For years the Web site of Windowizards had been a backup information source for the company's newspaper and television advertising. David Goodman, a principal with the Bristol, Pa., window replacement company, acknowledges that many customers turned to the site because they missed the phone number in Windowizards' TV ad (prominently displayed at the top of the site's home page).

But homeowners who came to the site looking for deeper insights into Windowizards' product selection and services probably left unsatisfied, Goodman concedes. That's why the contractor recently upgraded the site with more “how-to” and “why” information. Now visitors can register to receive Windowizards' e-newsletter, which Goodman thinks will keep his company in the minds of on-the-fence prospects until they're ready to buy.

Today just a handful of home improvement companies are generating 25% or more of their leads from the Web, in some cases, strictly from the company Web site. But the fact that they do makes it clear that the Web holds huge promise for home improvement companies seeking a fertile (and low-cost) lead source. But what makes some sites productive, while others seem doomed, for the moment, to irrelevance? What elements will drive a prospect to actually connect with the company? And what combination of authority and entertainment does it take to hold the attention of homeowners seeking project information?

HOME IMPROVEMENT WEB TOUR In October, REPLACEMENT CONTRACTOR visited the Web sites of 25 home improvement companies. The good news is that nearly all were easy to navigate. The bad? That there's often little to distinguish one site from the next. Moreover, the clutter on some sites — icons, buttons, banners, pop-ups, images and sounds that sometimes can't be turned off — can be distracting and tiresome. Some sites appear designed to make visitors slog through numerous pages — theoretically prolonging their stay — to locate the information they came for.

Home improvement company Web sites can be technically dazzling or just rudimentary. Components such as before-and-after photo galleries, testimonials from exuberantly satisfied customers, and offers of free estimates (but rarely any pricing information) are common. Giveaways abound, from installation discounts to sweepstakes whose winners receive home improvements worth thousands of dollars. A few sites even make some attempt to be entertaining or humorous, such as that of State Roofing, in Monroe, Wash., which broadcasts its Monty Python–style jingle via an audio stream.

Downloads are popular on these sites, for everything from a $100 coupon being offered by American Home Design in Tennessee, to warranty information from Stanek Vinyl Windows in Ohio, to complete “shopping guides” from Renaissance Exteriors in Minnesota. Total Remodeling's site takes visitors on a 360-degree virtual tour of the contractor's showroom in Union, N.J. But Web technology can be as much a hindrance as a help: At least one browser blocked a pop-up on the site of A Cut Above Exteriors, in Portland, Ore. The pop-up offered customers who purchase seven or more windows $75 off each and six months of interest-free payments.

Total Remodeling's site includes before-and-after case studies, complete with project details and details about what the homeowners spent. Contractors in general are still trying to strike the right balance between images and words that will encourage visitors to linger. Words often win out, even if some sites don't go much beyond superficial product descriptions. Exceptions include Santa Ana, Calif.–based Dial One Window Replacement Specialists, which gives visitors text page after text page of information. The Web site of Archadeck of Charlotte, in North Carolina, includes a 1,100-word treatise on how to choose a contractor.

Lots of Web sites use visuals to share information with customers. Woburn, Mass., window replacement company NewPro emphasizes the quality of its windows with a nine-minute video tour of its manufacturing plant. Dixie Home-Crafters, based in Chamblee, Ga., uses animation to depict leaves clogging gutters as a way to promote its GutterGuard gutter protection product. K-Designers' site includes a two-minute video segment about the Gold River, Calif., company that aired on The Winner's Circle, a syndicated TV program hosted by former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw.

As part of our tour, REPLACEMENT CONTRACTOR also took a close look at four home improvement companies that are trying new methods to enhance their Web sites' effectiveness. The methods may differ but the goals are the same: To create the sense that the company can be trusted, and to prompt visitors to go from information-seeker to prospect status.

“I'M ON YOUR WEBSITE” Marshall Roofing of Lorton, Va., is among a growing number of replacement contractors whose Web sites make extensive use of streaming video. At, videos provide an overview of the company, along with conventional promotions for windows and doors, and tips on how to select a contractor, how a job estimate is performed, and the importance of proper attic ventilation, the latter a strong way to sell both the appointment and the job. “Our goal was to come across as a hometown company that's doing the right thing,” says Marshall Roofing's president, Troy Marshall. “We also wanted to convey that our company's services go beyond roofing.” Since launching this marketing program a year and a half ago, Marshall's company, which mostly does residential re-roofing, has seen a boost in siding and window sales. “Every day I pick up my phone,” Marshall says, “and someone on the other end says: ‘I'm on your Web site.'”