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GOOGLE – mapping the road to homeownership

publication date: Nov 29, 2010
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Google UK’s James Bacon and Bickey Russell


The internet, not the high street, is the new battleground for business among estate agents. If you want to find a new house, you don’t get into the car, or wander the high street agency shops – you go online. Every agent has a website, every agent is signed up to one portal or another. Google is often at the centre of internet property search and every agent needs to understand its role in getting a housebuyer to his website. But the agent also needs to understand the behaviour of housebuyers in how they search for a property online.


Over the past two years the UK property market has been going through one of the toughest periods in its history. Most property businesses we’ve spoken to have had to dramatically rethink their business strategy to ensure that they are being as efficient and effective as possible. In many cases this has lead to a shift in focus from offline to online marketing because the Internet is now the place where homebuyers conduct their search for a new property.


With 72 per cent of UK households now having broadband connections (source: Ofcom CMR, 2010) and growing all the time, the Internet is being used in increasingly tailored and sophisticated ways by house hunters to find and research property. The ability to search for almost any kind of information that may influence a property purchase has been the main reason why the Internet has become so popular with homebuyers. While property portals, estate agents and house builders offer prospective buyers incredible levels of detail on individual properties, home buyers can also research local areas, schools, transport links and many of the other important factors while they are online.


Despite it being common knowledge that most people in the market do the bulk of their research online there has been minimal information available on how this online research process works. There is limited data available on the kind of sites house hunters look for, how many sites they visit or even how long the research process typically lasts. For marketers and property businesses, understanding how the property seekers’ consumer journey online looks is key to planning effective marketing campaigns.


This is why, earlier this year, Google commissioned Nielsen to conduct a ‘clickstream’ study to establish some clear insights on the property space online. The primary objective for the study was to obtain an in depth understanding of the user journey towards finding a new home online.


Here are some of the results:


The pathway to purchase
Your home is the biggest purchase you’ll ever make which means deciding on which property to buy is not an easy task. With so many factors influencing the final home buying decision the whole process can be complicated and lengthy.


One of the first things we were able to see from our study was that the online journey leading to a decision on a property is indeed very complex! Prospective buyers access many different online resources and dip in and out of them at different stages of the journey. When we compare this with similar studies we’ve conducted in the finance and travel industries, we see that the process is considerably longer for property seekers where many different types of sites are visited.


Throughout a typical journey, the most active user visits, on average, 13 different sites a total of 47 times. Property buyers spend around 120 days searching for properties on the Internet and could be active online anywhere between three and five hours throughout the process. To give some context from Nielsen clickstream studies into other sectors, the average journey for Finance (credit cards) is closer to 50 days and for Travel (holidays), its about 30 days.


One common theme is that Google remains at the centre of the process, linking people to the information they are looking for.
This fragmented journey means that the job for marketers becomes a lot harder – you can’t just rely on being in one place.


Online, your business and marketing messages need to be present in multiple places and over a long period of time to give you the best chance of engaging with potential customers. Owing to this, it is important to ensure that, where possible, the kind of messaging you communicate to buyers is relevant and differentiated for each stage of the consumer journey.

In the rest of this article, we will go through some of the key findings from the Clickstream study and hopefully we’ll be able to provide you with insights and recommendations to guide your marketing strategy.

 
How buyers engage with websites
A top priority for any website owner is understanding how visitors are engaging on your site. The Nielsen study looked more closely into what property buyers actually did when they visited a property website, especially in cases where a site visit led to a conversion.

CONVERTERS
‘Conversion’ is a common term used when measuring website performance, it refers to when a visitor completes a desired action on the site as set out by the marketers and/or website owners. Successful conversions are interpreted differently by individual marketers, advertisers, and content creators. Graph 1
To online retailers, for example, a successful conversion may constitute the sale of a product to a consumer, while for content creators, a successful conversion may refer to a membership registration or newsletter subscription. For the purposes of this study, we collaborated with Nielsen and established that a conversion in the property sector would constitute any visit where a desired interaction, relevant to the property sector, took place. These actions include brochure downloads, viewing requests and accessing contact details and contact forms.


