By Joe Hall
The internet has become well known as a force that can completely transform entire industries during the course of just several years. This is no exception to the Real Estate industry. Brokers, sales associates, appraisers, developers,landscapers, interior designers, home inspectors, auctioneers, and marketing firms are all using the internet to engage the real estate industry like never before.
To a great extent I am a beneficiary of this technological expansion. A little over a year ago I started a full time position as an IT Specialist and Web Developer for a real estate company. Prior to working in real estate I had been a freelance web developer for about 5 or 6 years. My time in the real estate industry has been extremely educational as I have been able to get a first hand account of how a unique industry can prosper through the internet.
Now, more than ever, the internet is one of the most vital elements to the continued growth and health of the real estate industry. To fully understand this, let us take a look into the not so distant past: In 2005 we saw a rising real estate market that spawned local real estate bubbles across the US. At the time The Economist wrote: “the worldwide rise in house prices is the biggest bubble in history”. During this period of rapid growth many onlookers became real estate agents in the hopes of profiting from what seemed to be never ending price inflations. However, as we all know, good things don’t last forever. In 2006 foreclosure rates started to rise and the bubbles started to pop! Now, two years later, housing figures are about at where they were in 2004 and even though prices are still dropping, the rate at which they drop is slowing down significantly. Many of the real estate agents that got into the market in 2005 are beginning to find other jobs as their real estate dreams fade. However, many long time brokers and industry experts are saying that this down turn in the market is a perfect time to “Get Back to Basics”. These same industry leaders are taking this time as an opportunity to strengthen their internal operations and to develop new marketing and public relations apparatuses.
This is where the power of Search Engines comes in. Some where around seventy-seven to eighty percent of homebuyers in the US now find their new home on the internet. With a figure like that, it is not surprising that there are many real estate professionals looking to the internet for help. There are many ways that real estate professionals can utilize the internet. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) tends to be the best option for brokerages and high volume sales associates that have preexisting web sites. The most obvious advantage that SEO brings is its ability to market individual listings. This will be addressed later. Another equally important element that SEO can add to an internet presence is developing market authenticity and authority. One example of this would be when a coworker of mine told me that she lost a client to another agent because the client couldn’t find her on the first page of a Google search. The client ended up listing the property with an agent on the first page. However, before real estate professionals dive into the cyber highway it is important that they and the SEO firms servicing them understand that real estate is unique.
Real Estate is Unique
There is no other industry on the internet like real estate. This is because there are three objectives to real estate marketing: market your listings, market yourself to sellers, and market yourself to buyers. Essentially, you have to both market a product and a service at the same time. Because of this many of the typical SEO rules change and research becomes more in-depth. Another unique aspect to real estate is local markets on the internet. Most SEO experts do their analysis with the luxury of being anonymous and isolated from their client’s competition. However, in real estate many competitors are people that you might do business with either down the street or in the same office, therefore SEO ethics and authenticity is just as important as face to face business ethics. If you are a real estate professional, it wouldn’t be wise contract your SEO work out to shady folks making cold calls with no references (trust me, there are allot of them!). Competing in local markets also makes it extremely important to master geographical keyword analysis and usage (more on this later).
From this point on, I am going to assume that you are a technology advanced real estate professional, or SEO consultant. If not, feel free to keep reading and ask your Web Developer or IT Specialist for assistance.
Building a SEO Strategy:
If real estate professionals want to benefit from the internet, then a strong SEO strategy is extremely important. In a competitive industry like real estate a few back links, and several meta tags won’t cut it anymore. In order to mount an aggressive SEO campaign you will need to start with an effective strategy. Keyword research is where we will begin our strategy. We will then study blogs and the effects of Web 2.0 technologies. Last, but definitely not least, we will take a look at link building.
Remember, how I said earlier that real estate was unique? Well, here’s where we get our hands dirty with the details. In order to get the most out of our keywords we need to use ones that cover 5 areas:
- General real estate keywords
- Buyers keywords
- Listing keywords
- Self promotion keywords
- Geographic keywords
I know this seems like allot of work, but, choosing the right keywords can make or break your traffic.
Ok, I am going to make this first part easy for you. General real estate keywords that aren’t market specific are easy to find. So easy that I went ahead and found a few for you (you can thank me later). You should use the keywords below in conjunction with the others that you find through the following analysis. You should probably do your own research and find a few more but this should get you started. General real estate keywords can be used in various ways, but they are most effective if used along with geographical keywords, they can be placed in copy text, title tags, meta tags, and pretty much anywhere else that they are logically appropriate. One of the tools that I use for keyword research is Google Trends. Click each keyword for further analysis.
When doing keyword research that targets buyers we need to ask our selves two questions: Who are our buyers? How, do they talk about us? These questions may sound silly and their significance will vary with each campaign. However, many real estate markets attract buyers from other states. For example, in the market that I work in a large portion of our buyers are retirees from northern states (I am in the south). Therefore we use general keywords that northern retirees might use such as “beach house,” “water front,” or “ocean view”. We also use our two letter state code to attract those from out of state. However, your buyers may be much closer. In which case, your keywords may be more specific, given that your buyers may be more familiar with your area. Either way strong “buyers’ keywords” will account for higher traffic and more sales lead conversions. Buyers’ keywords can be placed in most any logical location on the site. However, these types of keywords are perfect to use as backlinks because they are the target terms that we want to use for ranking on SERPs.
