Cover Story: Secrets of Online Success

by Chicago Agent

Creating a great website that focuses on consumers — and generates leads — takes not only time and effort, but also an understanding of one’s target audience and their needs. Overall, a great Realtor website will let potential buyers and sellers know what the agent can do for them.

By Meghan Boyer

The Internet has become an integral business tool that can attract clients and market services 24/7 for agents. Not all websites are equally effective, however, and there are steps Realtors can take to improve their sites’ visibility and traffic.

“Having a website has become as elementary as having a business card. It means you are in business,” says Yuval Degani, owner of Dream Town Realty. “If you want to be positioned as a serious expert, you must have a serious website, not a bio page on your company site,” because consumers often compare Realtors by “Googling” their names, he says.

Many agents create websites that are “glorified personal brochures,” says Judi Bryan, a broker with Executive Realty Group in Bloomgingdale. Consumers care less about agents’ awards and designations and more about “what we can do for them that will actually benefit them,” she says. A Realtor website should focus on prospective buyers and sellers, including important information for them to know about homes, the area, the buying/selling process, potential risks and the realities of the market.

Creating a great website that focuses on consumers — and generates leads — takes not only time and effort, but also an understanding of one’s target audience and their needs. Agents can accomplish this by conducting research and including a number of helpful elements, such as blogs, search functions, social media and more.

Online Tactics
Launching a website without spending the time to make it a good one will not generate results for Realtors, says Ted Guarnero, a Realtor with Baird & Warner in Chicago. One of his early sites did not produce leads successfully, and he realized some of the problems with it after learning about search engine optimization or SEO.

SEO is a tactic to increase the visibility of websites in search engines through unpaid search results. It differs from search engine marketing, which focuses on paid search listings. The SEO process involves increasing the amount of visitors to a site by elevating its ranking in search-engine results through specific tactics, such as use of keywords and backlinks.

“For a Realtor wanting to do this, spend some quality time, read about SEO, learn about Google and learn about website designs,” says Guarnero. It’s also helpful to hire consultants and work with mentors who can guide the Realtor and offer advice, he says.

SEO alone, however, may not guarantee success. An agent still needs to create a great website overall, says Degani.

“The search engines are pretty smart, and the days of successful bad sites with heavy links are long gone,” says Degani. He warns against placing too much emphasis on SEO tactics, because it can be expensive and time consuming to build a top website that ranks highly in search engine results. “Consider who’s competing for meaningful placement: newspapers, national real estate websites and every brokerage in town. It’s a hard game for an agent to play,” he says.

Search engine marketing also has dubious results, says Degani, who has tested it and found it does not deliver a good return on investment. “A lead (e-mail address captured) could cost as much as $150 on an agent website, because they don’t convert as well. This is why you rarely see agent sites spending on pay per click,” he says.

Meaningful Evaluations
Research is important in creating a successful website, says Judy Greenberg, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Buffalo Grove. “I would suggest that a real estate agent first ‘Google’ a city and see which sites come up and which ones are given the highest ranking,” she says. This will show which have the most relevant content, and they are the sites agents will want to research and emulate.

Agents with existing sites can evaluate their content to find out what is and isn’t working. Currently, Greenberg is working on creating a new website. With her marketing director and website consultant, she looked at her current site from informational, usability and SEO perspectives, and used her findings to develop the new site.

Matt Dollinger, vice president of strategic development with @properties, revamped his company’s site and launched it in November 2009. “We changed just about everything to the site,” including search, layout and design, he says. “All of this was done based on client and agent research. We also hired some very talented designers and consultants to aid us in the usability of the site based on how consumers interact online.”

Dollinger looks at what other companies are doing to learn online best practices. However, before implementing any site changes, he always asks this question: What benefit does this deliver to our agents or their clients?

The time Realtors spend maintaining their sites varies. Guarnero spends roughly three hours daily on his site assigning leads, viewing Google Analytics data and writing unique copy. Bryan is investing a lot of time in her site right now, because it still is new. In the future, she anticipates spending roughly two hours per week on her site, including blogging time.

