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Having an effective website is one of the biggest priorities for a business owner, but making the most of your online presence can still be a challenge. Real Estate Business learns how you can construct a winning website

MANY REAL estate agents have a website simply because everyone else has one. Some appear to be dedicated to selling houses that are already on other listing portals.

The state of real estate agency websites has Peter Brewer, a trainer for online and social media marketing, almost screaming in frustration.

“All they need is content that makes people want to come back, and it’s exactly the opposite of what most real estate agents are doing now,” he says.

Instead of ‘flogging houses’, Mr Brewer believes it is all about becoming an icon in your area.

“It’s about community. If a consumer is only in real estate mode every seven years, they don’t really have too many reasons to come back to you on a regular basis,” he says.

“So agents need to start putting interesting things about their local community on their sites, not just their boring listings.”

But having a great site is one thing. Being listed on the front page of Google is the Holy Grail for businesses, with companies spending huge amounts on search engine optimisation (SEO) to achieve this goal.

That said, there are many tricks you can use right now to boost not only your ranking on Google, but to keep consumers coming back and staying longer.

James Rubulis started out as the head of a very successful real estate agency, but after the success of a software system he built, he moved to his company Aro Software.

“It was purpose built for us, we didn’t ever intend on selling it elsewhere,” he says. “But we sold out of real estate in the early 2000s and became a software company after that.”

And after building sites for Ray White, First National and Elders, Mr Rubulis uses his experience as a principal to build a site that both agents and consumers can appreciate.

“Anyone selling their property will look for an agent in their local area. They’re going to look at which websites appear first, and then choose out of those which ones they want to contact,” he explains.

Things have changed a lot for Mr Rubulis since building websites in the 1990s, with the move to cleaner and crisper sites being the most noticeable difference.

“What’s happened over the years is that people have realised that more is not better online. Particularly in the early days of the internet, sites were cluttered and busy. They wanted to have everything on there all at once,” he says.

“People have realised that clients aren’t there to read your life story, or what team you support. They don’t want to see a hundred different links to things you find interesting.

“They are there for a purpose, and the quicker and easier it is for them to find the page that fits their purpose, the happier they’ll be.”

After eight years of clutter and poor navigation, one network learned this the hard way.

Stephanie Holmes, head of marketing initiatives at Victoria-based network hockingstuart, knew it was time for a change.

“The reason we needed a new site was more about functionality rather than look and feel, but that has been a bonus through the process,” she says.

“The old site has been around for eight years now. When it first arrived it was great and ahead of its time, but times have changed – it wasn’t optimised for search engines and it didn’t even have the capability to do that.”

Ms Holmes was one of the main drivers for the group’s new site, which was launched earlier this year.

“Consumers are getting more and more online savvy, but they’re also quite time poor, so there was a lot on that old website which was interesting, and it’s still there,” she says.

“But when people want to sell, lease, buy and rent, it’s not good if they have to look too hard for it.”

Mr Rubulis calls it the ‘five second rule’.

“If someone can land on your page, and find what they want within five seconds, it’s a good site. If they’re struggling to find the things they’re looking for, you’re going to lose traffic,” he says.

“The simpler a site is, the better it is. You can have all the content you want on there, but organise and sort it effectively.”

Travis Williams, from web design company Box+Dice, agrees that keeping it simple is the best way to success.

“A good design is when the value of a site far outweighs the effort needed to experience it,” he says. “You need to avoid original or unusual user patterns. Asking a user to re-think the way they find information can cause frustration.

“Along with a nice, clean and easy brand, simple and predictable navigation is essential.”

According to RP Data, Australian homeowners will move on average every nine years, less frequently than the anecdotal seven years.

This means that just once a decade, a seller will look at your website.

For Mr Brewer, that’s not good enough.

“You’ve got to bring your traffic back more than once every decade, so you need to start engaging your local community,” he advises.

“You’ve got people from all over Australia, and some from overseas, on your site and they don’t know anything about your local community.

“How would an investor know if it’s a nice place to live if they’ve never been there? So the more stuff on an agent’s website that paints a picture of your patch, the more people are likely to fall in love with it.

Good content is one of the main drivers behind SEO, but most principals don’t know where to start.

“I did an audit for a major franchise group in Australia,” Mr Brewer says.

“I looked at their individual office websites, and 62 per cent of them had not completed the areas that said ‘Why sell with us?’, ‘What’s on’ and ‘Our community’.

“For 18 months they left these sections blank. It surprises me that these sites were even live, when the goal for a real estate agency these days is to showcase that they are the trusted local adviser.”

Ms Holmes believes that great content is imperative, but sorting it and making it easily accessible to clients is just as important.

“We let Onthehouse go crazy with the design, and they came back to us with a few ideas that were quite different from the traditional hockingstuart site and colours,” she says.

“Our one rule was to keep the red, but they took our existing colour palette and darkened up the greys to give it a more contemporary feel. There was a lot of white space on the old site, as well as it being quite cluttered.

“Now we’re getting feedback from both customers and franchisees that not only is it easier to search and navigate around, the look and feel is more inviting, which has caused us to see people spend 500 per cent longer on the site.”

Ms Holmes knows that tracking the success of a new website is vital, but knowing what to track is the key.

“Personally, I think a smaller amount of engaged people is better than having a lot of hits and not having anything come from it. It just shows you that your site is not what these people want,” she says.

So while most principals will look at the number of hits, successful websites will keep consumers on the page for longer.

This view is supported by Greg Ellis, managing director and CEO of REA Group, who said in a speech last year that the internet is no longer just a distribution tool.

