It's easy to forget how quickly the Internet has become an important part of our everyday lives. Only 10 years ago, someone could utter the phrase "information superhighway" without drawing derisive laughter. And Google was still just a funny word fifthgraders heard in math class (and it was spelled googol, BTW). A mouse was something most people didn't want anywhere near their desks. You get the idea.

Today, it's hard for many of us to imagine planning a vacation, buying a car, or even ordering a pizza without consulting a computer beforehand. It's obvious, too, that few people would buy a spa or hire a pool contractor without first checking things out on the Net.

Since those early days, as the Web's influence was growing, spa and pool dealers, builders, manufacturers and service companies staked out their own little claims. "OK, then, we've got a Web site now. Maybe we'd better add some phone lines to handle all these calls. I mean, everybody in the world has access to Tim's Texas Tubs now!"

Sadly and predictably, Tim and those like him didn't see a lot of sales or even phone calls generated by their new sites, causing some to openly question this new technology and its commercial potential.

Today, everyone's got a site, and most understand that to be without one is to basically not exist in potential customers' eyes.

Still , they think, it'd be nice if a few more people visited my site . The good news is there are ways to make that happen, and they don't have to cost a lot of money — or any money, for that matter. It's called search engine optimization, or SEO, and it's spawned a cottage industry of companies claiming they can help you bring more traffic to your site and turn more of those surfers into actual spenders. So what is search engine optimization?

"It has this long title and sounds really complicated, but really it can be distilled down to How do I get on Google? If somebody enters in 'spa dealer' and 'Orlando, Florida,' how do I show up? " says Jill Nebeker, AQUA Magazine's Web editor. "There are a couple of things, and it's a little pessimistic on my part, but it's hard for the little, local business to show up in search engine results where you don't have the marketing budget to be one of the Jacuzzis or Sundances of the world. And in a way small local businesses who are selling spas or pools, they're not going to want to come up if someone's looking for Jacuzzi or Sundance, because that's a more global search."

How, then, does a small company in the spa and pool industry come up in morelocal search results. Nebeker has several ideas, the first of which she says are basic and any Web designer should be able to handle.

"You shouldn't be paying extra for these," she says. "You don't need a search engine optimization specialist. I think that those are for the bigger players in the game, and that is just my opinion. Some people would probably disagree with that, foremost the ones who started those businesses!"

First Things First

Before getting too deep into planning an SEO strategy, ask your customers whether they've been to your site and ask yourself why you want them to visit it, Nebeker suggests.

"Once you determine that, then you can determine your action plan," she says. For example, "if you want to be the No. 1 seller of a certain kind of spa in Chicago, then you can determine your action plan from there.

"If, however, you're just hoping people come to your site because they're looking for spa dealers and they found your address and they want to find out a little more about your company — which I think is how people are mostly using the Web — then having a good site that people find is going to bring you customers."

If, on the other hand, you're doing e-commerce on the site, you might want to consider hiring outside help, she says, but the majority of dealers, builders and service companies in the industry don't fall into that category.

Things That Are Free

Once you determine why you want people to visit your site, the first thing you want to do is to look at your home page, according to Nebeker.

"There are a few things on your home page that will help you rank higher in Google or Yahoo! or MSN or wherever people are going," she explains. "The first one is the content on your page. You need to actually mention all of the important words you think people will be searching for. So 'pool,' 'spa,' the city, the state. Just try to get into the mind of your customer and think of what they're going to be searching for and then work those words into very readable marketing/promotion kind of copy."

That's important, Nebeker says, because of the way search engines like Google operate.

"They send out these spider robots that come through your page looking to see what words are on there and then they throw that into some kind of complicated mathematical formula and determine where you're going to show up in Google," she says.

The second spot on the site that demands some simple but important attention is the title tag, which is what shows up at the top of the browser page. Nebeker suggests you be very careful when choosing it.

The name of the business, city and state are places to start, but if the name doesn't really indicate what you do, you'll want to add that to the title page. For example, if you go by Tim's Texas Tubs, you'll want to include more information in a short tag line.

