What's Out There
Over the past few years, the Web has grown from a novelty to a utility. That means most manufacturers, trade groups and government agencies are now online. And many of their Websites are useful and easy to use. Smart companies have learned that to translate visits into revenue, they have to keep you on their site, and they have to make you want to return. The result? Websites that provide much more information, and better tools and explanations so you don't have to be a techie to find what you're looking for. Depending on the site, there are several ways to search for specific information: by project, product category, manufacturer, price or features. It's also easier to bypass features you don't want. Many sites also let you save information from visit to visit so you don't have to start over each time. For example, Homeportfolio.com lets you set up your own password-protected portfolio of products you like. You can save these images and e-mail them to friends, architects, designers and contractors for feedback. In addition, many sites have added interactive features such as chats and message boards. Merillat Cabinets, for example, revamped its site to include a virtual design consultant that serves as a guide to the site and the remodeling process. These interactive features let Web companies offer truly personalized products and services. The "Holy Grail of the Web", ImproveNet, which started as a contractor-locator service, now offers a free project-estimating feature for kitchen and bath remodeling projects and roofing. You enter information about a project and get an estimate based on materials and labor. By changing the parameters—using laminate counters instead of solid surfacing, for example—you'll see how the cost of the project shifts. Lest you think Uncle Sam is behind the times, the U.S. Department of Energy offers an interactive program at www.homeenergysaver.lbl.gov that computes your energy use and makes recommendations for saving energy and money. The more information you enter, the more specific the advice. You even get an ID number, so you can return to review and update your file. Remember, six months is an eternity on the Web. So if you were unimpressed by a site, go back to it again. The site probably has changed for the better.
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