The web is a furiously fast-paced environment. Recently we noticed a few agencies building new websites when their last offering was less than a year old, so we set about analysing the last 20 agent websites we built to see if this was a trend. The average lifespan of the sites that the agents were upgrading was just over two years. More alarming still, they were nearly all of a shorter lifespan than the sites that came before them, so things are accelerating!
Think of your website as a McLaren supercar – superlative form and stunning function.’ Jeremy Tapp, Homeflow
Whilst two–three years might be a short cycle for upgrading sites, it’s not frequent enough for the average person to get familiar with the process. So, in this article we’re going to investigate the changing landscape and try to give a balanced framework within which you can analyse the changing nature of your website requirements. We’re going to highlight some trends into two broad categories: design and functionality.
Hey, good looking!
One of the issues we experience is that the design side of the equation is much easier for most people to get their head around. It’s easier to visualise, typically we find the buying requirements are driven by wanting a fresh ‘look’, rather than being driven by understanding the changing functional landscape.
Yet both design and functionality are absolutely essential. Only by getting both to work in harmony, can you get a truly excellent end result for your business.
Your site needs to impress vendors and a big part of that is the design impact. But these days brand experience is as much about usability and the overall experience, as it is about pure visual design, and this often gets missed. Ignore the interplay between graphic design and solid usability at your peril. Indeed some of the extreme design trends that we see swing too far, too quickly, to the detriment of good solid usability. Yet great design makes you stand out, and speaks to your vendors in a way that is simply magic.
Given the focus on design, the importance of the underlying engine is often overlooked. Customers will typically have a couple of features they have seen which they really want, but rare is the customer who comes with a detailed picture of functional requirements, and rarer still is one who comes with a detailed understanding of the importance of a better framework, or hosting set up for
SEO. This is hardly surprising, as lots of this stuff is invisible and technical by nature. It’s the domain of geeks. We live in a sales driven world and sales folk and geeks aren’t common bedfellows.
Creatives –v– tech ies
Worse still, it’s really hard to be good at both sides of the equation. The best design tends to happen in small creative studios. As soon as you get a couple of excellent front-end developer/designers together, they get clients approaching them directly. The fixed costs of setting up a new design agency are low, so they break out on their own, in order to work on better designs, for more interesting clients.
Yet the engineering scale and resource to build a proper, highly functional estate agency platform is not trivial. It’s easy to build a search function that returns a few properties in a price range, and has property detail pages, and what not. But that’s simply not adequate if you want an effective marketing tool for your business. To build one with polygon based search, that runs blazingly fast, that has real time feed engines, and super-smooth processes that channel users into saving properties, and ultimately registering with you, then extracting and parsing out the valuation leads as efficiently from that applicant flow, is hard. Properly, hard. And it matters. If nothing else it matters to your search engine optimisation (SEO). And your SEO matters deeply to the number of valuation enquiries you get on the phone. The best back end engineering can only happen in big engineering outfits. And those outfits are the domain of nerds.
So maybe you have to choose… You can opt for a smaller, highly creative, web designer, that will make you look striking, and can build you a basic property search to go with it. Or you can opt for a geek led platform, that does the pipes and plumbing really well, but they can’t do the interior design for toffee.
Let’s look at what’s happening in both their worlds right now…
Flat design. Sites are losing all their bevelled edged, rounded corners, and graphically rich buttons. Fades are going and the styles look starker, and more minimalist. But you need to be careful. Make your buttons flat squares, and unless you are very careful with your colour palette, you risk all the active elements blending into the site framework. However, when done well, they pop. There’s a reason that Google, the BBC, and so forth, have all gone flat in the past couple of years.
Design has got funky. Monolithic pages are gone, we now have ‘sticky top’ menus and ‘sticky bottoms’ too!’ Jeremy Tapp, Homeflow
White space. Design has become more luxurious. Gone are the days that we felt the need to stuff everything above the fold. The scroll wheel, of flick of the hand on an iPad, is your friend. We’ve become clearer in our ‘information architecture’, and we’ve given our main messages (often more vendor focused) more space to breathe.
Bigger panel photos. Big, open, flat design has come with big photography. Wide, ‘storyboard’ layout sites have become the norm. Though a recent user-testing exercise we ran highlighted a very real issue to beware of; taken too far, these mega photos become a blocker to ‘scrolling over.’ It’s easy to get carried away and usability tanks at the hands of design impact. As we trend towards larger photography, you need to consider whether you have the photography style to pull it off. If you head in this direction, include a bespoke photography budget, or it can look cheap. If you want to go for it, then go for it properly.
Parallax, and sticky top menus. Design has got funky lately too. Monolithic pages are gone, we have ‘sticky top menus’ and ‘sticky bottoms’ too! We also have ‘parallax’, an effect where different panels of the website scroll at different speeds, creating a striking impact. Design is blending into the user interaction model.
Responsive design. Over 80 per cent of the sites that agents buy today are responsive. However there’s a whole world of quality difference. ‘Response’ can mean different things. Some sites just flick through one ‘break point’ to cater for mobile, others reshape through five or more subtle design rejigs as you move through desktop, tablet, to smaller mobile screens.
Move investment. All of this comes with a price tag (not something we charge for) so we’re delighted to see agents valuing higher quality design. Good quality creative, blended with proper usability testing, isn’t cheap but agents are realising that investing appropriately in the web, like newsprint and branch outfitting, yields better returns.
Search Engine Optimisation (SEO).
Everyone will tell you they’re good at SEO, so you need to get educated on the essentials that you need to demand. Beyond speed, you need clean URLs, and proper tagging and titling on your town pages. Then if you have the resource to worry about content, consider how you approach location area guides within your site.
Profile systems. People expect user account systems to be seamless these days. They need to be elegant in allowing people to save properties and search profiles, without demanding contact details at the outset. Then, once they’ve drawn people in, they need to super smooth in terms of extracting that information whenever they can. All contact forms, on branches, staff, valuation forms and properties, need to channel people into the same fly trap. Then matching email alerts need to haul them back to your own site, before they head off to their portal of choice.
Software integration. Get ready for the next generation of software integration; where applicants can’t so much as breathe on the front end of your website, without your back office system knowing about it, where homehunters can’t step into your branch without a super-professional email follow up inviting them into their fully synchronised web account.
Implied search. Your website needs to act like your very best negotiator. Forming an immediate impression of what the site visitor is searching for, holding it in mind (and between user sessions). When they sign up, it needs to pass this search history and information on to you. When they move around the site, it needs to use that intelligence to offer prospective vendors, appropriate properties, so you look like ‘their kind of agent.’
WHAT? YOU WANT IT ALL?
Here’s the great news. You no longer have to choose. A new breed of ‘platforms’ is arriving. In the world of regular publishing, ‘content management systems’, like Drupal and WordPress have matured. You wouldn’t dream of writing your own publishing engine, it would be a crazy inefficient waste of cash – now, as the web matures, the specialist platforms are coming to the estate agency market too.
You can choose your own website frontend designer. Get someone local, who can serve you really well, who understands you and your brand, and can produce you great, cut through design. Pair them with the emerging back end website platforms so they can climb much higher than they could if they had to re-invent the wheel. Those platforms offer development foundations giving the finest design firms the ability to stand on the shoulders of all the enterprise scale engineering that makes a really fast engine. Think of it as a McLaren supercar – superlative form and stunning function. The best of both worlds.
Jeremy is Joint Managing Director at Homefl ow which provide websites, mobile sites and solutions for a variety of agencies, from large agency networks with over 100 branches, through to hundreds of single branch independents. www.homeflow.co.uk