"The best thing to do is find someone who's good with marketing to come up with the tag line," she says. "You know, 'Pools and spas for your backyard world,' or whatever. But you don't want it more than 15 words, and really the best ones are between five and seven."

So to use our running example, the tag might read: "Tim's Texas Tubs, Anytown, Texas: Pools and spas for your backyard world." Twelve words.

The next step is to take all of the pages on your site and link them to one another in what Nebeker calls a "spider web."

"You need to link the pages on your site to other pages on your site, not just through a navigation bar but actually through the content," she says. "The other thing is if you can get other sites outside of yours to link to your site. One of the best things for a small, local business to do is to go to the chamber of commerce, go to anything related to your business within your city and get yourself on those sites.

"Anytime you have links to your site from other sites — not through banner ads but actually a link — you're going to increase your search engine ranking."

The fourth area of your site you'll want to pay more attention to is what's called meta-tags, which are similar to the title tags she explained above, only they're invisible to the Web surfer, according to Nebeker, These meta-tags, which a Web designer will hide in the "back end" of the site where it's not seen by surfers, have two key parts: keywords and descriptions.

"For the keywords, you'll choose about 15 words that describe the business," she says. As for the description, that should be under 15 words. "It should function as a sentence and it shouldn't be overly promotional. It should be more objective and descriptive."

Nebeker suggests the description include your business name, the city and state and a little about the products you sell.

For example, stating, "Tim's is the best! Forget the rest!" is not good meta-tag copy (no substance). Nor would "Tim's Texas Tubs: hot tubs, covers, pools, chemicals, equipment, toys and service" do the trick (not a sentence).

The search engines don't rely on meta-tags when ranking pages as much as they once did, Nebeker says, but they still do get looked at a bit by the so-called spiders the engines send out.

"And then the other thing is, once you've written the description of every page, then you go to Google and find their page about how to submit your site," she says. "You go to Google, you go to MSN, you go to the Open Directory Project (dmoz.org) and you enter your URL and then they usually have you enter descriptions." These descriptions, she notes, are often what shows up in Google after the link to your name. "So it's very important how you write that. You need to be accurate and also get people coming to your site.

"Those are the things that people can control without paying a lot of money."

Pay To Play

If you've done all of the above, and still feel like you want to do more to attract traffic to your site, there are an additional four things you can do, Nebeker says. Two are inexpensive, and the others aren't likely to break any business's budget.

The first one may seem obvious, and many companies are already doing it. If you're not one of them, you're missing out on an important angle in getting people to view your Web site.

"Put your URL on all of your marketing materials," Nebeker says. "If you have a pen that you give out to people, put your URL on that. If you have a Yellow Pages ad, put your URL on that. Put it on everything .

"Another thing is if you want people to come to your Web site and see it as more than a brochure, then have things on your Web site that you don't have anywhere else. Offer Web-only specials."

Nebeker cites a pizzeria in her hometown of Boise, Idaho, that has a name-of-the-day promotion. For example, Aug. 15 could be Daniels' Day, and radio listeners or television viewers are invited to go to the company's Web site to find out how to redeem their free pizzas.

"The third thing is to consider doing banner ads on an area site, local to your city," she says. "I think the newspaper's Web site is a good place to start. Find out what it'd cost to get a banner ad made up and run on that. Then see if it increases your business, because you should be able to track how many people go from the site that's serving your ad to your site."

Increased business is hard to quantify, she admits. "The Web, I think, is more about brand recognition and people finding out information about you, and if your site is good, then they'll want to come in and then purchase."

Lastly, Nebeker says dealers and builders may want to consider Google AdWords. If you choose this route, "you may want to consider teaming up with an area Web design company that's got experience working with larger businesses in buying those words and just navigating that world of getting you to show up on Google. It's just a matter of how global you are going. I think for the small to mid-sized pool and spa dealers, that wouldn't be my first recommendation."

In other words, smaller businesses, including the vast majority of spa and pool dealers, builders and service companies, can get a lot of bang without spending a lot of bucks to increase Web traffic and brand awareness, make the phone ring a bit more often, and, in the end, increase business.