Web Exclusive: An Internet perspective by Mark Deal.

The predominate theme of last month's column was the broken promise of the Internet. This month we'll talk about some of the ways the Internet can work for you. I'm sure many of you have found productive ways of using the Internet in your business.

First things first: forget about making money directly from the Internet. For the most part, surveying is a regional profession. Those of us who swing a pin finder don't cover a broad geographic area—at least in global terms. That is what the web is: global. There are millions of people online, trying to attract the other millions to get them to buy goods or services. A good website will certainly augment your business, but don't expect it to drive business to your door.

There are a few websites on the Internet that attempt to reach the masses and direct them to local surveyors. There are notable exceptions, but many of them are just a new twist on the survey brokerage business. A couple of good ones would benefit the surveying community, but since there are relatively low apparent barriers to entry, the market for these sites is overcrowded. Time will shake out the bad ones.

Speaking of websites, does your company need one? Maybe, maybe not. In a profession such as ours, a website is merely one aspect of a complete marketing plan. The odds are against a client stumbling across your site while looking for a surveyor. What you can do is drive your clients to your website for specific reasons, like to find out more about you, or to request a proposal, or even to check on the status of their project. As more of our clients begin to use the Internet as part of their normal business routine, this will become increasingly important.

The most positive aspect of the Net is the facility for communications between people, either individually or in groups. Many of my clients have now begun to use E-mail to discuss project issues as it avoids the problem of voicemail tag. It also makes it easier to keep everyone up to speed by carbon copying (cc:) other recipients. Blind copies (bcc) can be sent to parties involved in projects that need to remain anonymous.

E-mail is an obvious use of the Internet for communications. For it to work, there needs to be an active sender and a willing recipient. As businessmen and women, we certainly are conducive to exchanging E-mail with clients, potential or other. Many people however, prefer to window shop and kick the tires without having to speak with someone. You know the feeling: you go into a department store, spot an interesting shirt, and suddenly you are confronted by a salesperson. Many people find this uncomfortable, and it affects all business, not just retailers. Service providers such as surveyors should be cognizant of this consumer mindset. A website is a perfect way to overcome this. If you are like most good surveyors, your name and/or your business card gets passed around a lot. If that business card (or letterhead) has a website, chances are someone will visit it. You would be surprised how often this happens. I’ve set up my corporate site so I can unobtrusively track visitors. The number of people who browse the information there is amazing. More importantly, a large number of them are from my area. I’ve also been able to observe visits from some of the larger law firms that deal with commercial real estate and many commercial real estate brokerages. Does this translate into more business? I can’t be sure, but I do know that they come away with more information about our firm and surveying in general.

What a website visitor comes away with is an impression of your company and its abilities. Your website should convey the image that you want it to. Remember, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. While content of the site must be useful to the reader, the overall impression must be positive as well. Don’t go overboard with fancy technology like Flash. It’s cool, but most people looking for information won’t wait for it. Don’t overdo the graphics either, and make sure that your graphics are good. Javascript and Vbscript are minefields; not every browser interprets them the same way. If you need a script to do something for you, run it from the server side.

One cool item I’ve put on my website is HumanClick (http://www.humanclick.com). If you are at your computer when a visitor comes to your website, it invites them to chat and notifies you that there is a visitor at your site.If you have to be away from your computer, they will see a different image, such as, “Back in five minutes. Please leave a message.” It is quite cool and has generated many worthwhile leads in the two weeks I’ve used it. Feel free to visit our site at http://markdeal.rpls.net to see how it works; constructive criticisms are welcomed.

Another useful thing about having a website comes to file transfers. We all know it is possible to send a drawing file by E-mail, but you probably also know that some providers don’t let DWG files go through without scrambling them. Also, the practical limit on an E-mail attachment is 500K. Many drawing files easily exceed that. The way around this is to create a directory on your website that is password protected and index enabled. Then you can E-mail your client, give them the URL, username and password. They can navigate to the site at their leisure and download the file with their web browser. It doesn’t tie up their E-mail, and it comes through much more reliably.

Much of the information previously difficult to come by is now easily accessible. NGS (http://ngs.noaa.gov) has much useful information and software available for download. Need to know where an address is? Check out maps.yahoo.com. There are also a great bunch of links on this site you can use to find information (http://www.pobonline.com/FILES/HTML/POB_LINKS_toc/0,2411,,00.html).

The community nature of the World Wide Web has also led to a proliferation of sites specifically for surveyors where problems can be discussed and ideas exchanged. One such site is linked from POB Online at http://www.i-boards.com/bnp/pob/

I still have much to cover. Many of the positive benefits of Internet technology can only be used if you have a computer network in your office (assuming you have more than one person using a computer in the office). Next month, I'll talk about setting up an efficient network for very little cost and then move on to setting up an Intranet for your company to improve your productivity.