The research results showed that over 35 per cent of all visitors to property websites did convert at some point in their online journey. Through further analysis we found that where websites offered more engagement features and functionality, such as floorplans, maps and video, this increased the likelihood of leading a site visitor to a meaningful conversion. This shows how important it is to make sure you are providing all the relevant information on your site in an up to date and engaging manner.


ACTIVITY INTENSIFIES BETWEEN 30-60 DAYS
Graph 2It was also interesting to see at what stages during the typical 120-day online journey conversions took place. The data showed that the bulk of conversions occurred during the 30-60 day period. When looking more closely at the sample of users who converted on a property website, we found that after visiting their first property website the next 30 days consist primarily of casual browsing, leading to more focused property research. At this point the online property seeker is likely to have a much clearer idea of the kind of property they are looking for. For example, they have probably established what size house they are looking for, the area they wish to move to and have a better understanding of the finances they have available. Owing to these factors, the next 30 days represent a surge in research activity, leading to conversions. Online activity remains strong between 60 and 90 days and then begins to tail off in the final stages. 80 per cent of conversions take place within the 120 day period.


The role of search
Understanding the role that Google search plays in online property research was a key component of Nielsen’s study. Of those who converted, 86 per cent used Google search (compared with 76 per cent of the total sample). For this group, users searched on average 16 times throughout the journey, compared with the Finance sector where consumers search between 4 and 8 times dependent on which sub-category they are in (eg credit cards, mortgages). Such intense search activity highlights the comprehensive levels of research conducted by property seekers online and the importance of search throughout the entire journey. We can see that consumers are looking for multiple information sources online as they decide which property to buy and a lot of the time they’re coming back to Google to help them find what they’re looking for




SPONSORED LINKS

The research showed that using Google AdWords (Pay-Per-Click (PPC) advertising Graph 3programme is a great way to reach an audience already searching for the properties that you want to promote. Nearly one in two property seekers online had clicked on a sponsored link. The enhanced targeting and relevancy of PPC means that when a user clicks on a sponsored link, they are 30 per cent more likely to convert on the property website they visit. This is a substantial increase and provides further evidence of the added value generated by paid search campaigns.

PPC offers advertisers the opportunity to target Google users based on the searches they conduct. Text ads can then be placed in the ‘Sponsored Links’ section of the Google results page. The position of an advertiser’s ad within the sponsored links section depends on an auction that takes into account what that advertiser is willing to pay for a click on their ad, the ad’s relevance and a number of other factors.


 83% OF SEARCHES INCLUDED GENERIC TERMS
We looked closely at visitors’ actual online search behaviour and the results were fascinating. One of the Graph 4major stories was that ‘generic’ searches, (ie, queries that do not include a brand term such as “property for sale”, “two bedroom apartment in Birmingham”), dominate consumer search behaviour. Over 70 per cent of all searches on Google are generic with just 17 per cent being brand term only and 11 per cent including a combination of both. This is an incredibly high proportion of generic terms and is driven primarily by the use of locations terms in search queries. In other sectors such as Finance, it is typical to see generic searches forming 20-30 per cent of all searches. We often find that people first search on a generic term, then finish their journey on a brand term, however in this study we found that 75 per cent started and finished with a generic search. This would suggest that property seekers are not particularly brand loyal and therefore it is more of a challenge to get them to return to your site and convert with you.


Over 80 per cent of users include a location ‘tag’ in their search query. Another major type of search terms are those related to intent. Half include words like “buy” or “for sale” that clearly indicate intent to purchase property. Due to the high usage of location and intent in searching for property, it is not surprising that around 50 per cent of all generic searches include five words or more. A useful insight if you are using AdWords – make sure you are covering off the longer length search terms in your campaigns.





Nielsen’s panel allowed us to look at the differences in behaviour among various groups of people searching for property on the Internet. It is clear that home buyers browse and research property in different ways and therefore as marketers it is crucial we understand how best to reach these people online.

 Some key insights:


Work vs Home
While at work, property seekers visit 35 per cent more property sites and conduct 38 per cent more searches. From previous research we have seen that Mondays and Tuesdays are the most popular days for Internet property research and this statistic helps us understand why this is the case.

