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Ten years ago, if I were asked whether a contractor needed a Web site, I’d have answered that it wasn’t absolutely necessary. Asked the same question five years ago, I probably would have said it was a good idea. Today, the Internet is practically a utility — like water, electricity, gas, and cable — and most Americans use it every day. If you don’t have a Web site, it’s time you got one, because that’s how more and more of your customers will find you.

Fortunately, building an effective Web site is neither expensive nor complicated. In fact, it’s well within the capabilities of anyone who can use word processing software and has some basic understanding of the principles by which the Web operates. Your first site may not win any awards, but if it’s easy to find — and it can be — it will be a 24-hour beacon, attracting customers looking for your particular services. That’s a type of advertising that newspapers, the Yellow Pages, and direct mail can’t provide.

Choosing a Web Services Company

Getting up and running on the Web involves several steps, from selecting and purchasing a domain name to designing your site to setting up an e-mail account. Each step can be completed independently from the others, but it’s less confusing to use a single Internet services company for everything, so that’s the approach I’ll describe here.

Three of the most prominent Web services companies are GoDaddy (godaddy.com), Network Solutions (netsol.com), and Register.com (register.com). I’ve used all three to buy and manage domains, and as far as I can tell there’s not much difference between them. Over time, I’ve switched most of my business to GoDaddy, which offers intuitive domain name searching, the lowest price for purchasing domain names, and a simple online Web-site building application called WebSite Tonight. On several occasions, I’ve had to call GoDaddy’s technical support, and each time I immediately got through to a knowledgeable person who was able to solve my issue in a few minutes. As a new Web-site builder, you may need some help along the way, and good technical support only a quick phone call away is worth its weight in gold.

Selecting a Domain Name

The first step is to register a domain name for your business — the “dot-com” you’ll use as your Web address. If the name of your business contains only common terms, it’s most likely already owned by someone else. Don’t get discouraged: You’ll still find a name, but you may have to get a little creative.

I happen to own the domain name that matches my legal business name. When I formed my LLC not that many years ago, I searched for available domain names before deciding what to call it. I knew I had one shot at selecting a corporate name and used the opportunity to find a matching domain name.

It may be too late for you to do that, but even if the domain name you want is taken, there are ways to work around the dilemma. (If your business’s domain name is in fact still available, buy it immediately, even if you’re not ready to launch your Web site; otherwise it could be gone in five minutes and never be available again.)

There are a couple of things to keep in mind when selecting your domain name. First, to be taken seriously by your Web-savvy customers, you must have .com at the end. Forget about .net, .org, .tv, or dot anything else. Those extensions should not be used for commercial purposes, regardless of what you might see around town. Dot-com is the only way to go.

Second, you should use geography to your advantage. While it’s nice to have your corporate name as your domain name, don’t worry if it turns out that isn’t possible. Instead, make sure your domain name is geospecific. A seasoned Web searcher knows that searching for vague terms like “remodeling contractor” will yield results from all over the Web, most of which will be unhelpful in finding a local business. So the searcher will key in “remodeling contractor [town name]” or “kitchen remodeling [county name]” to narrow the search results to contractors in his immediate area. Let’s say you’re a kitchen-and-bath contractor providing services in Austin County. Good domain names might be AustinKitchensAndBaths.com, AustinRemodeling.com, or AustinBathrooms.com.

There are other solid reasons for choosing a geospecific domain name. For one, you probably conduct most of your business within a set area; there’s no sense wasting resources advertising to areas you don’t want to work in. And for another, search engines like Google and Yahoo absolutely love geospecific domain names. If your domain name includes a geographic name that matches the search terms, the search engine will automatically rank your Web site higher than one without that place name. You can even use telephone area codes in your domain name — like 512Bathrooms.com, for example. Then someone searching “bathroom remodelers area code 512” would get a match.

If you service a wide area or multiple areas, you can register several geospecific names and have them point to individual pages within one Web site. There’s no need to set up separate sites for different geographic regions unless your services change from location to location. At less than $10 per domain name, you can plan on buying a few to cast a wide net for the search engines.

Purchasing a Domain Name

Using any Web browser, go to godaddy.com On the home page, enter your proposed domain name in the search box; if it’s not available as a dot-com, the next page will tell you so in big red letters and will also offer suggestions using other extensions. Ignore those; you’re only looking for .com domains. (Through this entire process, all the Web services companies have the annoying tendency to bombard users with suggestions for revenue-generating add-ons. Generally these products are fluff, so just disregard them.)

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Keep entering domain names until you find one that is available. It can take awhile, and while you might have to get creative, try to avoid using hyphens and underscores. They only add confusion and clutter to the name. Domain names are not case-sensitive, so don’t worry about capitalization. (In fact, though most users type Web addresses as all lowercase, I always add capital letters when advertising the domain name in print, to help the reader separate the words more easily. It’s easier to comprehend AustinKitchenContractor.com than to read austinkitchencontractor.com)

Once you find an available domain name, make sure only the .com box is checked, then click the “proceed to checkout” button near the bottom of the page. Ignore the add-ons, go to the registration page, and fill that in. Next you’ll have options for the duration of your registration, starting with a one-year term; choose the one that suits your needs.

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Also select one of the e-mail options, depending on the number of addresses and the amount of storage you’ll need. Adding e-mail services here will provide you with a professional address that matches your domain — greg@201Handyman.com, for example. If you’ve been using a “free” e-mail address like Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, or one from your service provider, now is the time to switch.