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publication date: Aug 2, 2010
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web buttonThe internet is now part of every estate agent’s daily life. It’s difficult to imagine life without web portals, email, or being able to read the newspapers on the web instead of getting print on your hands. But actually making the most of the opportunities the internet offers can be tricky. Many estate agents have websites that don’t offer much more than online property listings, sometimes out of date because they’re only updated once a week, and often giving little feel for the local area or the trends in property prices – things most buyers really want to know.

Worse, many estate agency sites look just the same as all the others; there’s no differentiation, and viewers get no idea what might make one agency a better choice than another. In fact, says Mike Smithson of Property Jungle, many agents don’t want to look different; it’s “a very ‘me-too’ industry in some ways”. T

hat can be a mistake, he believes. Such websites look ‘safe’ and won’t alienate the customer, but they don’t do a particularly good job of selling the business. However, he warns those agents who think it’s just a matter of getting a better web designer on the case or adding technological bells and whistles, “Points of differentiation are more to do with the service offering than the website itself.” So it’s important to think through the business in detail before starting the process of designing a site.

Martin Smith of PropertyAdd concurs. “Understanding the real USPs, niches and differentiators of a business is the first step in all marketing, but particularly online,” he says, “otherwise agents do risk having an overly ‘typical’ website.” That’s work that needs to be done by the agent – it can’t be outsourced to a design house.

Stewart Anderson, of software provider Aspasia, says another reason for the apparent similarity of many agency websites is the fact that, “The smaller agents rely on templates, with the result that their sites all look the same.” That can be a good way to reduce the cost of a site, but it may also reduce its effectiveness.

Some agents also believe their websites don’t really matter, since they advertise through property portals. Anderson says, “Seventy per cent of agents rely on the leads coming from portals rather than from their own websites,” and as a result are getting only limited amounts of direct business. But he points out that the agent’s only selling point on the portals is their inventory, whereas the website gives them a chance to sell their services, expertise and user-friendliness.

The website of your dreams

Mike Smithson So if an estate agent had a ‘dream website’, what would it look like? Mike Smithson says there’s no simple answer to that. “The website of your dreams depends on what that dream is – what you want the website to do. It’s about function and form, but function always comes first.” He points to clients who have chosen their website provider on the basis of design rather than functionality as misguided – he believes they are making a bad mistake by picking what looks good, rather than what does the job of getting customers to pick up the phone. In fact, having seen one potential customer head for a ‘designer’ website, he expects to see them turn up on his doorstep again in eighteen months’ time, once they realise their mistake.

Websites need to do several things to work effectively. First, they need to be ‘sticky’ – have enough content that a user wants to stay there and find more information. Secondly, they need ‘calls to action’ – reasons that a potential purchaser or vendor ought to pick up the phone or contact the agent by email.

And since most people head for a website via a search engine, you need to get them there in the first place, by using good SEO (search engine optimisation) techniques. That’s where a lot of smaller agents come unstuck, by pulling their property information off portal sites, or putting it in frames, the search engine will miss that information completely.

“You need a separate page for each property,” Smithson says, and that needs a database behind the website. He points out that as well as the property page being readable, the URL ought to make sense. “We dynamically rewrite the URL for each page so it’s meaningful,” so users (and search engines) see ‘27 Acacia Avenue’, instead of a random string of characters.

A separate page for each property also makes the website bigger in terms of total pages. “From an SEO perspective, size matters,” he says. Using frames or a list, Google sees a ten page website, not the 200 properties you have on it; with a separate dynamically created page for each property, if Google sees a 200 page website, it’s a much more serious proposition and move you towards the top of the rankings”.

Martin SmithSEO can only get you so far, though. Martin Smith says, “content is king; good sites appeal to their audiences first and the search engines second.” Again, though a good web designer will ask the right questions, and freelance copywriters can be used to help create content, actually knowing what their customers want to read is very much something the individual agent needs to think about. Obviously, the concerns of someone buying a several million euro villa in the south of France will be different from the anxieties of a first time buyer in Manchester.

The dream website also needs to take cost into account. Nigel Stanley at Estates IT says it’s possible to spend as little as £500 on a website; “We believe fi rmly in KISS (Keep It Simple Silly-billy) A welldesigned website is one of the most crucial investments that an estate agent can make. It’s often the first impression that Vendors or Landlords will get of your business when they follow up your mailshot. You only get one chance at a first impression, so don’t waste it”.

Nigel also says that a site doesn’t have to be too complicated, in fact well designed less is actually more, “You should look for a crisp image and above all else present the properties attractively. Be realistic; the main property portals will dominate the search engine listings for your local area and will generate by far the highest number of applicants from the web.

“But prospective vendors and landlords, without whom you would have no business at all, will want you to show their precious homes to their best advantage.”

As to the £500 for a start up website - can it really be done? “If you already have strong corporate branding and are planning to use our software we can do a simple site. A nicely presented homepage fronting well-built template property cards can indeed be yours for as little as £500.” says Nigel, “If, later on, when things are going well, you want something bigger and more comprehensive, we are happy to help and will add pages and functionality whenever you are ready.”

EVERYBODY’S BLOGGING

There’s been a trend recently to include more and deeper content on estate agency portals. That’s come particularly from the larger, multidisciplinary firms like Savills and Knight Frank, which include research and market news on their sites, but smaller agents are also making their sites richer and including information that goes beyond the original formula of listings and contact details.

