Guide to Choosing a Real Estate Website Solution
By Seth Price
About Website Design
Choosing a Website Solution
Five Tips to Get Started:
- Go open source
- Choose with lead generation in mind
- Choose a real estate specific solution
- Know the costs and your budget
- Without integration is just a website
So you decided you need to create a website for your real estate business? Congratulations, you’ve made the right choice. These days, the majority of people looking to buy or sell a home begin their search in the Internet, which means if you want their business, you need to be there.
Nevertheless, deciding to build a website is only the first, tiny step toward marketing your properties successfully online. Now, you have to decide how to build it — and if you don’t have much technology experience or familiarity, this can be a pretty daunting task.
With that in mind, Placester presents five tips about how to begin the process of moving your real estate business from a brick-and-mortar office into the digital world.
1. Open source gives you flexibility.
Let’s start with a little history lesson. During its first phase, the Internet was strictly a telecommunications network, used mostly by academic institutions. Though the technology required to exchange funds via the web existed as early as 1979, it wasn’t until 1995, when the ban on using the Internet for commercial enterprise was lifted, that e-commerce really began in earnest.
By the end of 2000, many companies had begun to offer their goods and services through the Internet. But this was only the first revolution in how we saw the Internet.
As software became more advanced, people began to realize that their websites could actually do more than display products — that they could be products in themselves. This realization got a lot of web software developers thinking about their source code — chains of commands and instructions written in languages computers can understand and translate into things like menus, buttons, animations, etc. — and whether they should keep it secret.
Since software products are completely digital, they’re obviously much easier to copy and redistribute than physical products. That means if you didn’t protect your source code, anybody on the Internet could access it, see how your program worked, and build it themselves. This led to two main business models: open-source software, in which anyone can view the source code; and proprietary (or closed-source) software, in which access to the source code is restricted. If the proprietary model seems like the obvious choice, let’s consider the products themselves.
At first blush, making your software open-source sounds a bit like Coca-Cola making its secret formula available to the public. But Coca-Cola doesn’t change. (In fact, that’s part of its charm.) Software, on the other hand, is always progressing. Software companies are constantly working to respond to advances in hardware, add new features, and perhaps most importantly, fix bugs. If your program is proprietary, the few programmers you’ve hired are the only people who can perform all of these functions. That makes the process of creating software long, difficult, and expensive. In an open-source model, any programmer can find flaws and fix problems. Suddenly, you’ve increased your brainpower and your workforce a thousand fold, without paying any more money.
An open-source model gives developers greater reach and more insight, allowing them to keep abreast of technological trends and leading to quicker innovation. The basic idea: everyone collaborates, everyone wins. So how does all of this affect to your decision as a customer on which tools to use when building your real estate website? In a word: flexibility.
First, the ease of developing and maintaining open-source applications decreases overhead for software companies. That means no matter how a company has monetized their product, you tend to pay less.
Second, when you use open source applications, you have much more control over how your website looks and works. You may have hired the most talented web designer around; but if the proprietary software you chose to have him use isn’t working, he can’t repair it himself. Instead, you have to wait for the company’s developers to fix the problem, then pay more for that fix. With open-source applications, your designer can see the building blocks, and if they’re not fitting together as well as they should, he can change them.
Finally, when you use proprietary software, your business becomes joined at the hip with that company’s file formats and structural design. If you decide you’re unsatisfied with one product, chances are you’ll have to start from scratch in order to switch to another. With open-source software, you can easily switch to a vendor whose product can give your site the functionality and features you need. At bottom, the Internet is a democratic and capitalistic phenomenon.
So when you’re building your website, which would you rather use: a closed system that limits your freedom to ask questions and pursue your vision, or an open one that doesn’t?
2. If your site isn’t geared towards driving leads, you’re wasting your time.
The purpose of creating a website for your business is not just to increase your visibility — it’s also to increase your accessibility. It’s important to drive traffic to your website, but you also have to make sure visitors know what to do when they get there.
First, make sure your site is clear about who you are and what you do. Very few visitors will make it to your site purely by a random accident. The Internet is too big, and the kinds of people who are actually looking to do business don’t have that kind of time. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should assume every hit on your site is someone who knows exactly what she’s looking for. Visitors have to know immediately that you’re a real estate professional looking to help them sell or buy their home. A spiffy banner or flash video introducing your site can be effective, but it better deliver that information quickly and clearly.
Second, make sure your site is clear about where you’re located. The Internet is not a local newspaper: anyone can access your site from anywhere. If you live in a place with a common name (Springfield, perhaps), people halfway across the country may end up on your site pretty frequently. What’s more, if someone searches “real estate agent Chicago” on Google, your Orlando-based business probably won’t be the first result—but that doesn’t mean it won’t be on the list. That said, visitors should know right away what communities or areas you serve. Otherwise, half of your leads will be about as useful as spam emails.