Website costs also vary. Greenberg makes a small investment for her consultant’s services and licensing fees for content, “but as a lead generation tool, it more than pays for itself,” she says. She also pays an additional vendor monthly for “home search” functionality on her sites.

Ultimately, a good website does not need to cost a lot. “You can get a very good site for a few thousand dollars,” says Guarnero. “I think from a $1,000 and from a labor of love, you can have a site that can get searched.”

Be the Expert
One of the most significant tactics an agent can use to get business online is blogging and commenting, says Degani. “Write good, meaningful content, deliver value and do it in a highly personalized way. Position yourself as an expert, and move consumers to consider your services,” he says.

Greenberg determines what information to include in her blogs by staying up to date on current events in the community and understanding the topics that interest people in real estate today, she says. It is also helpful that she lives in the area in which she works and can blog about the aspects of the community she finds most special.

“A great blog site will get as much traffic as a great article, but it also brings you as the go-to guy,” says Guarnero. “For some reason, content they look at it as just raw information, but a blog, I can put my own spin on it and my own personality.”

Agents can promote themselves and their sites through a combination of traditional marketing and social media, says Degani. “Blog, blog and blog some more. Tell it like it is, with your distinct flavor, with candor and show off your expertise,” he says. Twitter and Facebook also are useful tools that can help agents showcase their neighborhood knowledge and expertise. “The explosion of social media gives agents an opportunity to shine,” he says.

Traditional marketing methods can help an agent’s URL gain attention. Agents should put their URLs on all of their mailings and also on for-sale signs, says Degani. Agents also should include a link to their websites in every outgoing e-mail and add the link to online venues and networks, including LinkedIn, Active Rain, Twitter, Zillow, Trulia, Yahoo groups and more, says Bryan.

Search Functions
One of the most helpful website features for consumers is a search function that allows them to search for homes in multiple ways, including by address, subdivision, neighborhood, map or schools. “The search button is the most important button,” says Greenberg.

Most Realtors use a basic home-finder search, but consumers simply will move on to the next site if they don’t get enough information, says Guarnero. The search function on his site returns aerial maps, schools, price changes, assessment information and more. His site also includes neighborhood searches.

Integrating IDX into her website has been very helpful for Bryan, because consumers and search-engine “crawlers” are not taken away from her website to the IDX site. “The distinction is important because it tells the search engines that the listing content is on my site” and not on the IDX vendor site, she says.

Having current listing information also is important, says Bryan. Several popular websites require agents manually add their listings, but the information can become stale easily because listings in those systems often are not kept current, she says. “I chose a system built with an integrated IDX feed from my MLS whereby the listings are always current because they are drawn from my MLS, but I retain the flexibility to customize the presentation of my own and my office’s listings,” says Bryan.

Measuring Success
While many variables, such as branding, are not readily measurable, others are, notes Degani, who measures success by the sales the site generates.

“Hits, unique visitors and the like are all good measures as well, but our key measure of success is the number of registrations we receive monthly,” says Dollinger, noting registrations have increased almost 200 percent since the launch of @properties’ new site. Dollinger also tracks a significant percentage of closed deals back to leads generated and nurtured through the website.

For Greenberg, between 20 percent and 30 percent of her business is because of her websites. She contacts leads by phone or e-mail within the first 30 minutes after they request information.

A website is worth the effort when it generates high-quality leads that convert into appointments, says Bryan. A quality lead includes accurate names and contact information of people looking to buy or sell real estate.

“While there are many things to like or not about any website, the bottom line is whether it produces viable leads,” Bryan says. “It’s great to have a lot of hits to a site or page views, but if the person who visits a site doesn’t fill out a form or send an e-mail or make a phone call to the agent, the site will be an exercise in frustration.” C.A.


Judi Bryan
Broker, Executive Realty Group

Yuval Degani
Owner, Dream Town Realty

Matt Dollinger
Vice President of Strategic Development, @properties

Judy Greenberg
Agent, Coldwell Banker
Buffalo Grove

Ted Guarnero
Agent, Baird & Warner

Read the rest of Vol. 7 Issue 20

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