Mr Ellis, in a speech at an American Chamber of Commerce in Australia business briefing in Sydney, said user engagement was more important when assessing a website’s success.

“The internet allows you to have a live, dynamic conversation and understand about what you are doing with a customer’s or client’s products 24/7,” he said.

“So when we think about usage stats at REA, we don’t think about unique browsers anymore, we think about time on site and levels of interaction.

Google Analytics is the starting point for tracking your website’s success. Even if you have no idea how to compile an online marketing strategy, Analytics will show you if it’s working, or if you need to change your tactics.

“With Analytics, you can monitor anything you’re doing and see how successful your site is,” Mr Rubulis said.

Analytics is also the best way to measure how well your SEO is performing.

“Everyone wants to get on the front page of Google searches. So the challenge for most agents is not only getting a great looking website, but to make it easily accessible,” he continues.

“It’s a cliché, but if you have the best website in the world, it’s useless if nobody can find it. People spend a lot of money on their website or in newspaper advertisements but spend nothing on SEO.”

Providing captivating content about your local area will keep people on your page for longer, which in turn boosts your ranking on Google.

“If someone logs on, and then leaves a few seconds later Google measures that and it affects your ranking poorly,” Mr Rubulis says.

“Having your website regularly updated also helps with your rankings, so putting up new content as well as linking to your social media platforms will reflect in your Analytics.”

Mr Brewer believes that people still see Google as the ‘shopping list of the future’.

“They’re wrong,” he says. “Google is the shopping list of today, and if you’re not on there, it’s game over.”

Mr Brewer claims that 87 per cent of people don’t go past the first page on Google, highlighting the importance of SEO.

“You need to ask yourself what you want to be famous for and start writing lots and lots of content around that,” he says.

But thanks to better internet speeds, agents have a secret weapon that can guarantee results if used correctly.

“The first thing I’d personally do is ask what the property managers most frequently-asked questions are, and then I’d create 10 one-minute videos about each question,” he suggests.

“Then I’d go to my sales department and do the  same thing again. Then you tag them and title them with the appropriate keywords so that when people search ‘How to rent a property in Manly’, your video will appear before any search results.”

Video can be one of the best ways to draw attention to your business. However, when it goes wrong, Mr Brewer believes the impact can be devastating.

“An agency that I was working with went to show me a 10:37 minute corporate video about their business, which they were very proud about. It cost them $40,000,” he explains.

“It was embedded in their website from YouTube and in the 18 months it’d been up, it had six views.

“They tried to tell me the numbers were wrong.”

But according to Mr Brewer, the video was an example of exactly what not to do.

“The video was posted by a YouTube channel owned by someone from one of their offices, who had no relevance to the company name,” he says.

“The title of the video was VHS.01.01, it was in the comedy category, there were no keywords about real estate or the location and it was over 10 minutes long.

“They failed in every category. You might love your business, but trust me: nobody wants to watch corporate masturbation for 10 minutes and 37 seconds.”

But getting to the front page of Google and generating thousands of hits a week will be all for nothing if you can’t convert them into listings.

“At the end of the day, you’re looking for a return on your investment,” adds Mr Rubulis.

“And even if you have people sticking around your website for longer and you’re getting more hits, if it’s not impacting your listing numbers then you need to see where things went wrong – SEO isn’t a silver bullet that guarantees profits.”

While a 10-minute video showcasing your company isn’t the way to go, video can be used to create a following of dedicated market watchers.

Mr Brewer points to Haesley Cush from Ray White New Farm, in Brisbane, and his one-minute videos he posts once a month.

“He gets a few hundred views, and it costs him next to nothing,” Mr Brewer says.

“A once a month ‘state of the market report’ is great, there’s nothing wrong with that. But you’ve got to share it… you need to promote it through your social channels, your staff and your email lists.”

Daniel Goldstein, director at Visual Domain, knows that videos add value for agencies.

“There is definitely a desire for video from consumers, not just for listings but also for informative bites of information,” he says.

“But just posting a video online isn’t enough, which is why the service we provide includes all the relevant marketing, including keywords and optimisation to make sure the video is noticed.”

On the other hand, Mr Rubulis believes that sometimes websites can go a little too far in trying to stand out.

“A lot of people get carried away with their websites by putting weather widgets and news feeds all over the page,” he says.

“If they want the weather, they’re not going to the local agent’s website, nor will they go there to find out the latest news.”

With the popularity of social media, it’s no wonder many websites try to integrate Facebook and Twitter on their site, but Mr Rubulis thinks it adds little to your offering.

“I wonder how much of this social media hype is a ‘buzz’,” he says. “There’s always the debate as to whether social media is actually good for business, but I believe the effect of it is very minimal for corporate companies.

“Social media is about interacting and sharing experiences between people, not for business to sell their products.”

On a recent trip to New York, Peter Brewer noticed an interesting trend, which he claims will eventually appear in Australia.

“I had a meeting with Matthew Shadbolt, who is the director of interactive product and marketing from Corcoran Group, a real estate agency with 50,000 fans on Facebook, they are foursquare kings and have so many Tumblr followers that it’s about to overtake their Facebook fanbase.

“He said the next big thing for real estate is the ‘socially-enabled listing’,” Mr Brewer explains. “When you go to a listing in the future, you have just about every social channel represented on that page.

“There will be the five most relevant YouTube videos from that community. There will be a Twitter stream showing everyone using the name of the suburb or the suburb as a hashtag.

“The relevant Facebook groups and pages for the community will be there as well. That’s the one big thing that these guys are focusing on in Manhattan this year, and when he showed it to me, I knew that that’s it. That’s how true social media integration works.”

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