"Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don't know which half," department store magnate John Wanamaker famously complained around the beginning of the twentieth century.

If you read that quote and chuckled wryly in complete understanding (and then maybe cried a little), you're not alone. Many business owners are frustrated with the lack of ability to track their advertising and know with absolute certainty what's working and what isn't.

But a brave new world is gradually taking over. It's a world where more and more shoppers use the Internet to research and purchase. And it's a world where you can see-on a graph with almost to-the-customer-detail-how these shoppers found your website and what they did there. Here are just a few ways Internet technology allows you to discover what brings you the most customers.

1. Search engine marketing brings more of the right customers.

Do you use the Internet a lot? If so, you probably spend most of your time looking for things such as products, services or answers to questions. And you've likely used "search engines" such as Google, MSN or Yahoo. Search engines index websites and organize them to help people find what they're looking for. And these search engines can help customers find your website.

Your search engine paid advertising campaigns are based around "keywords." These are search phrases that customers type in when they're looking for products or services you provide, such as "Pensacola builder" or "industrial drill."

When you start your search engine campaign, you'll choose which keywords you want to advertise with based on what similar businesses are doing. But as you watch your statistics, you'll be able to isolate which searches bring you the most customers. And you'll be able to put more resources into those keywords, knowing that you'll get enough customers to pay for it.

The best part is, you pay only when your ad performs, since you're charged only when someone clicks on your search engine ad-unlike radio, TV or newspapers, where you pay regardless of how your ad does.

So with a search engine campaign targeting your best keywords, you can direct customers to your website at the exact moment they're searching for a product or service you offer-and you can see what keyword search led them to your site, so you know what your customers are looking for.

If search engine marketing had been around in the late 1800s, Mr. Wanamaker would have had nothing to complain about, as he would have known exactly where his advertising dollar was being spent.

2. Website testing increases customer acquisition.

Sometimes surveys don't work because people tell you what they think you want to hear to get the free gift card. Ask customers how they like your website and they'll say, "It's fine." But watch how they act on your site and you'll see what they really think. If 99 percent of your customers are reaching your site and instantly leaving, it's time to rethink the content or design. You can change your headline, your photos, your links and any other content that appears on your site to see what your customers respond to best.

It doesn't take a complete site redesign either. Implement gradual changes, a few at a time. Make just a 2 percent improvement each month, and you'll be doing 12 percent better in just six months.

If you have a lead form for customers to request contact, you can modify that, too. For example, studies show that asking for non-personal information first (such as "How many square feet is the building?" can warm customers up to giving you their e-mail address. Customers also like to get free information, so you can sometimes get them to give you their e-mail address in exchange for access to a useful paper or study.

In order to know what to change, you must have good statistics about your site. Your Internet Service Provider can usually help by giving you access to visitor activity logs. There are good companies that can give you more detailed statistics and help you see what's working and what isn't working on your website.

There are also reputable testing firms that help you test what works well by showing slightly different versions of your website to different customers and watching what they do. If customers respond well to one version, that becomes the new site. With website testing, you never have to sit around wondering why your website isn't working for you because you'll always be searching for things that work better. Your mantra should be test, test, test.

3. Surveys and ratings give your customers a chance to talk back.

Even though I expressed my doubts about surveys earlier, it's still vital to ask customers what they think. In fact, one of the important ways the Internet helps people make purchasing decisions is by providing the ratings and comments of others regarding products or services. If you're attuned to customer suggestions, complaints, and questions, you'll have even more information with which to improve your marketing. It's easy to get people to tell you what they think-just put a link on your website for customers to give feedback or rate your services and let the helpful comments flow in automatically.

Starting a dialog with customers by asking for feedback is one way to make sure you keep up with what's going on in your market, prevent customers from going to your competition and continue giving customers exactly what they want.

Do you feel like you're wasting money on traditional advertising but aren't sure what to do about it? Use the Internet to find out what works. Once you've found a headline, photo or promotion that works on your website, try using it in your newspaper advertising. After all, one of the things the Internet does best is use a virtual world to create sales in the real world.

Construction Business Owner, August 2007