outside of yours (non-competing companies) and ask them what their top two online marketing strategies are. If they’ll tell you, which they probably won’t, they’ll tell you it’s SEO #1 and PPC #2.
So, at a minimum, a high-performance website must:
- Rank on the first page of Google for relevant keywords
- Effectively convert visitors into inquiries, leads and sales
- Have special tracking tools in place to be optimized on an ongoing basis
Free Website Example #1
Company Type: HVAC / GEOSOLAR
Service Area / Location: Maryland / DC/ Virginia
Few markets are hotter right now than green energy! Geothermal products are incredibly popular with homeowners and all sorts of contractors and HVAC companies are expanding their product and service offerings in order to capitalize on this trend and satisfy the needs and wants of their prospective customers.
If you’re a homeowner and you’re looking for a geothermal heat pump or a solar hot water heater, where are you going to start? The Internet of course! What would you search?
Well, if you’re in Gaithersburg, Maryland, you might try:
“geothermal heat pumps maryland”
“geothermal heat pumps gaithersburg”
“geothermal heat pumps gaithersburg maryland”
“HVAC contractors in gaithersburg specializing in geothermal”
Do these seem like reasonably well-targeted searches? Well, plug a couple of these searches into Google and see what you find. Can you find the website shown above (note: we have blurred the company name and contact info in the site above to protect the company’s identity – a company with whom we have no relationship or affiliation)?
Here’s an example of what you do find:
The site you see in the screenshot above isn’t found for the search, “geothermal heat pumps gaithersburg maryland” until the bottom of the 2nd page. If you broaden the search to “geothermal heat pumps gaithersburg”, you have to go to the top of the 4th page to find them!
For comparison sake, websites we have built and optimized take up nearly 21% of the real estate on Page 1. Given the value of selling and installing a geothermal heat pump and the fact that nearly 90% of searchers NEVER venture past the first page of search engine results, what do you think the economic value of the websites we built and optimized is compared to the “free” website?
High-performance websites must be easily found on the first page of Google for keywords relevant to the company’s product/service. “Geothermal heat pumps gaithersburg maryland” would seem to be relevant and targeted to the company above, so would “geothermal contractors in gaithersburg”, but they are nowhere to be found on the first page of Google for either search phrase.
This free website gets a grade of “D” for visibility.
Conversion Rate Optimization
High-performance home service websites must not only be easily found on the first page of Google; they must also effectively convert visitors into inquiries – aka leads. This particular free website does some things right in this regard. They have the phone number featured at the top of the page and a side-bar contact form. Some of our staff found it incredibly hard to read the text in the middle of the page due to the sky background, but this alone is unlikely to cause someone to abandon the page (if they could find it!).
The free site above also isn’t using as many benefit oriented calls-to-action before the contact forms nor are they using LiveChat or other visitor engaging features. In addition, the sub-pages of the site lack the side-bar contact form and the layout shifts from two-column right side-bar to a two column left side-bar. This creates an inconsistent feel for the site and could throw some people off.
Overall, we’d give this free website a “C” from a conversion rate optimization standpoint.
Accurate Tracking & Data-Driven Optimization
You can’t maximize your website’s performance and return on investment if you don’t put special tools in place to accurately track it. There are several major holes in the ‘tracking net’ for this free website. For example, they have their email listed on each page of the site (instead of using an online contact form).
Listing emails directly on your website causes at least two problems:
- You’re going to get a tremendous amount of spam (even more than you will with contact forms)
- You cannot accurately track exactly which traffic source or keyword generated the email inquiry
Another hole in the tracking net is that this free website is using one phone number hard-coded into the website, so no matter how a visitor reaches the site, they see the same phone number. Some of you reading this might be confused, so let me back up and explain a bit more.
If you own a home services business – like an HVAC company, plumbing company, roofing company, etc. – your number one goal is to get people to contact you with a service request. When someone visits your website, they typically have two options – pick up the phone and call you or email you (hopefully via submission of an online contact form requesting service).
Phone calls have the highest odds of converting into an appointment or a job, so getting more phone calls is priority #1. Fortunately, people still prefer talking to a “live” person Vs. chatting online or the delayed response that is typical via a contact form submission (note: the faster you respond to online contact forms, the more likely you are to get the job). The ratio of phone inquiries to web inquiries for home service businesses often exceeds 5:1.
Make sense so far?
The problem is that most business owners cannot accurately attribute the source of their phone inquiries. Most rely on asking the prospective client – for example, the famous question, “how’d you hear about us?” or “how’d you find us today?” Junk in equals junk out. Better questions equal better answers and better results. When you ask someone a general question like, “how’d you find us?”, they often respond with a general answer, “the Internet.” Knowing a customer found you via the Internet is helpful, but it’s not nearly as actionable as, “I Googled “geothermal contractors in gaithersburg” and then clicked your pay per click ad!”
At Blue Corona, we’ve developed special website tracking tools that allow our clients to see exactly which marketing channel generated a specific lead or inquiry. The technology works by replacing every phone number on the client’s website to a number unique to that individual traffic source. All of this phone number switching (or dynamic number replacement) happens behind the scenes so that your prospective customers never experience anything other than what they would on any other website.
The power of this data is knowing EXACTLY which marketing channel is generating the best results, the most leads, sales, profit and Return On Ad Spend (the amount of revenue you receive for each dollar spent on advertising).
This free website is missing all the low hanging fruit with respect to tracking, so it gets an “F” in this regard.
The Final Analysis on Free Websites
Which website would you rather have – the free site on page 2/3/4 or the $6,000-$9,000 website found MULTIPLE times on page one (that converts 20% of visitors into leads)? Free is great… for now, but which business owner do you think gets the greater financial return at the end of 12 months? It doesn’t take an accountant or MBA to answer that question.
For what it’s worth, we certainly don’t mean to pick on companies that build free websites. If the alternative to a free website is no website, a “free” website from either company would be better than nothing at all (and the reason we keep putting “free” in quotes is that the sites aren’t free – you have to buy something else to get them). Also, you can (occasionally) find one of their sites on the first page of Google for a relevant keyword… we just don’t think their websites rank nearly as well as custom built websites – especially for high-traffic keywords in even semi-competitive markets.
The point we’re trying to make is that you shouldn’t buy a website based (primarily) on price.
About The Author: Ben Landers is the President and CEO of Blue Corona, a data-driven, inbound internet marketing company. Submit an inquiry to book Ben to speak at your next conference or event.
View more blogs by Ben Landers
“We are very pleased not only with the end result, but with the entire process of working with Blue Corona. The amount of patience, guidance, and knowledge that they displayed throughout the whole process made them a very easy and enjoyable partner to work with. We are thrilled with our new website, mobile site, and content management system. We would recommend Blue Corona for any website development or redesign project. ”
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