Builders Breaking Ground on Information Highway

Wed February 18, 2009 - National Edition
Giles Lambertson




In recent years, general contractors have done some of their best building online. Numerous Web sites in the industry have been built, renovated or totally reconstructed as the value of the Internet to business has become more and more measurable.

Construction industry Web sites vary greatly in their functionality, of course, as do worldwide Web sites in general. The Web probably is home to as many static one-page “billboards” as it is to hyperactive sites with flashing images, video and audio components and multi-layered search functions. While the goal is the same for a contractor as for every other enterprise — to increase business volume — there appears to be no unanimity on the best way to accomplish that.

Boh Brothers Construction Co. puts a bright face on its site’s primary landing page; stylized scenes of men toiling in hardhats under yellow skies dominate the page. The New Orleans, La., general contractor has been around 100 years, about 80 years longer than the Internet, and scenes of heavy construction labor immediately ground a visitor in the culture of the company.

For an obvious reason, photos are fixtures on most sites. If the worth of a picture can be measured in words — 1,000 being the usual equivalency — a photo on a worldwide Web site could be measured in nations and languages. Never has it been so easy for contractors to reach out for business.

“Well, the Web site certainly has increased our exposure,” said Tom Cronin, Boh’s director of development, in what certainly is an understatement. “The exposure is exponential. It is sort of a one-shot deal; you just put that information out there and people can access it very quickly.”

From the first page, visitors to the Boh Brothers Web site can enter the site more deeply by navigating through any of four entry points. Two of them — Our Company and Equipment Sales — account for much of the business traffic, according to Cronin.

Inside Boh’s “Equipment” button is a conventional display of used equipment, ranging from John Deere Gator utility carts to Komatsu and Gradall excavators and Sullair air compressors. The “Company” doorway introduces visitors to the history and portfolio of Boh, but also is the access point for employment opportunities. The job application process on the site has proven to be an effective tool in recruiting both laborers and professionals, Cronin said.

All in all, Cronin said, a Web presence “is a necessity in today’s business environment.”

The Boh site, www.bohbros.com, was revamped a short while ago and is watched over by an in-house person. However, actual creation and maintenance of the site was outsourced to a professional Webmaster, of which there are many.

One such company in Cincinnati, Contractor Web Design LLC, specifically targets, as its name implies, the contracting industry. It was, in fact, founded by a handful of Internet-savvy and frustrated contractors. Company co-founder Chris Kessen was in landscaping until nine months ago. He helped start the company after encountering the frustration of a roofing contractor “who was completely fed up with the Web design company that had built his Web site,” Kessen recalled.

The two realized a niche market existed in the Web industry, a company that would design exclusively for contractors, and the niche has proved to be deep and wide. About 40 percent of the company’s clients have been contractors who were disappointed in the performance of their previous sites.

“The average contractor is very good at what he does,” Kessen said, “but is not good at, and does not have a heck of a lot of interest in, his Web site. Consequently, a lot of contractors get snookered when they go to a normal Web site design company.”

In Kessen’s view, too many of the Internet homes of contractors are aesthetically pleasing but ineffective job-generators.

“We build a site that actually generates prospects and leads, a Web site that actually produces transactional business on an everyday basis.”

The 45-year-old entrepreneur said he leans on words, instead of aesthetic flourishes, in creating his customers’ sites.

“We emphasize key words, which we integrate fully into a Web site for search engines. Most contractor Web sites don’t integrate key words to the limit; the reality is that the ones that do the best job of integrating key words are the ones that are going to come up highest in Web searches.”

Company sites that are not word-wise are going to be reached mostly by people who already know of them, Kessen said, which probably is not the best business plan for growth.

The other primary component of Contractor Web Design sites is a rich and ready supply of answers to questions that visitors bring to the site. Kessen believes that if information isn’t almost literally at their fingertips as soon as they arrive, site visitors are apt to click away as quickly as they clicked in.

“Usually, if a Web visitor doesn’t see what he is looking for in 5 to 7 seconds, he is going to go somewhere else,” he said. “What we try to do is to supply a visitor to the Web site with information that concisely answers the questions that he has.

“So… once you accomplish those two things in designing a Web site, the rest is pretty elementary. Once you get a relationship with a visitor, the sky is the limit.”

Kessen said his company can design a very basic site for as little as $550 but the most successful ones cost from $1,500 to $3,000, which seems to be the going rate in the industry. Said the Webmaster: “The more complex the site, the more it is going to cost. But to be real honest, it doesn’t have to be complex to be extremely effective.”