Listing keywords are equally important. With listing keywords we are using keywords to market our listing inventory. To choose good listing keywords you need to understand a few important things about your listings. Its probably a good idea to do the following analysis for each listing and write keywords that are tailored to each, this will be useful when writing ad copy as well. I am assuming that if you are a real estate professional reading this then you have already run a Comparative Market Analysis on all your listings, if not, then go do that now. Do this because you need to know on what end of the market are your listings? If your listings are on a higher end of your local market then using keywords that emphasize property features is important. This is because high end buyers often times let their ego do the searching. Keywords like, “granite countertops”, “hardwood floors”, and “vaulted ceilings” are all keywords that emphasize wealth and status. However, if your listings are on the lower end of your local market then keywords that emphasize that lower price will help market the listing to buyers looking for a deal or something they can afford. Specific keywords like this will target your audience and help automatically prequalify those interested, giving you more time to make the sale. Listing keywords should be used within ad copies and property descriptions.
Self promotional keywords should be easy for most real estate professionals. These are keywords that market individual sales agents or general brokerages. The most obvious of this type would be the agent’s name. When using your name as a keyword, make sure that you stay consistent through out. If your name is Jonathan A. Smith, don’t use John Smith at one location and Johnny Smith at another. Pick one name and be consistent with it. Also, think about the qualities that most homebuyers and sellers look for in a real estate professional. This is where adjectives like experienced, honest, trustworthily, and hard-working come into play. Franchise keywords can also be extremely helpful. Franchise keywords are keywords that are tied to your corporate franchise. These are amazing keywords because all of the brand marketing has already been done for you. Successful use of franchise keywords coupled with geographic keywords can be very powerful when establishing market authority. Take a look at this Las Vegas example to see what I mean. In this example all of the companies listed in organic results are local franchises. To be honest, if I wanted a house in Las Vegas and I ran that search query, I wouldn’t need to go very far down the list before I decided who to call. Use franchise keywords whenever possible; however, check in with your corporate head quarters first to make sure that you are using them correctly. And, if you don’t have a franchise and are thinking of getting one, you might be interested in who has the best franchise keywords:
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Geographic keywords are very important to successful real estate SEO. Essentially, this is because your main product is actual geographic locations. Many real estate professionals market their listings using the property’s address. This in itself creates strong geographic keywords. I would recommend using full property addresses including the zip code, every time. However, when choosing general geographic keywords there are several things you need to consider. Where are the majority of your listings? Are your listings in a specific subdivision or suburb? Do you want to market your self to different areas? What’s your license jurisdiction? After you have answered those questions take a look at where you do business, because now its time to understand how to pick the right keywords that describe your area. In some cases for example it might be a good idea to include your state’s letter code, in other cases it might not be. To get an idea of the importance of geographic keyword reasearch check out this example of Daytona Beach FL
Real Estate Blogs and Web 2.0
Most SEO experts will agree that blogs are incredibly powerful tools to achieve high search engine rankings. Blogs have been talked about in industry periodicals and mentioned at conferences and workshops. There are more than several services now offering free blogs to real estate professionals. However, these services are mostly successful at creating networking tools among real estate professionals, excellent for building professional relationships. In my opinion, they are not the best option to use as marketing tools to consumers. This is generally because there are other products and methods that do much better with SEO and other Web 2.0 platforms.
To get the best out of blogging, real estate professionals should have a blogging platform installed on their own web host and under their own personal domain name. Doing this allows the ability to have complete control over your blog and maximizes your web presence. This approach gives you direct ownership over your blog and you don’t have to compete with the free host for brand placement.
The most popular blog publishing platform is WordPress. Probably one of the biggest reasons that WordPress is so popular is because of its amazing SEO capabilities. It is no secret in the SEO world that Google loves WordPress. It is no coincidence that Google’s Chief Search Engineer, Matt Cutts, talks about WordPress alot. Therefore, when choosing a blog platform that needs to perform well with SEO, WordPress is the most commonsense choice.
There are two options when using WordPress. You can either use WordPress solely as a blogging platform that complements a site that sits on the same host. Or you can use WordPress as a full fledged Content Management System (CMS). Either will work well, but using WordPress as a CMS allows for non-technical real estate professionals to manage their site as needed. There are several great examples of how WordPress makes the best real estate CMS.
WordPress SEO Plugins and Tweaks for Real Estate
So, now that you have your new site or blog up and running with WordPress we want to make sure that it integrates well with the rest of the internet. Therefore we are going to tweak your WordPress a bit by using several plugins and other services.
- All in One SEO Pack – This is an awesome plugin pack that will allow you to completely tweak your blog for SEO. You can use these plugins to implement the keywords that we talked about earlier.
