By John Upton
What’s better: a unique Web site or a Web site that earns money? Yes, they’re mutually exclusive. Our virtual selves are fickle gluttons for immediate gratification. In the seconds it takes a surfer to meander through a complicated site, he will more likely quit and ask Google for an alternative than continue to navigate.
Wrestling a homebuyer to a site, keeping him there, and then turning the visit into commission means making the Web site easy to find, easy to use and easy for a consumer to take the next step.
GETTING HOMEBUYERS TO YOUR SITE
An agent should include the Web site’s domain name in his marketing and advertising material. This includes email addresses. It’s common for consumers to check out a Web site from the portion of an email address following the “@.” Hotmail addresses, for example, waste a chance to plug a site.
But hardcopy promotion isn’t enough. Successful agents build up their search engine rankings. A Web site has a high search engine ranking if it’s returned first when a homebuyer searches for, say, “Andersonville real estate.” Oneupweb, a company that offers search engine placement services, found that traffic increased six-fold when companies moved from the second to first pages of search engine results.
Search engine rankings don’t come by accident, according to Realtor Randy Eagar, president of Computer Camp, a cottage industry that has sprung from the ashes of the dot-com bust to help companies win search engine prominence. The key to search engine mastery lies in a Web site’s domain name, page titles, content and inbound links.
“The domain name is the first thing a search engine robot reads,” says Eagar. “So if your Web site URL or domain name is orlandohomesforsale.com, and somebody types in ‘Orlando homes for sale,’ the search engine will list your site among the first.” Eager warns real estate agents off using domain names that are based on their own names, since those words contribute nothing to search engine results.
Many agents are assigned subdomains by their companies or have already built traffic to an existing domain. No problem, says Eager. Webmasters can create “pointers” or “redirects” to send users between domain names, making a domain name transition easy.
Every Web site page has its own title buried in behind-the-scenes code. The title is returned in search engine results, and it shows up at the top of a browser window. Page titles are the second-most important search engine factor after the domain name, even more important than page content. Page content can be tweaked by repeating strategic keywords (dubbed “keyword optimization” by the I.T. savvy). Agents needn’t bother with key words like “real estate” or “agent,” because millions of pages across the Internet repeat these words. Keyword optimization should be more specific, focusing on the agent’s specializations and location, location, location.
Consider this: Google’s first result for “failure” is George Bush’s biography, even though the word doesn’t appear in the domain name, content or title. What’s going on? Bush’s detractors have Google-bombed his site with inbound links using the word “failure.” The right wing is fighting back, and Michael Moore’s site has moved to second place. The lesson for agents is to load message boards and partner Web sites with keyword-rich links back to their own sites.
KEEPING HOMEBUYERS ON YOUR SITE
It’s not enough to bring surfers to a Web site. They must stay long enough to give an agent a crack at their business. This means sticking with classical Web site design. Customers expect a navigation bar (a menu) to run down the left hand side of the page. They want to see all the menu options in one place, not scattered along the top, bottom and sides. “Contact us” should have a phone number as well as email and postal addresses. Fonts should be black and consistent. Keep in mind that lengthy or page-wide blocks of text will be skimmed, rather than read.
Eager tells his clients to search the Internet for Web templates or for successful agents’ Web sites to replicate. Customers equate sloppy Web sites with unprofessional agents, while crisp, clear, well-designed sites can lift an agent’s bottom line.
Content needs to satisfy visitors, or they will leave. Sites that carry on about an agent’s family, upbringing or favorite movies will fail. Sites that provide a neighborhood’s community, school and amenity information and offer newcomers’ information packets will succeed.
According to Carol Schaffer, marketing director for Coldwell Banker Primus, the main reason consumers visit her company’s Web site is to view houses. “We try to make the site as consumer friendly as possible,” says Schaffer. “They can go in and look at the MLS listings for our market area. Our ultimate goal is to list and sell homes, so we want to give as them as much information as we can. We have a slide show for homes with multiple photos and visual mapping so they can see the home by satellite or hybrid view.”
MLS members can add the listings to their Web sites for a fee. Since homebuyers are usually more interested in viewing properties than anything else, they’re more likely to bookmark and stay on a site if it offers MLS listings.
MAKING MONEY FROM WEB SITE VISITORS
The RE/MAX Northern Illinois Web site (remax-ni.com) captures and shares homebuyer leads among 4,000 agents using an algorithm that considers, among other things, the agent nearest the homebuyer’s targeted neighborhood. According to the company’s CEO, Tom Regan, if the agent is slow to pounce on the lead, the system reassigns it to another agent.
“We keep tightening the clock,” says Reagan. ”It used to be 24 hours (before a lead was reassigned), then 12, and now much less.”
According to Chief Technology Officer Casey Reagan, the company has built a database of 160,000 clients and introduced turnkey Web sites for RE/MAX agents. All agents receive Web site training, a subdomain (eg, johnsmith.illinoisproperty.com) and a suite of tools and customization features to help with everything from email campaigns to contact management and interoffice collaboration.
“For a new agent, the Web represents a very quick line to new business,” says Casey Reagan. “It’s real time, it’s interactive and, if they understand it, they can do very well at it.
“People who never envisioned themselves using the Internet will get a hot lead and a quick close, and they take a complete 180,” he says. “It’s fun to see that kind of excitement.”
More than 20,000 Internet leads were accepted by RE/MAX Northern Illinois agents in January – a bumper month with over 400,000 people visiting the company’s Web site. RE/MAX is developing a global online strategy based on the Reagan brothers’ Northern Illinois approach.
Of course, homebuyers aren’t the industry’s only stakeholders. Developer Dubin Residential introduced online registration to help agents secure their rightful commissions when referring homebuyers to Dubin’s properties.
“Resale brokers are an important part of our business, and they represent a significant portion of our sales,” says Sales Director Mike Kelahan. “When they register their client online, they don’t have a fear of losing control. It’s not like we’re going to take a customer and go elsewhere with them.”
Agents referring their clients to Dubin’s properties register at dubinresidential.com. Dubin contacts the buyer and walks him through their properties. “We’re giving the agents a springboard to sell two homes at one time,” says Kelahan. Agents can show one buyer a home while another buyer is being handled by Dubin.
The registration tool is a cinch to use, and Kelahan says this is key to its success. “We live in the caffeine nation: We want what we want, when we want it, and we’re all hopped up on good quality coffee.”
They key to any Web site or online tool is its ease of use. It has to be easy to find, easy to use and easy to take the next step. As Kelahan puts it, “If you make it easy for people, they will want to do business with you instead of somebody else.” C.A.
Randy Eagar CRS, GRI
President Computer Camp
Website Architect & Positioning
Director Of Sales And Marketing
Chief Executive Officer
RE/MAX Northern Illinois
Cell: (720) 272-6667
Chief Technology Officer
RE/MAX Northern Illinois
Director Of Marketing
Coldwell Banker Primus Corp.