Imagine a homeowner who is looking for the product your company sells. First stop, laptop. Click on Google or Yahoo. Enter “replacement windows.”

Is your company's Web site on the first page of listings?

Let's assume, for the moment, that it is. You've invested in search engine optimization (strategic keyword placement) and/or pay-per-click advertising. By these means, the prospect has arrived at your site. What's she looking at? A picture of your building, a list of products you sell, a three-paragraph company history. Click!

Your chance to produce a highly qualified, eager-to-do-business prospect just evaporated.

If your Internet presence amounts to a kind of electronic ghost town, then what would you like it to be?

Maybe you're envisioning a Web site that's informative and interactive; that uses streaming video to walk prospects through the installation process and allows past customers to talk about why they liked doing business with you. Maybe you'd like to allow prospects to set their own appointment online.

The handful of home improvement companies that operate such sites use them to generate anywhere from 5% to 30% of their leads, at a fraction of average industry lead costs.

Such sites generate the kind of lead that's far more likely to result in a sale. And by providing an ongoing information resource, they help cut cancellations. Customers have only to click on the site to be reassured that they made the right decision.

If you're thinking you can't afford such a site now, think again. If you have $15,000 or $20,000, you can afford it. And if you don't, you might ask yourself whether those print ads you've been running forever still bring in the leads.

But you can't just throw money at a Web site. You have to find the right company to design it for you. (Evaluate multiple proposals and visit their Web sites.) And once they're hired, you can't just turn the project over to a tech person. You, the owner, or your marketing manager, must be personally involved. That site has to sell your company.

Visit the better sites in the industry to see what's out there. All of them aim to engage and educate, and each comes across as unique. There's your model.

Today a great Web site is a choice. In five years, as the number of consumers using the Web as their primary information source expands, it will be a necessity. Think of how much further ahead you'll be if you create an engaging site now rather than wait.

Jim Cory, Editor