Third, make it easy for visitors to see what you have to offer. It’s all about convenience. Nobody is flipping through the yellow pages anymore. People won’t call you just because you’re a real estate agent, or because your company is in its hundredth year. They want to see that you have what they’re looking for before they pick up the phone, so let them know by making your listings available for them to browse. Furthermore, you need to make sure that those listings match your actual inventory at all times. That means updating them not just on a weekly basis, but whenever they change. If you leave up listings for homes that sold days or weeks ago, visitors may not only see you as lazy or negligent: they may also interpret this as a bait-and-switch ploy to rope them in. That will cost you leads.
Finally, make sure those people who are interested after visiting your site know how to reach you and have more than one way of doing so. Display both an email and a phone number, along with any other contact information, prominently at the top or bottom of every page. It goes without saying that all of this information should reflect a high degree of professionalism; listing email@example.com as your email address or directing users to a personal Twitter account you use to gush about celebrity sightings is probably worse than not listing your contact information at all. Above all, remember that no matter how bad the market is, your leads are out there, searching for you. All you have to do is show them the way.
3. Choose a solution that knows real estate.
Not all business websites are created equal, either in terms of quality or function. Take a step back and you’ll realize that the real estate industry has a very particular model for its commerce.
You have a lot of professionals competing for a lot of customers, all of whom are trying to either buy or sell one extremely expensive product, which they hope to only do once. Though that product falls into a few basic categories, it isn’t by any means standard, and it isn’t stocked in one central location. Instead, it’s just sitting out in the open for everyone to see. Even more bizarre, multiple businesses can be involved in that product’s sale.
Clearly, selling homes isn’t like selling clothes or subscriptions to a DVD-by-mail service, and that affects what you use to build your website. There are a lot of different platforms and programs out there for web design. All of them have their specific focus, their strengths and weaknesses, and you need to do some thinking about which is right for you.
To illustrate, let’s consider two extremely popular platforms: WordPress and Tumblr. Both are used to build blogs, but each has a very different flavor. Tumblr’s guiding principle, for instance, is ease of use. Setting up a site is free, quick, and incredibly simple, and it’s easy to customize. However, by focusing on simplicity, Tumblr sacrifices versatility. In reality, Tumblr is better described as a “microblogging” platform; it’s one of the most effective ways to post one small nugget of content at a time — a photo, a link, a video, a quick thought — but it’s not designed to do much else, which makes it a bad option for building a real estate website. Though it has a bigger learning curve than Tumblr, WordPress has infinitely more features and is meant for building web pages with a higher volume of varied content. Still, as a blogging platform, WordPress is mostly intended for those of us who can’t write code, and as such it also has serious limits.
For a seriously professional, unique, and full-featured website, you’ll need a software application for building sites from scratch, and that probably means you’ll need someone else to do the construction. With that in mind, the same advice that goes for choosing your software or platform goes double for the person using that software. We have nothing against your nephew. We trust that he’s Internet savvy. But this is not a personal website for you to post funny pictures of your cats.
As we mentioned in Part 2, your site has a very specific purpose: to generate leads. Therefore, you want to make sure the vendor you choose is skilled and experienced in building websites that achieve that purpose.
When considering a prospective vendor, ask to see examples. Even if you don’t know much about fashioning a website, you’ve used the Internet enough to know what looks professional and what doesn’t.
Next, check references. Make sure the designer’s past clients were satisfied not just with his product, but also with how long it took to finish and how much handholding he needed to meet their specifications.
Finally, make sure that the vendor you’ve chosen can give you everything you need. We mentioned in Part 1 that open source solutions allow you to switch vendors and services easily, but that doesn’t mean you can mix and match. To begin with, most vendors don’t do just one thing. (They wouldn’t be very successful if they did.) That means by using multiple designers or applications for the same project, you’ll end up wasting money on redundancies. Furthermore, using multiple designers or applications on the same project means they’ll have to communicate with each other in order to mesh. Designers won’t be happy about this, and applications may have a hard time doing it. Your website will be breaking constantly as each different solution steps on the toes of another.
Fortunately, overcoming all of these obstacles is simply a matter of research. Put in the time to figure out what you’re looking for and who can deliver. Your customers will thank you for it.
4. Know what it’s going to cost.
Building a website is like building a home. There are multiple steps involved, and each step costs money. If you don’t understand the process, you’re liable to be on the hook for a lot more cash and a lot more hassle.
Let’s start with step one: finding a good lot to build on. Though your website may seem like a series of zeros and ones floating in some digital world, ultimately it’s still just a set of documents stored on a hard drive. At any given moment, thousands of people who are trying to access the same web page will need access to that hard drive, so the device running that disk has to be incredibly powerful to accommodate this traffic. It also has to be turned on 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, in addition to being permanently plugged into a high-speed connection.
