Why Search Engine Placement Is Mission Critical for Realtors

RISMEDIA, Jan. 23, 2007-Location, location, location: The old adage in real estate has taken on a new meaning and a new urgency in the age of the Internet.

It’s no longer just a property’s physical location that matters but also the placement of a broker’s ad on the major search engines. The top of the first page a Web surfer using a search engine sees is the new Holy Grail, and a whole sub-industry has sprung up to help agents and brokers get there.

“Search engine optimization is a specific kind of art, a kind of science by itself,” says Jeff Smith, chief technologist for Big Band Idea Engineering, a San Diego firm that aims to do just that.

To that end, Google recently introduced Google Base, allowing real estate brokers, among others, to load-for free–their information into the mega-search engine’s database in a way that makes it most accessible to consumers.

“The real estate industry has embraced it and been aggressive in using it,” reports Justin McCarthy, Google’s strategic partner development manager for real estate and formerly the associate editor of the New York Times Information Group, from 1993 to 1996, before the newspaper went on-line.

And with the market shifting from sellers to buyers, experts agree, a dominant search engine presence is more important than ever.

It’s a cyberspace version of the tough competition for front page real estate in print journalism. Just as newspaper reporters like to see their stories played on the front above the fold – the first place most readers look – so do brokers seek the most prominent placement on brand name search engines such as Google, Yahoo, AOL, and MSN.

Ways to win the golden placement include outright purchase of the front page space and designing a web site with phrases or “tags” that search engines most frequently find. The latter strategy requires sophisticated knowledge of search engine “algorithms” or formulas, also known as “recipes,” which, like cherished dishes at fancy restaurants, are often closely held. “It’s not something you want to place in the hands of someone who doesn’t understand it,” says Smith.

Indeed, this brave new world has its own language: SEO stands for search engine optimization, not to be confused with CEO, which means, well, you know. Then, there are link farms, indiscriminate linking to other sites, a no-no with major search engines; and landing page or splash page, where you want searchers to land first on your Web page, so you can track who and how many are visiting your site, also known as hits.

Those in the industry speak of “organic” links, which means not sponsored or paid for by the click of a mouse (known as pay per click), or otherwise “enhanced” with logos, which cost extra. Not that there’s anything organically wrong with paid advertising; it draws customers to your web site and it’s a search engine’s largest revenue source. “To have any sort of presence-such as a logo or picture-you pay for that,” said Google’s McCarthy. “Our model is 99.9 percent of our business comes from advertising.” At Google, it’s called “Ad Word,” with brokers bidding up the price of pay-per-click top placement.

Three or four years ago, McCarthy says, the very term pay-per-click evoked quizzical looks. But no more. “The cat is out of the bag,” he said.

In the SEO business, “Trust is a big thing,” says Smith. Thus, the website of Discover San Diego, which contains a real estate link, is being updated to boost its “trust” quotient among users, according to Smith, whose firm has taken on the job.

Adds Big Bang CEO Glenn Bourgeois: “It’s been a huge effort to optimize a large number of templates for San Diego real estate-related phrases. We will be aggressively pursuing a dominant position in the San Diego real estate search rankings.” Translation: Make sure the website contains phrases search engine “robots” find, or, in SEO lingo, “spiderize.”

“The site ranking right now is not amazing,” acknowledges its owner, Nadiv Wilf. “When the new site comes out, it will be optimized a lot better with the right key words and crawlability.” Spiders, you need to know, crawl all over your site. For the real estate industry, it’s a new-and essential-language.

Even as search engine companies, such as behemoth Google, market products to capture more information on their sites, and thus more advertising revenue, smart brokers are evaluating which ones are most deserving of their advertising dollars.

Prudential California Realty is going through just such a process, assessing Yahoo, Google, and Trulia, which is real estate-only or “vertical” search engine. “We’re monitoring everything closely and we’ll continue to enhance the relationships that are working best for us,” said Sherry A. Chris, PruCal Chief Operating Officer.