Home and garden websites
Homebuyers visit many different kinds of sites while looking for a property. Even websites that may not include property listings can have a major influence on the final buying decision. We found home and garden sites such as B&Q and Homebase were visited by over 90 per cent of the total sample. This may be because they are planning to do up their current house before selling theirs and buying another or they’re already planning work to new house they’ve seen.


Graph 5Market information
We found that websites dedicated to property market information such as house prices very popular with 40 per cent surfing them.


Families
House hunters who also visited major school information websites such as Ofsted and Schoolsnet were more considered in their online journey. They tend to spend 15 additional days searching for property and browse 40 per cent more sites than those people who do not look at schooling websites.

Mortgages
Those who had received a mortgage quote during the research period were understandably more active online. With the critical aspect of finances seemingly in place, this group is 35 per cent more likely to convert, visits 55 per cent more sites and conducts 20 per cent more searches than those without a quote. This group was also 10 per cent more likely to have clicked on sponsored links on Google.


Conclusion
This study has proven much of what we believed to be true – the online consumer journey for property buyers is long and complicated. This presents challenges for marketers in this space. Search is at the heart of the research process so ensure people can find you at all times. If you are using Pay Per Click consider using longer search terms to pick up on the observed search behaviour. Investing in your website so the information is up to date, relevant and engaging is crucial to your success. Finally, we’ve seen that active property seekers can be found on a variety of different types of site. Consider expanding your online marketing to include these kinds of sites and pull in potential customers with bespoke marketing messages.




TOP FIVE ONLINE MARKETING TIPS


1 Be found online
81 per cent of UK Internet users enter websites through a search engine (Source: Forrester) so your priority should be to make sure you are visible on the results pages – in the natural listings, in paid listings or in both for maximum effect.


2 Be open – don’t close your shop!
Imagine that you’re a shopkeeper, it is getting close to closing time and you still have a queue of people at the checkout waiting to pay. Do you shut up shop and turn them all away or do you stay open longer and sell them the goods? Hopefully it’s the latter! The Internet is always open and potential homebuyers are searching, investigating and engaging 24/7. If you only run your online marketing during traditional branch/development opening hours you will almost certainly be missing out on valuable leads.

 
3 Measure everything
Use a web analytics package to measure the performance of your website. This will allow you to understand the behaviour of your visitors on site, ie how many pages they look at, how long they spend etc. Crucially it will help identify problems such as high bounce rates (when someone clicks through to the site then leaves immediately). Secondly, use web analytics to measure the performance of your various online marketing campaigns. Whether it’s email campaigns, banner advertising or AdWords this will tell you how each has performed vs the goals you set. This will help you shape your online marketing strategy based on the best ROI.


4Test and improve your website
Often the look and feel of a business’s website is decided by one person and is based on opinion or feeling. We believe in using hard data to make these decisions. Therefore use a product like Website Optimizer to test different variations of your pages to see which performs best. We used this on our own AdWords sign up page and increased signs ups by 56 per cent Improving conversion in this way will mean you get a better ROI from your online marketing and ultimately positively impact your bottom line.


5 Innovate and engage
It’s clear that engagement is the key to turning site visitors to actual leads. The best way is to provide a good user experience and innovate on your site. Property seekers enjoy using maps to search for property so implement a maps solution. Consider using video to bring products and properties to life. Floor plans are key, make sure they are easy to find and view and mobile searches are set to overtake desktop searches so make sure your site is easy to use on a mobile, ideally create a specific mobile site.


Methodology

Nielsen has provided Google with category specific reporting on the journey that customers undertake as they research property and other relevant sectors online. The aim of these analyses has been to provide Google with a richer picture of surfing activities, the duration periods and influences on the purchase decision.


‘Clickstream’ studies are conducted by tracking and decoding URLs visited by their expansive UK sample. For this project, the panel was limited to those who had visited property sites during this period. Owing to the complex and lengthy property buying process this study became one of the most comprehensive clickstream projects Nielsen have undertaken.
• Research time period – 6 months from January to June 2010
• Websites tracked – As so many different kinds of sites are used when contemplating which property to buy, we look at over 800 related sites and 238 property specific sites. We split the sites out into 17 categories ranging from portals/ builders/agents to schools (as these influence the property purchase decisions).
Total sample observed in research period, 3,772.
Website visits do not include URLs over 2000 characters.