Unfortunately, no matter how much you paid for it, your laptop simply isn’t capable of all this, which means you don’t host your own website. Instead, you use a web hosting service, which stores your website’s data on giant servers built to handle all those demands. (Ever wondered what the hell Go Daddy does? That’s right: it’s a web hosting service.) Though there are free hosting services — Google Sites, for example — these usually come with serious limits. Specifically, free services will only host a small amount of data, meaning that your site can only consist of a few pages. They’ll also put a cap on how many domains, or web addresses, you can have, as well as how many email addresses you can link to your site. Most importantly, free services will only offer a limited amount of bandwidth, which means that if your site ends up getting a lot of traffic, pages will either take longer to load, or not load at all, frustrating users. Spending a few bucks a month on a premium web hosting service will usually get you an unlimited amount of space and bandwidth, a free domain, unlimited email addresses, and site building tools.
Now that we’ve bought the lot, it’s time to assemble the house. After paying to host your website, you’ll have to spend money on having it designed and built. In Part 3, we talked about finding someone reliable and in the know to do this work. Once you’ve found that vendor, it’s time to put your arrangement on paper and be clear up front about what you’re paying for. You certainly want the best site possible, but first and foremost you want a site, so make sure that your deal doesn’t give your vendor the luxury of spending several months in the design stage. In addition, it’s crucial to remember that no matter how good the end product is, it’s not finished. More than that, it will never be finished. You’ll always be responding to new technology and the demands of the marketplace, so you need to make sure you have the ability to make changes to your site after your transaction with the vendor is completed.
I’ve heard stories of clients paying vendors thousands of dollars to build them custom websites, only to discover that they didn’t own the results. That means if they wanted to make any changes whatsoever, they had to rehire the vendor and pay more money. It’s a bit like paying a construction company to build you a home, then finding out that the contractor’s name is on the deed. Nobody builds to rent, so why should you?
Finally, as in most other industries, it’s becoming more and more common in the real estate industry to outsource your web development to someone overseas. The benefits may seem obvious, but let’s think about this for a second. Certainly, hiring someone Asia or Eastern Europe to build your website will allow you to pay a much lower rate than you would to a US-based firm or designer. But “low rate” and “low cost” aren’t the same thing.
For one, you’ll be trading out experience and skill, which lead to an inferior product. Additionally, by outsourcing your web design, you’re sacrificing oversight and clarity. Obviously you’re more vulnerable to fraud if you hire someone overseas, but even the vendor isn’t trying to scam you, they simply may not be interested in working very hard for eight dollars an hour—and it may take months for you to realize this.
Finally, there are the barriers of time and culture. If your vendor is in a different time zone, you may have to wait a full day before getting an answer to any question. Plus, if you don’t know much about web development, it’s already difficult to explain what you want out of your site; if your designer only speaks limited English, it’ll be nearly impossible.
5. Choose a solution that handles data integration.
Let’s start with a brief lesson about what integration really is. The basic definition of the word should tell you something about how it’s applied to technology. Integration is a process of taking different things from different places and combining them into a unified, easily understandable whole. In the technology world, the things are bits of data, and the places are the databases that house them. Let’s look at an example.
When you search something on Google (which itself runs on hundreds of physical servers housed in multiple locations), the data you’re browsing is coming from millions of different places. Yet although we know this on a basic level, we don’t notice it anymore. Why? Because Google’s data integration software is operating behind the scenes to take all that information, organize it, and present it in one place: the search results page.
A real estate website needs to do the same thing Google does, but on a smaller scale. Instead of culling data from the Internet in general, you’re taking it from a Multiple Listing Service (MLS), a collection of databases managed by brokerages, realtor boards and/or government offices with information on properties on the market in a given area or region. Your website needs to take all the data on that MLS concerning the properties in your inventory and display it so that visitors can browse them easily. The challenge, of course, is that you’re taking a lot of different kinds of data from a lot of different kinds of databases.
A property listing contains numbers, text, video, pictures, and statistics, and each of these types of data can be further sorted according to what they describe. (For instance, text that describes the features of a property will come from a different place than text that describes contact information for the seller, and so on.) To get it all in one place, you could integrate it manually — that is, you could find all the data yourself by searching the MLS, then put the basics on a page about the listing. But aside from the obvious problem of taking the time to do this for every property in your inventory, by integrating manually you’re cutting off the data from its source, which is constantly being updated and added to. That means your listings won’t change unless you check the MLS, find new data, and edit the web page. It follows that without a solution that integrates automatically with the MLS, your website will always be out of date. Not only that, it also won’t be dynamic or interactive.
With automatic integration, visitors who want to know more about a property can easily find it; but without automatic integration, they won’t be able to find out anything other than whatever information you’ve chosen to display. You might as well simply print out paper flyers and staple them to telephone poles, because that’s about as effective as your website will be.
Published on January 20, 2012
Written by Seth Price
Seth is a brand and marketing strategist with 20 years of digital marketing experience. He’s a founding team member and VP @Placester, author of the bestselling small business marketing book, The Road to Recognition and host of The Craft of Marketing and Marketing Genius podcasts. As a speaker, writer, and marketing workshop leader, Seth brings levity, mentorship, and a dose of reality to the businesses and entrepreneurs he coaches.