Yahoo generates so many clicks, Chris said, “it is best to qualify them.” Thus they go to a live call center for further vetting before they are referred to specific PruCal agents. With Google and Trulia, leads click through directly to the agents.

“Yahoo is one of the most highly trafficked sites, period, and it has been involved in the business of real estate longer than both Google and Trulia,” Chris says. “Google has been selling key words for some time, but this (Google Base) is their entrance into the real estate business of putting listing inventory onto their site.”

With Google and Trulia, she said, “we know how many click throughs we’re getting but not how many actual sales. We’re in the process of building landing pages that will allow us to capture more information and track the number of sales.”

Chris said Google isn’t charging her company for this service, while Yahoo and Trulia are. In the case of Yahoo, she said, the agent pays a referral fee on a closed transaction, with part going to Yahoo and part to PruCal, to fund its call center.

“Right now, it’s too early to tell which is best,” she said. “My advice to brokers is that testing different products and services for nine to twelve months is the best way to determine where you end up putting your advertising dollars.”

Jamie Glenn was director of product-real estate and classified at Yahoo before moving to San Francisco-based Trulia as vice-president for product management. The firm launched a year ago in California and nationally this September.

“We’re focused on real estate, tailored to that market, so we can really focus on information that is relevant in the buying and selling process,” says Glenn. “We provide comprehensive information about the local market place, what the neighborhood’s like.”

If Trulia is not yet a household word among Web surfers or real estate brokers, the firm expects to grow by “word of mouth,” says Glenn. “Once people find us, they use us and tell their friends. We’ve also worked on relationships with brokerages across the country, the Prudentials, the Weicherts. They promote us as well.”

At Trulia, real estate firms pay for featured listings, based on the pay-per-click model that Google also uses. But both search engine firms say relevance also counts. Top ranking only occurs, Glenn said, “if they match our search criteria.” Trulia will also add a firm’s logo, for an additional fee. The basic “organic” listing is free but doesn’t guarantee prime placement.

The market slowdown is helping Trulia along with other search engines. “What we’re seeing,” says Glenn, “is that brokers and agents being are more conservative in their return on investment” spending. “There’s a shift from off-line to on-line because it’s more cost effective. So it’s actually a good time for sites like Trulia.”

Then there’s the e-mail browser route to that cherished placement on the search engine front page. Mike Parker is senior vice-president and director of sales and marketing for the newly-formed Compass Internet Systems, which seeks to maximize search engine placement, for a modest monthly fee of $239.

“Google is so powerful and so ubiquitous, everyone assumes that’s where all the business is in the real estate field, and that’s not the case,” Parker says, asserting that “a vast majority of e-mail users use Yahoo and MSN, not g-mail.” More often, he says, that means that persons tend to use the search engines already on their e-mail screens.

Parker thinks real estate firms can rise to the top of search engines organically, that is, without paying for placement, by including in their sites the most search engine-friendly “title tags” and the more descriptive “meta tags.” “You’re trying to synchronize with as many searches as possible,” Parker says.

“Then you do the somewhat labor intensive search engine placement, a complicated, proprietary process that brings in links and content and is submitted to the search engines regularly,” he adds. “Webmasters, the people who build web sites, often know very little about search engine placement.”

Parker’s firm’s monthly fee includes what it calls its “Web Reporting Tool,” a daily e-mailed report on everyone who comes to your site, where they are from, what search engine sent them to you, what link referred them, what pages and listings they looked at on your site. “You can tell what part of your marketing is working,” he says, “once you get your arms around this reporting system.”

Sherry Chris would certainly agree, but she’s not yet ready to abandon all print advertising for the Internet. “The proper positioning of your listings on line is the way to go, but there needs to be a balance, too,” she says. “Some companies have pulled out completely from traditional print. We’re not going to do that, because we realize there is value in both.”

Eugene L. Meyer is a former Washington Post

reporter and editor who freelances from Silver Spring, Maryland.

Bonnie Burns SEO Director

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