- Google XML Sitemaps – This plugin will create a Google sitemap compliant XML-Sitemap of your WordPress blog. Every time you edit or create a post, your sitemap is updated and all major search engines that support the sitemap protocol (like ASK.com, Google, MSN Search and YAHOO) are notified about the update. This means that your site will update in Google at the same time that you update it.
The above plugins will almost guarantee that your site will be crawled by Search Engines but to give your site more exposure you should utilize Update Services. Update Services are web based services that monitor web sites and keep a running log on when they have been updated. This can be helpful when trying to create backlinks. To integrate these Update Services into your WordPress you should click on the Options Tab and then click the Writing Sub-Tab. At the bottom of the page you should see a section called Update Services. Paste the below list of URLs in the empty text box and then click Update Options. Now every time your site is updated all of the services below will be contacted and backlinks will be created.
You may also want to create custom URLs that are SEO friendly. This is a good idea because every time you create a new post to market a listing the listing address will be embedded in the URL. To do this:
- Go to Options Tab and then click the Permalinks Sub-Tab.
- At the bottom of the page you should see a selection called, “Custom, specify below”
- Select this, and paste /%category%/%postname%/ into the text entry field.
This will create a URL structure that looks like http://www.example.com/beach-houses/225-pelican-lane/. “beach-houses” is your category and “225-pelican-lane” is your listing address. If you happen to create custom URLs with this method you might want to install the Redirection plugin so that any URLs that might change will continue to work in the future.
So now that we have our keywords, and we have our new blog setup, we can start to create backlinks to boost our rankings. Backlinks are links that point to your site and help boost your search engine rankings. We are going to talk about four different methods of creating backlinks. Directory submissions, Web 2.0 portals, developing link bait, and pay per action. We will also talk about less-desirable links and how to avoid them.
Getting your site indexed in different directories is one of the most proven ways of establishing s solid foundation in search engines. Some will say that directories do not hold the same weight they used to with search engines. While this is true, it is also important to note that even Google still recommends the use of directories. Because it seems that web directories have taken a substantial hit in quality, I would recommend sticking with directories that have proven authenticity. The Yahoo Directory is probably still one of the best on the net. Submission costs $299/year, but one year is all you need to reap the link benefits. Another highly recognized directory is the Open Directory Project (ODP). ODP is a free human edited directory that claims to be “the largest human-edited directory of the web.” ODP can really help you get great rankings. There are several other directories on the net that specialize in real estate, however many of them require reciprocal links. I tend to advise against reciprocal link schemes (more about that later).
There are several successful Web 2.0 portals specifically focused on real estate, and of coarse there are many more non-topic specific. Most Web 2.0 portals can be fertile cyber landscape for link growth and development. Activerain.com (AR) is a real estate Web 2.0 site that has many opportunities for building links back to your site. You can begin by starting a blog at AR and embed inline text links with in your post. As I have said earlier, I don’t think that free blogging services are the best method to house your company’s primary blog, but, they can help tremendously with links. Trulia.com is another real estate Web 2.0 site. At Trulia you have the opportunity to submit a XML based feed that syndicates your listings directly into their site. Not familiar with XML? Your web developer or MLS vender should be able to create a custom XML feed to Trulia’s standards (PDF). After your feed is created, your listings will appear in Trulia’s site and with each listing goes a link to your site. There are also many ways that you can engage consumers through Trulia. Each time consumers engage you will increase brand authority and linkback.
One of the best ways to attract more backlinks to your site is to create what is known as link bait. Link bait is any form of content that people want to link to. The best type of link bait for real estate web sites is free information. Some examples might include: developing relocation packs for people interested in moving to your area, local recipes that are unique to your area, general real estate information, and helpful web applications such as mortgage calculators.
One of the most controversial methods for building links is called Pay Per Action (PPA). PPA involves hiring writers and content creators to do a specific action. Normally this entails hiring a writer to blog about your company and to include text links to your site in their post. Some times it may involve posting in a blog, forum, or message board. In all insistences backlinks are normally expected. This method has received mixed reviews because there is a fine line between PPA and out right buying links, which is generally considered a bad thing. However, many have been able to run highly successful SEO campaigns that are largely dependent on PPA. In my opinion, PPA works and I would recommend using it in moderate doses. I believe that it works well because the content that is produced is always original, and thus reinforces authenticity. Some PPA networks are: PayPerPost, smorty, and reviewME.
Some SEO consultants like to say, “any link is a good link”. I will admit that all links can be valued in different ways. However, it is important to concentrate on building quality SEO friendly content that attracts organic links. In the same tone I would advise against reciprocal link schemes. Too many reciprocal links can come off as spam and you will loose consumer and search engine confidence. Building quality content, will insure that your site develops a strong internet presences that search engines will respect.
So are you ready to dominate Google? If the answer is yes, then its time to get to work. I am confident that if you take the steps above your company will be at the top of the search results in no time. But remember, just like the real world, real estate on the internet is very competitive. SEO will need to become a normal part of your business operations. But after you start generating more and more sales leads you will soon discover that all your hard work will pay off, not only in increased web site visitors, but hopefully in more commission checks!
This is an entry to Marketing Pilgrim’s 3rd Annual SEM Scholarship contest.