Darrin CarterBlogs are one way that many agents have started to add value to the site. Initially, many small agents seem to have started blogging simply because more technologically savvy friends told them it was a fashionable thing to do, like Barry Manners, partner at Chard, who admits he only started blogging because, “our IT guys said everybody’s blogging, if you want to be trendy you need a blog.” Subsequently, though, he’s found that the blog isn’t just trendy, it does bring people to his firm’s website. The Chard blog gets 130-140 visitors a day, compared with 2,500 a day for the main lettings agency site, so as a proportion of Chard’s total internet traffic it is quite small. However, Manners says, “From a business point of view it’s a useful SEO tool with links back to the main site. And it’s a good way of giving an impression of the company and what we look like as a business.” He adds that it’s cheap and easy compared to setting up a website. “It’s easy to upload; you haven’t got to ask the techies. I blog from my iPhone sometimes, it’s that easy.”

Darrin Carter, of Carters Estate Agents in Nottinghamshire, also blogs. “We’re a new style business, looking to do things a bit different in our area,” he says, “and the blog gets us in front of people we wouldn’t have seen before. It’s a good way to introduce yourself to people you wouldn’t otherwise have met.”

He doesn’t think blogging is easy; regularity is important (he tries to post every ten days or so) and finding the right topics to write about is tricky. Too local, and readers won’t come; too topical (such as recent election related coverage) and you’re competing with the mass media. He says it’s important to have a list of topics to write about. “Don’t go into it unless you have 20 posts ready to write,” and to have strong views and the discipline to sit down and write.

He’s happy with his readership though. He get 150 readers a week, which may not seem many, but as he points out, “that’s not bad for a little agent in Nottinghamshire who’s just writing every now and then.”

Of course the CEO or senior partner doesn’t have to write the whole blog. To get added depth, Chard has hired property journalist Graham Norwood to provide a monthly property market update, “because you can’t trust a thing estate agents say,” Barry Manners jokes. But the blog does need to have input from inside the agency, or it simply won’t come across properly to readers. “Keep it real,” he says, “because the unvarnished truth is what people really want to read.”

Mike Smithson says blogs are no longer a point of differentiation per se; but they do deliver an SEO benefit, since they contain more data for search engines to pick up, as well as being an easy way to add pages to the site. But while many agents start blogs well, after the first few months he detects “varying degrees of enthusiasm” as agents gravitate to fee paying work. Using freelance copywriters can help – but blogging is by no means an easy option terms of the effort taken.

MAKING THE CONNECTION

Of course the best website in the world is no use unless customers can get in touch, so providing numerous ways for them to do so is important. Email addresses, email forms, ringback buttons, and webchat, besides the phone number for the office, are all important in making it easy for purchasers and vendors to contact the agent. There are also ways of helping buyers and sellers through the sales process using website integration... but that’s another story.

This, says Mike Smithson, is where the real test of a website isn’t the technology used, but the readiness of staff in the ‘real world’ to respond. For instance, a ring-back button simply generates an email to one of the agents asking them to phone the customer, so if staff don’t prioritise these calls, the ringback button isn’t really being much use.

Webchat – where users can type their queries into a window on the PC and get live answers from agency staff – suffers from the same problem. It needs to be staffed properly, perhaps using dedicated staff, so there is no conflict with the needs of customers who phone the agency or actually walk into the office. Smithson warns; “A service that’s delivered badly is worse than no service at all. It could be a point of differentiation, but you have to decide if it’s going to pay you enough to resource it properly.”

Twitter or not?

Using social media such as Facebook and Twitter raises a whole new load of issues for estate agents. Mike Smithson says social media can be very useful indeed, but “it depends on what way you’re using it.” Property Jungle has been working on autotweets – every time a new listing is detected, it’s tweeted, with a link back to the web site. He says this ticks several boxes: househunters love it because it’s right up to the minute, agents because it brings business directly to their websites, and search engines because the tweet counts an inbound link to the agent’s site, something that can greatly improve the site’s ranking in the search results.

Darrin Carter tweets, and he says it has gained him a much higher public profile than he would otherwise have enjoyed. “Through Twitter I’ve met a whole host of interesting contacts, PRs, journalists, other agents,” he says. “It’s a fantastic way of getting your name and your brand across.”

On the other hand he regards Facebook as a personal site. “Facebook for friends, Twitter for business.” Relatively few agents are using Facebook – perhaps a missed opportunity.

Martin Smith says trying to use social media to advertise an agency is misguided. “It’s an opportunity to engage, not to advertise,” he says, but he sees that opportunity as extremely important for agents who want to build relationships with their customer base. “Why miss out on an opportunity to communicate your expertise by not getting involved?” he asks.

Whatever next?

We all know what the estate agent’s website today looks like. But what about the website of the future? According to Mike Smithson, it will be much deeper, with much more information about properties and particularly about their surroundings. He says, “We’re putting amenity data in; when you look at 27 Acacia Avenue you ought to be able to see a map, and where the schools are, or the sports facilities, and toggle that data on and off depending on what you want to see. We could add a link to school league tables, all kinds of statistics, council information.”

This may sound a huge task, since up to now estate agents themselves have generated almost all the content on their websites. However, software now enables programmers to create ‘mashups’, grabbing data from online sources as diverse as government statistics, Google maps, published price indices, and the agent’s own sales data. So far, this approach has mainly been taken by third party sites such as Upmystreet.com, but increasingly, agents will want to build this kind of information into their own websites.

Mike Smithson compares the bare bones information currently available on most agents’ websites with the enormous amount of local knowledge that most experienced agents have in their heads. The next generation of websites, he says, should offer internet users the same kind of conversation (where are the good schools? is this a quiet road? how easy is the commute?) that they can get by walking in the door of the agent’s office. “It’s the next big step forward in agency websites,” he says, “making the website the fount of all knowledge about the property and the area it’s located in.”