In Arlington, Tex., Jeff Schaefer maintains a general contractor’s Web site from the inside. Bob Moore Construction Inc. executives decided five years ago that the Internet was too intrinsically important to the company’s business plan to leave the company Web site in the hands of an outsider. Schaefer, who was at the time an independent Web site contractor, was hired as information manager.

“There is so much value a company can derive from a Web site that our CEO really was smart in creating this position,” Schaefer said, adding, “I don’t think construction Web people are real common.”

What Schaefer found at www.generalcontractor.com was a pretty static site, especially in terms of informational updates. He massaged it for about a year and then did a makeover four years ago. It still is not sexy, but is information-rich and visitor-accessible.

At the site, a not-overly large photo of an award winning project crowds the top of a screen that scrolls deep. Numerous navigational buttons march across the top and bottom of the page; on the long screen between are several blocks of information about the company — awards it has received, a portfolio of projects, a client list, professional associations.

A vertical column on the right side of the screen is topped by a scrolling list of customer logos and just beneath it is a fade-in-and-fade-out rotating display of client testimonial quotes.

From top to bottom of the site’s primary page, more than 50 buttons and anchor phrases await clicking by a visitor for access into the innards of the site.

“The site has several purposes,” said the Webmaster. “The first purpose is to present Bob Moore Construction in a good way for project owners who are considering the company for a project. They can learn more about the company just by visiting the Web site.

“Realistically, very few project owners are going to immediately pick us based on what they see on the Web site — not on a, say, $20 million project — but we have received several inquiries and been given the opportunity to pursue a project by bidding on it as a consequence of someone looking at the site.”

The site has helped bring business to the 63-year-old company.

“Several have said, we made our decision partly on what we learned on your site. That’s music to my ears.”

Schaefer said he works diligently at ensuring the site is plucked early by the worldwide Web search mechanism.

“It has to perform well in search engines.”

To Schaefer — and to Kessen, as well — the fundamentals of a site seem more important than the site’s appearance, though out-and-out ugliness presumably never is a designer’s goal. Plainness is redeemable, though, Schaefer said, so long as the information on a site is fresh.

“A lot of companies view a Web site as an electronic billboard or brochure, rather than an interactive and aggressive marketing and selling tool. If they want to use it as an electronic billboard, they can make it look nice and just leave it out there — as long as the information is relevant. Regularly updating the content of a site is more important than making over a site,” Schaefer advised.

One piece of anchor text on the Moore Construction site gives subcontractors password-protected access to construction project drawings, an interactive feature that many general contractors sponsor on their sites. The function was uncommon just a few years ago.

“We used to insist that subcontractors get fax machines so we could fax them plans,” Schaefer said. “Now we say you really have to have a computer and printing capability so you can print out the drawings. It has worked out very well.”

The concept of the online “plan room” has been taken one step further by Carolinas Associated General Contractors. The AGC site has become the principal host to plan rooms for each of its 500-plus general contractor members.

The plan rooms on the chapter’s site are password-protected and are visited by AGC’s nearly 2,500 subcontractor and vendor members, as well as non-members when a general bid invitation is extended. Individual general contractors control access to their individual rooms, so each contractor determines who sees what.

It is all part of what is called by the chapter the “IBuild” preconstruction exchange network. The Web site declares that the online plan room system gives general contractors a “central location for optimizing” such sub-bid functions as sending bid invitations, tracking sub-bidders’ interest, finding additional bidders, receiving private messages from sub-bidders with whom they work and so on.

Leslie Blum, the AGC chapter’s vice president of operations, said the chapter’s Web site, www.CAGC.org, doesn’t compete with contractor’s individual sites; rather, it relieves contractors of the obligation to operate a plan room of their own.

“Some general contractors have said, well, we were planning on adding a plan room, but now we don’t need to,” Blum said. This clearinghouse function of the AGC site explains why it is constantly being visited. In January, for instance, the site attracted 238,000 separate visits.

Carolinas AGC is the largest of the national organization’s chapters. Headquartered in Charlotte, which sits almost on the South Carolina-North Carolina border, the chapter straddles the states and the large variety of construction industry divisions operating in them.

“We serve as the hub of the wheel in the Carolinas,” Blum said.

The chapter draws from the general contractor talent pool of both states for its leadership. Some of the most visionary of these members evidently determined to make the AGC Web site all it could be.

“The board is very progressive,” Blum said. “Our members are very engaged, and they drive the evolution of the Web site. Consequently, it is a very fluid, responsive mechanism.”

The chapter has had a site on the Internet for “years and years,” Blum said, and formerly outsourced pieces of it. But on May 1, 2006, Carolinas AGC launched its self-developed site. In Internet time, that was millions of Web site hits ago.